A Painter's Biography
Written for the catalogue of the exhibition 'Final Paintings' in 2015
This text was written by Sargy Mann in the final weeks of his life. It was first published in the exhibition catalogue of the exhibition ‘Final Paintings’ which was at Cadogan Contemporary in June 2015, two months after the artists death. An edited version of the piece was also published on the BBC.
When, in 1960, I went to Camberwell School of Art, at the age of 23, I encountered inspiring painter teachers, notably, Dick Lee, Euan Uglow and Frank Auerbach but also there were important others. In their different ways, they told me that they could not teach me to draw and paint, but that through practicing drawing and painting, I would find I saw more and better, and as the years progressed I found they were right.
Although their paintings looked and were made in very different ways, they seemed to me to have something important in common, which was a commitment to some real physical subject, external to themselves, existent in the outside world, that they were trying to understand and experience in the most intense way possible, and which they were trying to celebrate and preserve in some communicable form of metaphor – the painting or drawing they were making. True to their different personalities and the different teaching they had received, they each responded to different aspects of the external world, and they made different coloured metaphors, painting in different ways. Even if one had wanted to, one could not attempt to copy more than one of them at a time. Copying them was certainly not what any of them would have wanted, but as they were so influential, it was always a danger.
Through following Dick Lee, I became more sensitive to the ambient light bathing everything I looked at; through following Euan Uglow I became more sensitive to the particularities of coloured form in the light and space that those forms and I were in; and most dramatically, through following Frank Auerbach, I became much more intensely aware of the space that I, and the rest of the world, were inhabiting at the time of drawing and painting. So much conventional teaching seemed to be to do with playing down or negating one’s experience of the third dimension in the subject, in order to arrive at a transferable pattern; but Auerbach, however, it would not be an exaggeration to say, was obsessed with the belief that one’s subject was an intensely three dimensional one, and so in his teaching he stressed that this should be engaged with as directly as possible when drawing. I found this a thrilling revelation. And so I tried to draw and paint about the world being three-dimensional.
Dick Lee, Euan Uglow and Frank Auerbach all encouraged us to look long and hard and draw from the great paintings of the past masters, and through this practice we began to share a little in the masters’
enhanced experience of reality. Because this experience, which to some extent we shared, through the medium of their paintings, was so much more rich and wonderful than our own, it was tempting to take some version of this as one’s subject matter, and to try to paint like them – though we were most certainly warned off this. The two related problems of my early painting career were: firstly, how to arrive at a personal subject matter, more real to me than those I could borrow from the masters; and secondly, how I could organize my coloured materials on a flat surface in order to, in some sense, record this experience – arrive at a two dimensional metaphor for it.
Sometimes, a discovery about how it was possible to coherently organize my painting enabled me to have a more intense experience of my subject, and sometimes, a newly surprising and intense experience of the subject led me to invent new ways of ordering the painting. And all the time, one was learning what one could from the masters, in my case, mostly the modern masters – Monet, Van Gogh, early Matisse, Bonnard, Morandi, Giacometti – as during, probably, something like the first 10 years of my life as a painter, I had some difficulty identifying with the old masters. Not so Rembrandt drawings, which were always a source of inspiration to me.
At the end of the summer term of 1966, I think it was when the Bonnard exhibition, to which I went so often, was on at the Royal Academy, I kind of unofficially drew in the life room at St Martin’s, where Leon Kossoff was teaching. I remember thinking at the time that I was someone who worked pretty hard but then after being in the studio a week with Leon I realized that it was like I was just playing at it.
In January 1967, I started a post-graduate year at Camberwell and this was when I first met Frances Hoyland and Graham Giles, who became and have remained, along with other Camberwell painters, like Christopher Pemberton, Dick Lee and Terry Raybould, close friends and influences.
During the whole of this first period, I was aware of a tension in my subject matter, to some extent unwelcome, between space and light. And therefore drawing and colour in the paintings I was trying to make as a response. Auerbach was obsessed with space, obsessed with intensifying one’s experience of the world as three-dimensional, and responding to it in pattern. This involvement with the three-dimensionality of experience, that he led me towards, was tremendously inspiring. However, I think it led him to make what, to my ears, were some very strange remarks about colour in painting and about the way the masters had employed colour, and to what ends. Dick Lee and Uglow were much more ruled, it seemed to me, by the light of the real world, the coloured forms in nature and how light affected them, but this seemed to lead to what, I thought (though I’m sure they didn’t), was a much more pedestrian kind of drawing; whereas it was, of course, simply about a different aspect of experience. I knew that with the great painters of the past, colour and drawing combined to express light and form and space, and that one could say that the coming together of these elements in the invention of an expressive metaphor was what it was all about – but how the hell did they do it?
I did make a few student paintings that I still like, but not many. One of the things that Auerbach and Uglow had in common, though not Dick Lee especially, was a sort of moral conviction that it took a very long time to make a painting that was any good. I swallowed this whole, though as I found out it was contrary to my personality. For about two years after leaving art school, when I was teaching part-time at a secondary school, I worked on a terrible self-portrait in my bed-sitter studio. One lunchtime, after having pretty well driven it into the ground again, I noticed with utter delight, sunlight coming through my sash windows and lighting up a silver mug with anemones in it on the oak table in front of the window. I snatched up a piece of oil paper and made two very quick paintings of this revelation, which had so thrillingly taken me out of myself and my dreary attempt to dredge something up from formal experience when looking in the mirror. They were very slight and the drawing, by the standards of what I thought drawing had to be, was almost non-existent but what it did do, was apportion the colour on the picture surface in
a way that made sunlight. From that moment on until total blindness in 2005, almost all my subject matter was sunlight as it lit up the real world, and how on earth one could invent a coloured metaphor for such an experience.
When the sun didn’t shine, but I could get outside, the Auerbachian experience took over again and I made imperial sized drawings in charcoal and compressed charcoal with little attention to perceptual light, unless, as occasionally happened while I was drawing, the sun came out: then all hell broke loose. If it was raining, I would sometimes set up and try to paint still lives, more with my Uglow/Dick Lee hat on, usually a desultory affair, or worst of all attempt another self-portrait. But once again there are a few little still lives that have survived that I like, often when a chance ray of sunlight had lit up a group of objects in a surprising way.
I remember as a student being very disconcerted in one model break, when we were looking with Auerbach at a reproduction of a Corot landscape. In my memory Frank was saying that Corot had put that green at the
bottom of his canvas in order that it should establish the ground plane coming forward, and becoming the one on which we were standing. I agreed that he had achieved this admirably, but said, did he not also think that Corot had painted it that green because he loved the sensation of morning sun on the green grass, which I think Frank denied. I found this very disconcerting and it sent my thoughts back to Euan Uglow or even more to Dick Lee. I think I was saved as a student by the fact that it was inconceivable that one could paint a picture which was simultaneously a pastiche Uglow and a pastiche Auerbach, and so I lurched this way and that borrowing what I could, both in subject matter and means of expression and not really knowing what I was doing for much of the time. I remember a rather cheeky student, one Monday morning, asking Uglow what he had been doing over the weekend, and Euan said he had spent much of the weekend like a rock climber, clambering about on the surface of two oranges. I thought I understood what he was saying and was impressed. Dick Lee was more inclined to whistle through his teeth while scribbling on a piece of paper he had taken out of a dustbin, saying, ‘isn’t it beautiful’. Dick loved sunlight and landscape and to that extent I think I found I was temperamentally closer to him.
One breakthrough was materials led. In the middle to late 60’s I started using oil pastels, I think they had arrived form America about this time. I wanted a dry coloured medium I could use on a small scale. I had a 10 by 8 inch sketchbook with me at all times. Due to the fact that the oil pastels had pretty saturated, unsubtle colours, and the fact that to get different colours one had to scribble one over the top of another, two things happened: one was that it encouraged an all over scribbling sort of drawing, the other was that my initial attempts to transform white paper into an experience of sunlight involved a two colour chord. Very often this chord was, magenta for everywhere where the sun wasn’t, and the white of the paper for everywhere where the sun was. As I worked on, the image became more chromatic and subtler but I always tried to keep that basic distinction between sun and shade. The most extraordinary thing that I began to experience, the most exciting thing, was a sort of colour transposition such that these initial simplified coloured chords I was putting on my paper, actually made my subject look different. What was going on was, perhaps, what we would now call neuro-plasticity – it was of revolutionary importance to me and has influenced all my subsequent thinking about figurative painting and all my practice. This feedback can change my perception of the space in the subject as well as of the light, and it may be that what am after is the maximum degree of interrelated feedback from the process of making to the process of experiencing.
Another breakthrough that drew me nearer to a personal vision happened at about the same time that I discovered oil pastels. I was making a large charcoal drawing from the bottom of the garden of the house in Maida Vale that belonged to Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis, where I was staying with her brother for 6 months while Kingsley was teaching in America. The drawing had started being about the house, and raised conservatory behind, and weeping ash tree in the garden, but as I worked on it, I became more and more aware of what extended to the left and right of what I thought was my subject, and how these side relationships, of flower bed and partition wall, were drawing me back, nearer and nearer, to myself in the space. This literally expanding experience was very new and exciting and my rate of strike and the way I was drawing went up a couple of gears. When I stopped I was in a very heightened and excited state, and had the feeling I had had previously with oil pastels, that something to do with making the image had actually changed the experience I was having in an entirely surprising and positive way. From that day in autumn 1966, right up until today, a much wider angle of subject, up to 180 degrees from left to right, and occasionally even more, has become if not habitual then quite normal.
During the late 60’s and early 70’s when my major influence was Monet, I began to incorporate my oil pastel technique into oil painting, but as the decade wore on I began to worry that I was insufficiently involved in an experience of form and space, and that the drawing was suffering. During the summer of 1976, the year I married Frances Carey, I made a series of paintings where I completely de-coupled a linear drawing on the surface of the painting from flat areas of colour. I had been looking a lot at Raoul Dufy and had been fascinated to discover the extent to which he had de-coupled the elements of painting, thereby achieving the full expressive power from each, as there was no redundancy. I was reminded again of the words of the French philosopher Henri Bergson which I had often quoted, ‘never confuse a component part, for a partial expression’, which in the context of painting and figurative art in general I take to mean that one should guard against thinking that a certain passage on the canvas, which for expediency one might describe to oneself, or to someone else, as the mouth or the ear or the collar, did in fact have a one to one correspondence with those components of the subject. A true equivalence, where a metaphor is concerned, is only between the whole of one and the whole of the other. The relationship of the parts to the whole, is only to the whole they are a part of, the equivalence is only between the whole of the metaphor and the whole of the subject.
During the 70’s and early 80’s I was teaching three days a week at art school, so the main concentrated periods of landscape painting were at Easter, a little bit at Christmas, and in the summer holidays, when my growing family and I would cadge accommodation with friends or family – often Suffolk with the Hoylands or Bristol with my sister.
In 1973 when I was only 35 I had cataract extractions in both eyes. They were, as I had hoped, the orange brown kind that Monet had had in late life, and for a week or so after the operations, I experienced colour, particularly cool blues, greens, violets and magentas, with revelatory intensity, as all the wavelengths that for the past 18 months or so had been filtered out by the orange cataracts, flooded my eyes. The only comparable experience in my past life was the one occasion when I took LSD in 1966. Very soon though my brain readjusted to deliver perceptual experience more like that which I had had before; but I had the memory of this revelatory intensity of colour as a sort of talisman.
From my student days I had read quite a lot about visual perception. I guess in part because it satisfied the more scientific part of my nature and then, when I started to have trouble with my own sight, I became more interested in the anatomy of the eye and relevant parts of the brain and quizzed the ophthalmologists at every opportunity. I had also discovered by reading Edwin Land in the late 60’s that the standard theory of colour perception put forward by most perceptual psychologists was quite wrong. This was a thrill as what they had said absolutely did not square with the painter’s experience, whereas Land’s experiments did, and I was particularly interested in colour perception.
In October 1979 a retinal detachment rendered me quite blind in my right eye and then, shortly after, the retina in my left eye detached. Throughout the 80’s I had numerous operations in my seeing left eye, always leaving me with less sight, worse sight, but (and this was what interested me) changed sight, so that after each convalescence, I had to learn again to see the world and to try to paint it. My materials and the patterns, the coloured patterns, I could make with them, also looked different. After one operation, I can’t remember why, they cut away a lot of my iris and it no longer closed down for bright light and opened up for weak light as the normal human eye has evolved to do. To begin with I had to paint wearing dark glasses in very low levels of light, but I didn’t like dark glasses, which seemed to mess up colour, and in time by forcing my eye to function in brighter light my reluctant brain learnt to do, rather slowly, what my iris had originally done. That is to say it learnt to adjust for different levels of ambient light.
In 1987, 1 had my first one man show with my current dealer Christopher Burness and it was a big success and for the first time we had a little spare money, enough to go abroad. I had always preferred painting in bright light, and from then until my total blindness in 2005 we went often to Italy and France, and I went to Portugal and Southern India with my sister. In India and Portugal, and on some of the occasions in Italy, I had to spend the first day in a darkened room in a sort of fever, while my brain adjusted to the much brighter level of ambient light outside. Then on the second day I went out and discovered an astonishingly different and beautiful world of new bright light. I don’t know what is going on in the brain at such times, I assume now it is this ‘brain plasticity’, though I am no neurologist. All I know is that when I make sufficient demands on my brain, it will reluctantly fall in line, do some sort of magical recalibrating and come up with something new which enables me to go on working, and that this newness seems strangely more and better and exciting and challenging. After yet another operation, when I was trying to draw or paint, on a holiday in Suffolk, my eye wept continuously so that I couldn’t see what I was doing. When I stopped, it stopped weeping. On the second or third day, in utter frustration, I simply carried on, not really seeing a thing for over an hour, and then my eye suddenly stopped weeping and I was able to draw and paint relatively normally for the rest of the three weeks.
In 1989, the eye hospital registered me blind, not partially sighted, but blind. They said, in their experience, people with as little sight as I had, behaved as if they were totally blind. I discovered from the consultants that the average person can also lose almost half their field of vision without noticing, it’s only when the few degrees of central vision begin to detach that they are aware of it. I, on the other hand, on two or more occasions went into the hospital announcing that I felt I was about to start a retinal detachment, as I had located a tiny hole or tear in the extreme periphery of my retina. They, however, failed to detect this with their instruments and sent me home, only to acknowledge, when I went back a day or two later, that I had been right all along.
If you make sufficient demands the brain, it seems, can do astonishing things. But I did have to give up teaching, which was becoming a joke, and we sold our London house and bought a house in north Suffolk, which we moved to in May 1990. My second one man show in 1989 had also gone very well and since then I have been able to live and support my family purely on sale of paintings, which makes me one of the few very lucky artists.
In 1990 I almost entirely gave up oil painting from direct observation. I simply couldn’t see and understand enough. So instead, I painted, often on large 6 foot wide canvases, from short term memory and tape recordings that I had made while looking at my subject, and asking questions of whoever might be around at the time. Moorfields eye hospital had given me a tiny little x8 magnifying monocular so that I could read bus numbers and stuff like that. Standing at my station point – where I was seeing my subject from – using this x8 telescope, I would explore my subject in two quite different ways: I would make rhythmical passes through its space – near to far, low to high, high left to low right etc – while recording what I thought I was understanding of the space of the subject on my little dictaphone; and then from time to time I would focus hard on some place in the subject trying to intensify its reality in my experience. Listening to my recording, brush in hand, in front of the painting, these two ways of having looked resulted in very different marks being made on the painting. The static, focused looking, started to build up a formal colour structure whereas the rapid, spatial explorations, more and more, resulted in a network of
lines made with pencil or graphite but whose grey colour interfered hardly at all with the coloured structure of the painting that was building up. So my paintings were made up of two different kinds of drawing: a mosaic
of intense identifications with very small parts of the subject, and exploratory spatial rhythms marked across the colour of my painting but not interfering with the light and form giving harmony of the colour. I can’t now remember whether I started doing this on the 8 x 10 inch gouaches I was making in my sketchbook, and this led to doing the same sort of thing in the oil paintings, or whether it was the other way around. It certainly in part grew out of my study of Dufy’s painting and the idea that the elements of the visual language could be de-coupled.
When I was making the large pictures from short-term memory, I never looked at the painting through the telescope, except from a considerable distance trying to get a slightly better sense of the whole. Then with The Road to Emmaus, a large imaginary composition based on an Italian landscape I knew well, I needed to adjust the skyline near the centre of the painting but kept on getting it in the wrong place, in desperation, I re-mixed the colour looking at the palette through the telescope, focused on the relevant place in the painting through the telescope – I knew exactly what I wanted to do – and put in the few missing marks, but then, fatally I couldn’t resist looking at other parts of the painting through the telescope from close up. It looked extraordinary and I wanted to re-paint the whole picture. I didn’t, but soon, in the next picture I was mixing up these two different ways of perceiving and then in the next one after that, a large painting of the sluice on the river Waveney, I worked only through the telescope. I hated it as it killed the rhythmical drawing, which was my preferred response to the space of my subject, but I couldn’t help myself. So I had to invent a new way of drawing, or to be more precise, resuscitate an old way. The sort of measured drawing I had learned from Uglow, Dick Lee and others as a student: by recording measurements in the subject, I marked references and positions on the canvas with oil pastel. It was quite literally a pain in the neck as to get the incoming light through the telescope and focused on the actual peripheral vision that was still functioning fairly well I had to tip my head back. Most of the time I wasn’t painting, I was massaging the back of my neck. The paintings lost some of their dynamic life but gained a new stillness and the colour structure worked on the eye and brain differently.
When I went abroad I made gouaches directly from nature. One year when I returned, the beautiful English summer seemed curiously dark and un-coloured after the Tuscan light I had been in for the last three weeks and I wondered what would happen if I tried to make medium sized oils of the subjects I had painted in Italy. To my surprise and delight it went very well and I painted them all and had a successful exhibition, so that on my next trip abroad, which was to Portugal, with my sister, in February and March, I knew what I wanted to do: collect subjects, for painting large oils back in Suffolk. I made gouaches and tape recordings and I got my sister to make photomontages of any subject that I thought might make the cut. I had occasionally used photomontages before: I would get someone to take photos of my subject, from my station point, this might involve as many as 35 exposures, and then do their best sticking these together to make up a single consistent or relatively consistent image. Using my x8 magnifying monocular I would refer to this image for information, back in my studio at home. My sister and I carried around a plastic palette-like bottle carrier for her to stand on so that she would be taking the photographs from the right height. She also cleaned and re-laid my palette for me and turned out to be the perfect painter’s assistant, also reckying for new subjects while I was painting. Until my total blindness in 2005, this was essentially how I painted.
In 2002, I had become so blind that we risked a corneal transplant operation, taking the healthy cornea from my blind right eye and stitching it onto my left, and using a donor cornea on my right eye. It went well and was the first time for thirty years that my sight had improved rather than worsened. Relishing my improved sight, I painted my wife in a hammock by the river and sitting outside on a stool. I also re-painted some incomprehensible oils of landscapes I had seen abroad the summer before, and carried on with a very large painting called ‘The Family Upstairs,’ which I had abandoned through blindness. The improvement didn’t last long though. The cornea began to cloud and ulcerate. In May 2005, hardly seeing at all, I went with my son Peter to Cadaques, a fishing town above the Mediterranean in northern Spain. It was my perfect subject, dark blue Mediterranean sea, orange tiled roofs, man-made surfaces painted blinding white and the whole bathed in intense sunlight. Perfect – but I could hardly see a thing.
Peter wanted to make a film about me and was using this trip as a dry run. We would walk about Cadaques looking for possible subjects, Peter holding my right arm with his left hand and a camera in his right hand, and I was miked up for sound the whole time. Without Peter’s restraining hand I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes as the town was full of ramps, steep steps and precipitous parapets. We returned to Suffolk at the end of May for my birthday, with about a dozen possible subjects. It was a perfect sunny day with the whole family present, but the next morning I woke with a pain in my left eye and when I asked my wife to look, she said, ‘Oh my God, it’s bleeding’. An ulcer had perforated and my eye had in effect exploded. It was what I had tried to prepare myself for, total blindness, and therefore, I had always assumed, the end of
A few days later when I was mooching round my studio, wondering what I would do with the rest of my life – some sort of sculpture I assumed, though I had never had much feeling for sculpture – my brain again flooded with all the wonderful Cadaques subjects and I thought, ‘Well I wonder, what’s to lose?’
I took a canvas, a plastic chair and my painting trolley out into the sunny garden, chose from my memory one of the subjects, felt the canvas, imagining as intensely as I could, and thought, `here goes’, put ultramarine on a brush and started painting the top right hand corner of the canvas and I saw it go blue. It wasn’t a memory it was a percept, though not one such as you would have. But as I reflected later on, ‘Why not?’ My dreams when I am totally blind are perceptually immaculate so the visual cortex can do it. I painted for about an hour and then asked my daughter who was passing, ‘What do you think, darling?’ ‘Dad, that’s amazing! It’s beautiful.’ ‘But, can you see what it is?’ ‘Well, yes I think so. It looks like a little table bottom left, with Peter sitting on the other side of it in front of a large window, with sky, distant hills and dark blue sea. And then on the right, an open doorway with low sun flooding towards you reflecting off the sea.’
It was a perfect description of my subject – so perhaps there was painting after total blindness after all.
Over the next 18 months, I painted all the recorded subjects, and some more purely from memory. During this time Peter often came down and filmed me and talked to me at work in the studio. The result was a sell-out exhibition and praise from some of the painters I most respected. The problem then became, ‘what next?’ Dreams were no good as I couldn’t remember them for more than a few seconds and I, at any rate, could not return to the same dream again. Memories of the distant past were too imprecise and somehow didn’t have the grip I needed, and I didn’t want to paint second or third versions of subjects I had already painted more recently. In the end, I asked my wife Frances to sit in the armchair in my studio and I knelt on the floor so near to her that I could touch almost all of her and began making an imaginary drawing. It turned out to be much more like it had been, when I could see, than 1 could possibly have
imagined, and I began to mark the salient points of this drawing on my canvas, with little blobs of blue-tack as I had done in the last and largest of the Cadaques paintings. It seemed as if my brain was taking tactile information about relative positions in space, and using it in essentially the same way as I had previously used visual information, in order to build up a coherent understanding from the position of my eyes. As I was not receiving any visual information about colour or light, I simply painted things the colour I knew them to be.
In one of these armchair paintings, the fourth, I realised that I wanted everything to be more symmetrical, so I moved, so that I was kneeling at the centre of the armchair, which would therefore make a symmetrical shape in the canvas, within which I could find the drawing for the figure. The other thing that happened in this fourth painting was that I thought, ‘I don’t want to paint that armchair that dark brown, which I never really liked anyway. I’ll do what I did two or three years ago, I’ll put a white dust sheet over it.’ Then as I was getting a dustsheet out of the cupboard I thought, ‘You silly bugger, you won’t be able to see the dustsheet anyway. You can paint the chair any colour you like.’ This was an absolute breakthrough where colour was concerned and from then on I chose my colours much more intuitively and with a much more overtly decorative attitude towards the painting. I did however very much want to paint an experience of form in space and so the colour harmonies I chose had to contribute towards achieving this.
After about 18 months of painting these pictures, I had another exhibition, which also went well. I was a little worried about repeating myself so I started a large painting, about 4 foot by 6 foot 6, with an imaginary perceptual light and space loosely based on Cadaques. I set up a small round table and some chairs in my studio and got Frances to pose, virtually at touching distance, for the near figures, and my son Michael to pose for a waiter. At this time I had arrived at a sophisticated system of measuring using long straight sticks as stand-ins for rays of light reaching out from the bridge of my nose to important positions that I could not actually touch. Another starting point for this painting was
wondering whether I could make the dress of the standing girl on the left neat cadmium yellow and still have her looking as if she was in the shadow, against Mediterranean sun beyond. Working out the three-dimensional into two-dimensional geometry of the imagined space and directional sunlight was very challenging and stimulating and called on mathematical parts of my brain that had remained pretty dormant since the late 50’s, but I was pleased with the result.
At about this time, when my wife was staying with a friend abroad, my painter friend Terry Raybould and I analysed a favorite painting by Bonnard – it is in a museum in Brussels, and is the one where Marthe is standing naked in their little bedroom/living room in Monmartre, with her bum sticking out in an amazing way. We decided that Bonnard was standing with his eye level a little above the top of her head, and certainly no further than four foot away from her. But Marthe is drawn on the canvas with no vertical foreshortening whatsoever. The knock on effect of this can be seen in the shapes representing the divan on the right and the tin bath on the floor on the left and indeed the drawing of the whole painting. As, by pure chance, I had a canvas of the right proportion in the studio, I decided to make a copy of the painting. Terry, and then later Frances helped me, with measurements, and discussion in general. This painting was in my next exhibition. Well, I thought, if Bonnard can paint a standing figure from very close-to without vertical foreshortening in the drawing, perhaps I can as well, and in practically every painting I have made since, some such figure at touching distance and life size, often reaching from the top of the canvas to the bottom, has acted as a sort of reference module to which other positions in the subject are related. I cut down a large cardboard cylinder, that my primed canvas came on, to Frances’s height and marked key vertical positions down it: chin, shoulders, bust, waist, crutch, and knees, with blobs of blu-tac so that it could stand in for Frances in my subject set-ups when she was not available. My life had not been marked by experiences of groups of nude figures, but figures in swim-suits was another matter. It had the added advantage that you could choose any colour you wanted for the swim suits. This choosing a colour was often another one of the starting points for a new painting: the arriving at a decorative coloured pattern on the canvas, as well as a representation of forms in space and light, a resolution of these two, through the process of painting the picture. This is essentially how
I have been making my stone blind paintings until the present time.
Reasonably enough, people always want to know how I arrive at the colour in my paintings when I can’t see at all. It is worth mentioning here that most people, I think, dream in full and perfect colour, I certainly do, and when one is asleep one is perceptually blind, so the brain can do it – though God knows how. I can imagine colour and colour combinations pretty well and I wonder, is it so very different from a composer or arranger of music working on manuscript paper, thinking, ‘I would like the theme in flute and clarinet, against strings and French horns’. In the paintings I have made since losing all my sight, which is to say the last ten years, I cover the whole canvas, from my imaginings, and my knowledge of my pigments, and how they behave, and how they look in different combinations, as the painting proceeds and as a result of much discussion, Frances begins to mix up colours for me, and both the colour and the drawing change and develop, often very dramatically. Of course I would never have chosen to become a blind painter but I have been thrilled to discover that I can make paintings without sight, and that this activity is far more like a continuation of my painting experience than I could possibly have imagined.
Sargy Mann, 2015