Family Album – an exercise in Not Knowing.
Early on in the project I knew I wanted to make a book and that it would contain paintings of my childhood family. I was hoping to discover new things about myself and my feelings, at the same time as discovering new ways of painting and making. But further than that I really didn’t know what I was doing or what I was going to do, and it was at this point I had to find a balance between planning and intuition.
What this work, my Family Album, will mean to others clearly will not be the same as it means to me – others can read into it their own interpretations, but when I step back from it and try to see what I’ve made, I can see quite a difference between what I intended at the outset and what the work eventually became. Gary Hume says in discussing paintings of his mum which he recently made, that he made an unexpected discovery: “I thought I was making paintings of my mum, but it turned out quite quickly that it’s all about me. I haven’t really given her her own identity. It is absolutely my mum from my eyes, from my emotional standpoint.” (royalacademy.org).
I’ve made a book of paintings about my family that’s also about myself, a book with many layers both physical and of meaning and time. The book is to be handled, the pages turned, the textures felt, to capture the relationship between sight and touch.
Here is the book I made.
I did a certain amount of planning; making a mock-up of a book, planning the supports and subject matter of each page, trying out staining and printing on various supports. I had an idea I would layer paintings and incorporate script in a deliberate way.
I looked at other artists books. Paul Gauguin made a journal incorporating his handwriting, watercolours (often using monotype processes) and woodblock. I felt the watercolour medium was both bold and colourful and very delicately used in these paintings from his Noa Noa journal. Often his subjects were lightly drawn with line before adding colour wash. I liked the way he incorporated script, sometimes surrounding, at other times topping and tailing his subject, or layered underneath.
I knew I’d been surprised in the earlier exercises as I worked with my materials and unexpected things happened, and this sense of surprise cropped up again and again as I worked on. These things threw me and altered my course, into unforeseen directions. I layered paintings in unexpected ways – gluing and stitching supports, layering time – combining portraits and other materials from different eras. I incorporated stitch and collage; I linked portraits with a golden thread; script became unclear, present but confused and faded. I thought of using papers which have a history. Sian Bowen uses fragments cut from old wallpapers, letters and documents; I wanted to incorporate old household accounts, humdrum business printouts, poems and letters, but without altering or destroying the originals.
My materials, processes and the book-form threw many challenges at me, giving rise to difficulties and doubts. I was encountering the unknown. Monotype printing and painting on silk, canvas, thin semi-transparent fabric-like papers, and highly absorbent surpports, all was unpredictable despite many sketchbook tryouts. Processes were equally challenging. Whether burnishing printed script onto fabrics and thin papers, or staining liquid pigment onto raw textiles, the results were never quite what I’d been aiming for. The form of my project, a book, (size 25cm high and 17.5cm wide), presented criteria and limitations that I had to work with, each page being one half of a support, the reverse of which was as important as the front.
Selecting subject matter was another area of not knowing. I had a plethora of material, and had to focus on those things that best expressed my memories and feelings. I also had to allow myself to be led by my materials; it was no good trying to paint a detailed portrait on raw textiles for instance. Each day I left more sketches, tryouts, photos and old papers lying around in my studio to come back to, and continued working with them in sight.
I became engrossed in the process of printing, drawing and painting these portraits, handling, stitching, embellishing and layering the pages of my growing book, while becoming more deeply immersed in memories, imagination and feeling. I was reluctant to bring the project to a close, knowing there wouldn’t be a final resolution. As I advanced towards the final pages I found lost memories, forgotten dreams and new meanings, and a new awareness of the me I became ; and my paintings became less literal and more expressive.
I’ll now go on to explain some of the sketchbook work I did to support this project, how I developed my ideas, and how I painted the portraits
On Not Knowing, by Rebecca Fortnum, 2009