The Story of a Painting

Working to a deadline can have one of two effects on me: either it ignites some latent creative energy that powers me to my best work yet, or it crushes my very soul.

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but you get my drift.
Deadlines are good. But sometimes they're stressful.

The first public show of my work was scheduled for 28th February and I had it all figured out. Oh yes, I was Super Planner.  I had my theme down, my core idea, my technique, my process, supplies stocked; everything was ready.

With this set of works I wanted to continue to explore the theme that I'd started with my doodles: the idea of reconnecting with the world around me. After graduating art school in 1993, I spent the successive 20 years pursuing a career in my other passion: the media, especially screenwriting. In November 2014, depression forced me to quit screenwriting and art became my vehicle to recovery.  I wanted to go deeper into remembering and appreciating experiences past and places I've visited that have impacted me on my journey; to reinforce my identity as an artist rather than a writer.

Leave Your Mark, Vienna

I chose Paris, Vienna, New York, London, Birmingham and Barcelona.

Each city has its own story (you can read them in the Gallery); an experience in each city that shaped my creative style, has been a source of inspiration or directed my voice as an artist. 

The pieces came quite easily to me; I made creative discoveries as I worked, trying new techniques and letting the pieces emerge naturally.

When it came to Barcelona I automatically reached for La Sagrada Familia. I recall finding the notion of witnessing such an extraordinary building being constructed quite unique. It's not something you see nowadays.  Cathedrals being repaired, yes; but not being "created". I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but I have come to understand that it spoke to my personal longing to build something beautiful and lasting, no matter how many years it takes.

I'd nearly completed my Vienna piece and I loved everything about it!  I decided to take the same approach with Barcelona.


Sagrada Familia doodle from my January Challenge

I had my doodle sketch of La Sagrada Familia; I wanted to represent the incredible interior light of the cathedral, bathed in blues, greens and yellows.

I started to paint the background, taking my Vienna piece as a reference.

This, I fear, is where I entered auto-pilot mode.

Actually, scrap that. This is where I sunk deeper into auto-pilot mode.  From the moment I decided on my subject matter for this piece, I failed to consult the artist in me and proceeded as a scaredy-cat.

With my exhibition deadline approaching, I wanted to recreate the success of my previous painting and stay safe; stick with what worked and be confident I was going to show some solid pieces that hung together as a series.

It didn't work.

I painted layer after layer after layer, which is fine because that's [kind of] my process.  But it reached a point where panic set in.



When I'm struggling with a piece, I find taking a photograph of it gives me the distance I need to be constructively critical and helps in knowing where to take the work next.

"Leave Your Mark, Barcelona" in process #1

Here's the first photo. (Forgive the quality of these snaps. At the time of taking I wasn't expecting them to be seen by anyone except me)


You may see some compositional similaries to my Vienna piece.

However, this time it really isn't good. I take an academic approach, analyse the composition and decide it needs balance.


That doesn't work either.


I feel so frustrated, I abandon it for a day or so.

"Leave Your Mark, Barcelona" in process #2

I take photo number two.

This is like a major essay crisis now.  My final few days of painting time are drawing near.


I believe that creativity (particularly in regards to problem solving) continues to work on a subconscious level.  For example, a solution will often come to you for one problem while you're preoccuppied with something else.

This is especially true when you're well practised in a particular skill and your brain works through a series of rehearsed steps.  

It sounds like auto-pilot, but it isn't. Auto-pilot is not thinking at all about the problem. In fact, auto-pilot doesn't see a problem.  Auto-pilot, in this situation, is bad. 

Fortunately, I sense it.  As I work on my Paris piece there is a noticable shift in my approach.  I work quickly and fluidly; the ideas coming easily.

I realise it's not the composition of the Barcelona painting that's the problem, it's Barcelona.

Or rather, my emotional relationship with the city.



I'd put Barcelona on my list for this series because I wanted to paint La Sagrada Familia, yet my visit there hadn't delivered the awe-inspiring, life-affirming injection I'd expected and longed for.

I was there, but not fully present.  I was slipping into depression and in denial of the fact.  I was finding some success in my work as a screenwriter, had made some amazing friends, inspiring mentors and talented collaborators. However, the self-doubt was so crippling I failed to enjoy it. 

I was under pressure with work when we visited Barcelona -  exciting projects and opportunities that scared me rigid.  This is what I remember of our days there:

The constant noise of construction in and around La Sagrada Familia, being told off by a security guard at Park Guell for standing on the seat to take a photo, walking for an age trying to find a particular food market and being disappointed when we finally did, a rowdy anti-austerity demonstration attacking a bank as we had lunch in a pavement cafe, the colourful light through the Cathedral window, an awesome tapas dinner, an awful pizza, learning something new about Picasso, paying fifty euros for a taxi to the airport only to see the ten euro airport bus we'd been trying to find for ages pull into a nearby bus stop, having our plane home grounded at Amsterdam for a night and being herded from one exhausting life-sucking queue to another...

Armed with a palette knife, a handful of neutrals and that list in my mind, I got real with Barcelona.


And "Leave Your Mark, Barcelona" was born.

Leave Your Mark, Barcelona (acrylic on canvas 24x24)

It's been a lesson in authentic creativity. A warning against slipping into auto-pilot. An expression of my ongoing, unfinished, creative puzzle-of-a-journey.


Six pieces from my "Leave Your Mark" series are on display at 6/8 Kafé on Temple Row in Birmingham. They serve AMAZING coffee. If you're in the city, check it out :)