The Birth of a Painting
As Peter has just started working on his latest painting, we thought we would take this opportunity to have a look at Peter's process of creating a painting.
All works of art start with inspiration, and Peter is predominantly inspired by the Bible which he reads daily. He may find a line or image that strikes him and start doodling or sketching.
But it may not go any further for a while. For example with his current painting: he has sketches and notes from 1994, 2008 and 2020!
In his notes you can see other ideas he was having:
A line from Isaiah 8 about Zion being lonely "like a shed in a melon patch",
Isaiah 10:15 "Does the axe claim more credit than the man who wields it". And other such notes.
These ideas may yet become something but right now the focus is Jeremiah, thrown down the well by his countrymen. (Jeremiah 38:6)
The composition comes in from the first moment of inspiration. Typically his sketches are in biro, followed by coloured pencils for the colour sketches.
With a simple painting like Jeremiah the composition did not vary a lot, and in fact the current design pretty much matches a sketch from 1994.
However, you can see he moved between having Jeremiah at the point of escape and other stages of rescue, to eventually sticking with Jeremiah at the bottom of the well; as rescue begins, or perhaps the moment he is left there.
Something a little unusual this time is that Peter actually went as far as painting a very small sketch as well as his typical rough colour sketches, not in oils like the final design, but in acrylic. Acrylic is not unusual for Peter as a medium in general, he often uses it for casual sketches, but this is the first time I've seen him use it for one of his paintings.
With the composition finalised in principle, Peter creates what he calls a "cartoon" - a full sized drawing of the design, which he will eventually transfer onto the board he paints on.
Peter says this part of the process comes from his fresco painting training, because you have to act very quickly on the drying plaster, so you have to know exactly what you are painting beforehand.
In his early days Peter mostly painted on canvas, but around the mid 1970s he moved onto painting on wood, mainly because it's more durable.
With Jeremiah, Peter chose an mdf-type substance as he'd noticed cracking in the wood on some older paintings recently. The board is cut to size, or in this case, cut and then recut when he felt it was too small (he had to rescale his design as well). Wooden batons are added to the back as a frame for support.
He then paints layers of white which he smooths ready to have the design transferred.
The design is put onto the surface by using a soft pencil as a transfer medium on the reverse of his cartoon. He then places the cartoon onto the board and traces over the design.
Finally painting can start! Peter likes to paint thinly to allow the white to shine through his paintings lending an added lightness and glow to his paintings.
It is rather a stop-start process as oil paints are variably quick to dry. For example after day 1 of Jeremiah, Peter had to leave the lighter blues to dry for about 3 days, although the browns are faster and were already dry.
Although he also has a more traditional easel, Peter invented his current one himself relatively recently by drilling holes in a board the right size for the batons, on which the painting can rest.
As Peter paints, he may consider and adjust his design, but with this particular painting, he actually went so far as to repaint the lowest part - the mud under Jeremiah's feet in three different colours. First a light brown, then a light blue, then a muddy dark blue/brown.
The final step with a painting is framing. Almost all of his main body of work since the 1970s has a very simple framing style - a thin white strip that it tacked onto the edge. The minimum needed to mark the edge of his work.
In some ways this simple edging makes me think of comic strips, of which Peter was as a fan as a child, and even wrote his own.
This parallel also links into Peter's enjoyment of breaking out of frames - making the picture seem as if it is bursting out to reach out to you. A style you can see in comics too.
You can see this for example with his last version of the House on Rock and Sand. The general shape is rectangular, but parts to literally stick through it and he frames around those parts.
Another way he does this is to create a pretend frame within the painting which he will then make the the scene emerge out of. An example of this you can see below from the Christmas Tryptich - the outer door image of St John the Baptist. The road and other elements burst out of the painted frame.
We hope you've enjoyed this tour through how a painting is made.