9 November 2007
Painting by Numbers
Last Thursday afternoon I went to Studio Voltaire in Clapham, south-west London, to participate in one of several workshops organised by Intoart and linked to the launch of their newly published book The Studio Project - Opening Art Practice. The particular workshop I signed up for was called Painting by Numbers. (Well, it wasn’t actually ...it was called Super Colour Theory, but it really did involve me, and a whole lot of other people, painting a super size paint-by-numbers on the gallery wall!)
So, of course, as I was making my way over to Clapham to paint by numbers I got to thinking about Damien Hirst. I can honestly say I’ve never really, truly, understood the phenomenon. Damien’s theme, as we know, is mortality, and as a showman he’s come up with some clever ideas. My particular favourite is that large white room he filled with hundreds of fluttering, stunningly beautiful butterflies. Butterflies all drop down dead naturally after a day or two, don’t they? And so they did. You’ve got to hand it to Damien.
None of this has ever been profound enough for me, though. I go to art exhibitions all the time you see, and so these days death for me has to be a bit more deathly. But here I have to stop myself. Because the fact of the matter is as an art consumer it really does depend entirely on your starting point. For example, what would you recommend for a tube journey - seriously, War and Peace or Harry Potter? – and please don’t tell me it’s not possible to get a lump in your throat reading Harry Potter…
Opening Art Practice
So, what’s this got to do with Intoart’s new publication? Well, (and please bear with me here, the link was always going to be tenuous), once I chanced upon a staged photo by Damien Hirst: a row of different coloured gas bottles raised on a platform - a fallen figure straddling the space above and below the line of the platform. The content of the photo had been deliberately and perfectly formed in terms of the basic skills: narrative, colour balance, composition (I know a little bit about these things, partly because my wife is an artist).
Damien’s photo was simple and, in part because it was so exceedingly well crafted, moving. And so I think my point is this: as an artist it doesn’t really matter where you’re starting from – me, for example, learning to mix colour in my painting-by-numbers workshop – if you are given a good grasp of the basic skills this will very likely empower you to express yourself artistically, and you are very likely to find an audience. Enter Intoart and The Studio Project.
I spent an engrossing and instructive few hours painting-by-numbers, led by one of the studio artists, and in the spare moments in between dipped into the new book. The basic mechanics of this publication are to be found in the middle section: a series of colour plates of work by the studio artists: paintings, drawings, screen-prints; and all excellent – for me the portraits stand out particularly: I like pictures of people (and for me too all more interesting than Damien Hirst in the very real sense that this just happens to be art that I respond to).
Then following on from the artwork comes a series of what are referred to as resource packs, eight in all, each a self-contained lesson, which can be photocopied and blown up, covering subjects such as how to mix colour, paint a portrait, mono-print or make a drawing. These lessons have been produced by the studio artists to share the different ways of making art and this section of the book as a whole can and does serve as a lucid and practical teaching tool.
But there’s more to the book than simply being a manual. The content is topped and tailed with editorial from several sources: the South London Gallery, Rathbone, and The Studio Project artists. Collectively the essays serve to set out a clear vision of The Studio Project - an inclusive one, to cultivate integration into the mainstream art world. And from what I’ve seen at Studio Voltaire it is clear that Intoart is following through with sound initiatives: developing and maintaining a mutually supportive art community and operating as the catalyst in forging new and different, practical links between the new emerging artists and, for example, Rathbone, the gallery owners and the ICA.
Here at least though, there seems to be a fly in the ointment. During the panel discussion at the end of the day’s events a question from the floor sought to cast doubt on whether a project such as this is likely to endure in the long run. Because astonishing as it may seem to me as an outsider, it emerges that integration and inclusiveness are not apparently a given; this initiative does not fall naturally under the establishment umbrella. In fact it doesn’t fall under the establishment umbrella at all. And the inference seems to be therefore that if, just for example, the tireless Ella Ritchie of Intoart were to move on (and no, I’m not suggesting for a moment that she intends to – in fact she stated quite clearly that she does not) the initiative would be needlessly exposed. Or am I reading it wrong? I hope so.
I started with Damien Hirst, and so I think it’s only right that I finish with Tracey Emin. I heard it suggested in a BBC news item recently that she was the Eddie the Eagle of this year’s Venice Biennale, and so I just want to let it be known that I personally think this is a little harsh.
I went to the Frieze Art Fair this year and for me it was all completely bonkers. (I tried telling myself it all depends on your starting point.) But then, fortunately for me, and suddenly, tucked away in the corner - well, the White Cube Gallery stand actually - I came across two or three of those small, scratchy sort of toilet drawings of Tracey’s. You know the ones - they’re statements about vulnerability you see, and I can always relate to that. So Tracey, I feel, probably knows her stuff too. Although how much better perhaps if she’d done The Studio Project workshop on colour theory? Well, it worked for me.
The Studio Project – Opening Art Practice Published by Intoart.
Further essays in the book are written by Kit Hammonds, Curator at South London Gallery, Andrew Preston, Director of Rathbone and Intoart artists Ella Ritchie and Sam Jones.
The book is also available to order via the Intoart website For further information/images contact Ella Ritchie Email: firstname.lastname@example.org