Well do ya?

The ‘X’ has numerous uses and associations; negative, positive, historical, contemporary. It is arguably the most basic written signifier, being simultaneously an illiterate’s substitute signature, an indication of error, a confirmation of political leaning, a kiss and of course a letter of the alphabet to list but a very few. It is also one of the simplest and most natural forms of mark making. I have observed it personally as the immediate precursor to a child’s use of written language, long before contextual or communicative connotations come into play.

Ordinarily I would avoid any charged or symbolic subject, but the ‘X’ has such a wide and inconsistent relevance that I don’t believe my use can possibly be pinned down to any one specific meaning. The aspect I’m most interested in is the natural, instinctive way the marks are made, not the way in which they may subsequently be hijacked.

I have pressed it into employment as a vehicle through which to indulge in mark making. If what I have observed is universal and not unique to my daughter, then we are all deeply familiar with drawing or writing an ‘X’ from a very early age. It is the most basic abstract combination of 2 marks and I believe that my familiarity with making those marks in that formation, born of continued use over decades, allows me to release some of the tension associated with ‘drawing’ and embrace the freedom that comes with writing.

Well do ya? I 2015 Emulsion & varnish on canvas 25.5 x 20.5cm

Well do ya? I
Emulsion & varnish on canvas
25.5 x 20.5cm

It is true that the tension cannot be broken immediately. As familiar as these marks are, biro in hand, swapping ballpoint for brush changes the scale and the emphasis. Initial experiments on a 2-stroke painting (illustrated above) did not prove entirely satisfactory. It takes time for the freedom to build (or the tension to seep away) and so my solution has been to paint the ‘X’ multiple times – 10 or more, over and over so that no single stroke can be held responsible for the final form:

Well do ya? II 2015 acrylic, gloss, glitter & varnish on canvas 28.0 x 20.4cm

Well do ya? II
oil, gloss & varnish on canvas
28.0 x 20.4cm

Repetition loosens the movement and cumulative value defines the end result, thus I need not be precious about any one mark in particular. I am freed to dab away at the canvas and allow the natural beauty of the paint to appear through loose and perfunctory marks.

Gilding the Lilywhite


Universally accepted beauty is naturally occurring. Sunsets, waterfalls, flowers. Paint is not naturally occurring, at least not in the commercial form we’re familiar with, but its defining state and characteristic – liquid and colour, are both phenomena that have existed longer than we’ve been around to perceive them. Paint is liquid colour and it is beautiful.

It is beautiful long before we get our hands on it. If in employment we allow it to exhibit its natural attributes we stand a good chance of retaining at least some of that beauty. It only becomes ugly when we try to force it to do what we want, not what it wants. The more we treat it as a tool, the more of its quality we risk chipping away.

Paint’s primary use is commercial – its purpose is to change the colour and texture of objects and spaces in order to improve the way they look. Its liquid state makes this possible. Its colour and texture makes it desirable. It is instant beauty in a tin.

The best painters are able to use these things. They come to an agreement with their medium such that they may achieve some of what they want whilst allowing it to do just what it will. And it will. Paint will sometimes move in the directions we ask. Directions it might never have naturally moved. It may go more or less where we want it to go, but it’ll do just what it likes when it gets there. All we can hope is that the places and directions in which we push it are conducive to its behaviour.

When we decide to make a painting we take a risk. We choose a substance of significant inherent, existing beauty and try to improve it still. Like the man who throws up in the hat of Bear Strangler McGee we’re either mighty brave or mighty stupid.