Monthly Archives: October 2015

And that’s as far as the conversation went.

Lots of things are art. Or at least there are lots of things that people say are art. And lots of things aren’t art as well. Revelation. One of the questions I find most annoying is ‘what is art?’. I think the reason it irks me is that even having spent my time in higher education studying nothing else, and then worked the following 12 years in the art world I don’t have an answer. It can be pretty much anything. But it can also be nothing. And some of it is considered a great way to invest a large amount of money. But some of it doesn’t even exist. Anyone can make it, or do it, out of anything. You can even be it if you want. You can study it for years and struggle endlessly in the pursuit of creative epiphany, or you can know nothing at all and just throw it together and it can all end up the same. Wrap that lot up in a nice little package. Pain in the arse.

I resist describing myself as an ‘artist’. I find it too vague and nebulous and weighted, but most importantly it doesn’t really describe what I do. I call myself a painter because that covers most of what I make and is pretty unambiguous. People know what painting traditionally involves and I paint in a fairly traditional manner (bound pigment, support, hairy stick). It all makes sense and is easily justifiable. However once I’ve made something and sent it out into the world either physically or virtually, I can’t control how it’s perceived. I call it a painting, which is technically accurate, but other people may understandably call it art.

But let’s pretend I wasn’t a painter and instead I knitted scarves (that would be fun). Let’s say that my website was the same, but all the pictures were scarves instead of paintings and any reference to painting was substituted for knitting. I called them scarves and gave away my scarves for free. When they went out into the world they would be called scarves and no one would call them art because as everybody knows, a scarf is not art and I am not a artist, I am a scarf knitter.

But sometimes an artist may decide that the idea on which they are working would be best communicated by knitting a scarf, so they do. This scarf is art. You wouldn’t be able to differentiate it from my scarves, but it’s still art, whilst mine are scarves. Why? Because that was the intention of the artist. They said it was art, so it is. And what if they were shit at knitting? Let’s say they just bought a scarf and said that was art. Same deal. It’s art and there’s nothing you can do about it.

A scarf is a scarf. It exists to keep your neck warm and to look good (sometimes). It has a function and is identifiable by everyone who’s ever had a cold neck or known of anyone else who has suffered this way. It is a recognisable, known and understood object. A painting is a painting, but a painting is an object inextricably associated with the notion of art and is of greatest note within the art world. Historically it’s considered a vehicle for artists to exhibit their skill or express their ideas and so the pavlovian response to seeing a painting is to think ‘oh look, there’s an art’.

Two questions arise:

How can the scarf be art?
How can the painting be not art?

Let’s start with number one. As we have established, the artist presents the scarf as art, therefore it is. They’ve done their work, excrutiating and laborious as it is, and after that the onus is on the viewer to perceive the artwork. The problem, of course, is that this artwork looks just like a scarf. It’s very hard to divorce the object in question from its familiar function of insulating the bit between one’s head and shoulders. This is where the viewer has to be able to suspend their natural inclination to see ‘scarf’ and instead to see ‘art’; to try to allow themselves to consider the object outside of its everyday function. To some people it comes easily. To others, not so much, and that’s when people get frustrated. “But it’s just a scarf” they say. Yes, but as it’s here in front of you, being offered up for your consideration as art, try to appreciate it as something other than just a neck warmer. “But look. It’s a scarf. Why is it art?” Well, it’s art because someone else says it is, but it’s up to you to try to consider and appreciate it on a different level to that which instinct compels. “What are you talking about? Why am I wasting my time looking at a scarf?”. This is when you give up.

I don’t have a definitive answer to the question “What is art?”. It will be more to some people and less to others. Those capable of considering things outside of the context in which they traditionally exist will get more from ‘art’ than those who cannot. If you look at the scarf that’s presented as art, and have to ask why it’s art, you’re probably not going to like the answer.

So, question 2, the one that I feel relates to me – how is the painting ‘not art’? It’s basically the same puzzle in reverse. Its traditional or widely understood purpose is to be art. People see a painting and because painting is a (the?) traditional medium for an artist to express themselves, it is therefore art. But I want my paintings to be not art. They are objects just like scarves, whose purpose, for the viewer at least, is to look pleasing. They do not transcend that which they are. In this way they are just like a scarf that keeps you neck warm – the not art scarf – insofar as they are objects with a purpose and all the viewer need do is perceive them in this way. It’s made to look nice. It looks nice. Job done.

I hope you can see my dilemma. The known struggle of the artist is to convince the viewer that the everyday objects or recognisable materials with real-world associations that they use are to be considered outside of their common function. A lot of work goes into this, and they get a fair bit of help, for example art galleries are mostly big empty white boxes. They do their best to decontextualise the objects they are exhibiting to make it easier for the viewer. Writers describe the artist’s processes or influences. Explain the message they’re trying to communicate and add a bit of intellectual weight to the whole thing. We can but hope these things will lubricate the mental passage and allow the viewer a better opportunity to think of the scarf as ‘art’.

But I, the not-artist, now struggle to convince the viewer that what I‘m making is not art. It’s just painting. By giving paintings away for free (or even by giving them a clearly calculable ‘per square centimetre’ price, like curtains in John Lewis), perhaps I am disassociating them from the commercial art world a bit. Maybe making them easily accessible and sending them directly into people’s homes to live amongst their teapots and face flannels can go some way to breaking any ‘art-awe’ that may mistakenly exist. And I hope that on the most straightforward level a text saying ‘this is not art’ is taken at face value. But who knows if any of this comes across? Not me. It would be great if it did, but I still expect to be drawn into the conversation again…

“But it’s a painting”. Yes, but as it’s here in front of you, being offered up for your consideration, try to appreciate it as an object and not necessarily as art. “But look. It’s a painting. Why is it not art?” Well, I’m saying it isn’t, but it’s up to you to try to consider it as a simple, functional object. Like a scarf. “What are you talking about? What’s a scarf got to do with anything?”. This is when I give up.

Tom Wilmott

Uncork the Cure

I recently received the unexpected honour of being asked to contribute works to the Uncork the Cure charity auction, benefitting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The event will be held at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, Boston, MA on Friday November 13th. Further information is available on their website . The 2 paintings below will be up for auction.

It is truly a pleasure to be able to contribute to a good cause. My best wishes and sincere thanks go to everyone at Uncork the Cure for inviting me to be involved.

I dug a hole in the garden I 2015 Gloss and varnish on canvas 25.5 x 20.5cm

I dug a hole in the garden I
Gloss and varnish on canvas
25.5 x 20.5cm

I dug a hole in the garden II 2015 Gloss and varnish on canvas 25.5 x 20.5cm

I dug a hole in the garden II
Gloss and varnish on canvas
25.5 x 20.5cm

Filthy disco

Working to commission is a different beast. As I assume is the case for most painters, my creative process is generally a fairly solitary affair. Although I am of course influenced by all sorts of things, the concept and production is not a democratic process, however working to commission has brought with it an unfamiliar need to embrace collaboration and a demand for adaptability I had not anticipated. It’s a new challenge, but one which has quickly proven both valuable and welcome.

I'm the cleanest I have ever been / Filthy disco 2013/2015 Diptych. Gloss & acrylic on canvas 35.1 x 50.2cm

I’m the cleanest I have ever been / Filthy disco
Diptych. Gloss & acrylic on canvas
35.1 x 50.2cm

This diptych comprises 2 paintings – I’m the cleanest I have ever been and Filthy Disco. I made the former in early 2014 and this was requested by the client as part of the Sale of the Century project. Unfortunately the second painting they were interested in had already been claimed and so they asked if I would be willing to remake it.

They had wanted the 2 paintings as a pair, but the originally unavailable work was not the same size as I’m the cleanest I have ever been, so their first creative suggestion was to make the newly commissioned canvas match its new partner in size. Of course this is straightforward enough in practical terms, but it’s the kind of simple request that has the potential to open up a can of creative worms; the original painting was conceived as an individual, but now it was being suggested that I assimilate it into a diptych, paired with another painting in a combination not of my design. I’ve met enough artists to know that external creative or aesthetic suggestion can be a very touchy subject. Making art is at once deeply egotistical and riddled with anxiety, which leaves little room and even less inclination for the artist to engage in discussion about how to make their work. I could have responded badly to this turn of events, however I think the two paintings look good together and I actually found the suggestion quite welcome. After that, frankly there’s little else to consider. On the basis that I considered it a good aesthetic decision, what possible reason could there be not to go ahead? And with that small concession to suggestion, suddenly all other aspects of the process become fair game.

With the physical aspects quickly settled (the colour was to match the unavailable painting), there came the question of title. I suggested it should somehow connect to the existing one. This is not the way I usually work, but then the situation wasn’t standard either, and I felt it would be good to strengthen the link between the two canvases given the way things had developed and to reinforce my agreement with the client’s idea to pair them up. The first painting referred to cleanliness and happened to be a fresh, cool colour, but the other was very different and to my mind warranted a related, but contradictory title – clean and dirty. The client agreed and although my suggestion of Dirty weekend was initially accepted, it was ultimately trumped by their version – Filthy disco. I do like my original idea and will certainly find a use for it somewhere, but theirs was just as good and again there was no reason to dismiss it.

So, I didn’t suggest the combination of the 2 works, I didn’t dictate the physical aspects of the newly commissioned painting and I didn’t choose the title. I did, however, enter into discussion and come to agreements on all three. The new painting was based very closely on another I had done previously and of course it would never have been commissioned had I not made any of these things in the first place. It fits into an existing series, the principles of which I laid out here and so in all I feel this has been a genuinely successful collaborative process – something which in all honesty I did not anticipate and equally could not have hoped to achieve had I set out with that particular goal in mind. I didn’t expect to react the way I did, but in taking suggestion and entering into discussion it became a valuable exchange and an interesting evolution of a painting. Ultimately I consider it a very successful undertaking and an intriguing introduction to the potential of working collaboratively. Here’s hoping there are many more opportunities to follow.

Tom Wilmott

The other side of the coin.

Recently there have been occasions when people have requested works I have made available for free, but that have unfortunately already been claimed. In certain cases I have offered to make something similar specifically in order not to have to turn down a request. However, in such cases money has changed hands in order to facilitate the construction of these new paintings.

This may seem very much at odds with my current distribution project but wait, I can explain:

When I elect to make a painting it is for my own enjoyment. The decision comes from a single source – me. Until recently there was no other incentive, but of course that changes when I agree to make a painting to fulfil an external request. Adhering strictly to the guideline of indulgence over compulsion I shouldn’t undertake such projects, however when I receive a request I would of course prefer to give a positive response, therefore I have decided to take on these commissions as an option to offer those who ask for a painting that has already been allocated to someone else.

Naturally this difference between indulgence (painting for myself) over compulsion (painting for others) needs to be accounted for. The solution I have come to is this: A painting I have made by my own choice alone I am happy to give away for free. I would have made it irrespective of whether or not anyone wants it. If someone claims it, all the better. If they don’t then that’s fine too. Distribution is secondary to its existence and not the reason I made it. However a painting I would not have made without outside influence I will charge for because it is a product of a specific request.

This is clearly a pragmatic approach, but I am of course very happy to be asked to do these commissions. I’m happy people like the work enough to consider asking and that I have found a way to offer an alternative to a flat refusal if an existing painting is unavailable. I just feel I need to clearly separate the two types of production in order to retain and protect the most important aspect – the pure enjoyment of painting.

So, let’s talk turkey. How much to commission a painting? It’s a pretty straightforward equation:

Production costs + 5 pence per square centimetre of surface area + transport costs = total commission cost.

To better define these factors:

Production costs
Materials such as the stretcher, canvas, drawing pins, paint (if I need to buy in specifically) or anything else required for which I will incur a cost.

5 pence per square centimetre
Exactly that. For every square centimetre of surface area of the painting (height x width) I charge 5 pence (£0.05). I feel this is a relatively modest price. To put it into real terms a painting 25 x 20cm works out as 500cm2, so £25. A painting 100 x 150 = 15,000cm2 , so £750. The client decides the size (based on commercially available stretcher bars or wooden boards), so they’re in complete control of this cost.

Transport costs
Whatever it costs to get the painting where the client wants it. Sometimes nothing if collected in person. Otherwise postage or courier or airmail or whatever.

All costs are of course agreed in advance of any work being done or materials purchased. An up front deposit to cover materials may be required.

And that’s it. It’s as fair and transparent as I feel is possible. All the numbers a calculable at the outset, everyone knows they’re getting the same deal and there are no vagueries about it Clients to date have all found it to be an acceptable formula so, taking my lead from the people who are shelling out the dough I conclude that yes, this system seems to work.

Tom Wilmott