There has been a wonderful creative symmetry fulfilled during the creation of these painted pots. The initial impetus for the project came from a series of paintings which were themselves first inspired by ceramic painting: the naivety of early Delft tiles; the strange, ubiquitous pattern named ‘Willow’, with its decorative motifs which we know so well; and the unselfconscious flair of the brush on Eastern and ancient pots of all ages. Pots are wont to tell a story – of their makers, often of their times and the stories of their times. They are vessels both literally and metaphorically.
My starting point was the acquisition of two antique tubes of ‘China Blue’, still unopened and soft to the squeeze. Old paint has its own characteristics, distinct with the times of its manufacture. Today the colour is known as Prussian Blue and it remains, tonally at least, one of the most versatile pigments on the palette – at one end of the scale a dark with an almost impenetrable density, and at the other end a delicacy like watercolour. It’s a pigment with the range to express almost anything: perfect for painting pots.
Working in collaboration with a wonderful potter like Kevin [Millward] has been a thrill – we seemed to hit it off from the first. There’s a whole range of techniques to learn and understand, though likewise many parallels, particularly with printmaking which requires similar processes, and Kevin seemed to know instinctively what shapes would suit my ‘Blue Period’.
The pots were designed on the page, drawn, without hesitation, until I was satisfied with the forms. I wanted the large jars and chargers to be as closely related to my paintings as possible without sacrificing originality or spontaneity; for the smaller vessels, I wanted fluidity and painterliness. Though similar to working on gesso, which has a porous, matt surface, I quickly found that biscuit fired clay is a far less forgiving medium. Until the fluidity of the ceramic glaze was just right, it felt like painting watercolour onto an egg box – fine for outline, but less helpful when after a more expressive quality. Decades of mixing paint and printmaking ink soon came to my aid, and after a few hours the process of painting on clay felt natural.
The images for the chargers flowed quite logically from my paintings, but working in the round presented new difficulties. Here the image is understood almost like sculpture, in the sense that the object must read coherently from any angle. This was the challenge of the jars: to make an image that engaged from 360 degrees while maintaining a wholeness when the pot was experienced walking round it. There’s great physical presence in Kevin’s pots, and I found myself tapping into and reacting to that quality during the painting, enjoying the material presence of the image as it emerged on the jar.
What’s interesting now that I’ve returned to my Blue paintings is the range of scale I’m experimenting with, as well as developing ideas discovered during the painting of the pots. New things are happening as another vein of imagery presents itself. There are plenty of missteps, of course – false starts and failed compositions – but it’s all about pushing forward. As Miles Davis once said, ‘If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.’