Ian Lawrence: On Gold
As a colour, gold is a bully. For a painter there is probably no stronger colour; it drowns out all other colours and subtlety around it becomes lost. For this reason, it is generally used in blocks, much as an accent wall is in a room. In the paintings of Gustav Klimt or early icons, a sea of gold is used as contrast to the painted areas. Where gold is used to pick out single details, they are as difficult to ignore as car headlights on a dark night. This is why so few artists use gold in paintings but then I’ve always liked a challenge.
What I wanted to do was paint with gold so that it is incorporated with the other colours; either by quietening the gold or enlivening the other colours. The gilding itself was not a challenge as I had formerly worked as a restorer but the particular problem of applying the gilding to a highly sculpted surface and preparing this to receive paint was outside of my experience. I spent a while consulting my former colleagues, paint manufacturers and conservators and the result was as follows:
First the canvas is protected around the sides. A 3D surface is then created using gesso and this is then heated for several days until thoroughly dry. I paint a picture on this surface and, while it will lack the fine detail, it will be a broad-brush version of the final image. When satisfied with this, the painting is sized and gilded. As the gilding is opaque none of the colour below will show through. For this reason, I am sparing with the gilding; not covering the whole image. I then take the canvas to my framer, Ian, who varnishes it with an archival MSA varnish. This stops the gilding from discolouring and prepares it for the final stages of painting. Once back in the studio, I lay washes over the gilding; sometimes returning it to the colour below, sometimes allowing it to shine through.
What is your background?
I am the eldest child of two artists that met at Borough Poly in the mid 1950’s. My father went on to be a well-known graphic artist, my mother an antique dealer. This meant that I grew up surrounded by art from different cultures and the stream of artists visiting the house ensured that creativity was a continual talking point. Since my father also worked at home, I watched the creative process close-up and some of my earliest memories are of painting on a little table alongside my dad.
What inspires you and what is your creative process?
I often take inspiration from nature but as I no longer sit and sketch, I couldn’t say just how a walk along the shoreline or through an old wood, translates into an abstract image. All I know is that the idea might come to me that day or in the dead of night. Either way, I tend to start work immediately. I avoid doing preparatory drawings or swatches; I find these starve the final piece of vitality. The image I start with is only very rarely the final destination, but having it is vital.
I’ve always likened this to four friends going for a day out. If they have no consensus of direction, the car will stay on the drive as they discuss which way to go. However, if they have already agreed to head towards a destination, they might see other interesting roads on route and end somewhere they could not have predicted. I have found that preparatory work inhibits this process; I become more directional and can only end up at the initial destination.
What is your favourite subject matter and why?
Colour. Everything I do is about colour. I’m always surprised that given the opportunity to paint anything, in whatever colour, so many artists confine themselves to shades of grey.
Who are your biggest influences?
Over the last fifty years I have gone to countless art exhibitions from Frieze Art Fair to watercolours in a church hall. I love every aspect of the art world and I can be as moved by an amateur’s flash of inspiration, as I am by the works of Egon Schiele. But influences? I’d find it hard to come up with anyone specific. I believe J.M.W. Turner to be the greatest British painter, but would I dare to say I was influenced by him? I wouldn’t be so bold.
How have you stayed inspired and energized during the pandemic?
From the work point of view, there was no interruption and the integration of gilding into my canvases has meant that, despite the isolation, I have been excited to start work each day.
What is/are your favourite medium(s)?
I work exclusively in acrylics. When I first started supplying work to galleries, I was using watercolour and gouache and the techniques of those mediums are at the heart of my current work; I build colour in washes rather than mixing on the palette.
How long does it take to complete a piece, and what is the entire process? Do you like working on different pieces at the same time?
With the inclusion of gilding in my pictures, the process is far from straightforward. Once the canvas has been prepared, I use gesso to build up a crackled surface. Over this I paint a rudimentary picture. Size is then added to some, most, or all of the canvas and the gilding is laid over this. Once varnished and fully dried, the painting progresses in bursts, returning to the wall of the studio between times so that I can live with it and see where to go next. At any given time, I might have as many as twenty paintings in various stages of production and this process might take several weeks, months or even years.
Projects & Collaborations
2021 – ‘Gilt Complex’, M1 Fine Art, London, UK (solo)
2019 – ‘Magnetic Colour’, M1 Fine Art, London, UK (solo)