The Life Room

I’ve always loved J.B. Priestley's essays, in particular on the role of the artist, he comments on the avant-garde and its need to show off, adding that his own preference was for modesty and delicacy with smallness of scale. Nowadays, the conceptual art wing of the avant-garde in­creasingly looks like a side show of the entertainment industry. The shift in taste has resulted in a lack of faith in some traditional courses by the art colleges and universities, causing all but a few to abandon them. The life class has almost disappeared, leaving the initiative to a few private concerns that are determined to take up the banner.

My role as Dean Clough's Painter In Residence enables me to hold a weekly session in the life room. My firm belief is that the life class still remains a vital discipline for many, for some it becomes addictive, even a ritual, where prolonged observation through training the eye, becomes paramount. It is a tiring practice, sometimes exhausting if held over a protracted period where concentration is at a premium and strict silence is observed. The models them­selves fascinate me. From the time when they held little esteem, occupying what was once considered a belittling role, they no enjoy a healthy respect from the artists.

Sue is an athletic yoga expert, published poet and novelist. Her novel is about life as an art­ist’s model. Nikita enjoys bringing her world of burlesque into class, wearing only laddered stockings. Erica, who was my pub manager, tours the nightclubs of Manchester at weekends; on Monday she will slowly sink to the floor during her pose. Katrina could yawn for England - her mouth seems to embrace the room. Virginia is like a beach ball on sticks with absolutely no contours to draw - she provides quite a challenge. Siobhan has all the contours, being skin and bone. Their shapes and lives in the life room is all I need for making paintings.

Concentrating on the life model - as I now do - has meant coming full circle from my early studies as a 16 year-old student at Bradford College of Art in the late 1950s. I left Bradford for London and the Royal College of Art, where I became interested in painterly abstraction (and assorted offshoots) that kept me busy for some considerable time.

My conversion back to ‘Life’ coincided with a move back to my roots in the north. In particular it was the light and atmospheres of the northern landscape that left me with a sense of not knowing how to proceed. I turned to my original training in the life room, sensing that the figure could take on some characteristics of the landscape. There was the way that the light falls over the surface to reveal subtleties of form: the nooks and crannies, the bumps and hollows, the contours that dissolved into atmospheric spaces, and much besides.
Painting like this brought back memories of that first life room. I recalled the claustrophobic effect of the constant heat from the one bar fires, the pungent aroma of oil and turps. Above all I recalled the silent dedication of students engaged in an absorbing ritual.

In the 1950s we were trained to paint, and the life room was the symbolic heart of our aspiration to become painters. It was clear that to become an artist would take a long time - and much of that time would be spent in painting from the life’. Some 50 years later, I find that this is still the case. Each painting is a new proposition I he risk of failure is high. The problem of resolving such a subtle form is always the same challenge, yet different enough to seem uniquely fresh each time.

I like to be surprised by the end results. Sometimes it is like looking at someone else’s painting - particularly if the study has been a race against lime. Maybe it is just sheer inconsistency. Or perhaps I am right to believe that there are many ways of looking at a given subject. Certainly, I want to explore as many ways as possible. As the curator at Dean Clough in Halifax, I am lucky to have a studio that is more or less attached to the galleries. I work on about 20 paintings at any one time. I might spend, say, an hour on one - then move onto another, perhaps for an extended period. It all depends on how well, or badly, the painting is going.

At present the nude figure is all that interests me as a subject for painting. Its long history is always fascinating. The mythical, sexual and psychological aspects are always present. But for me, it is the universal yet ordinary experience that I am interested in - the commonplace.