Lisa Milroy

Painting Fast Painting Slow

Lisa Milroy interviewed by Lewis Biggs, edited with permission from Painting Fast Painting Slow, Alan Cristea Gallery, London for Shouting From A Rock, Pharos Centre for Contemporary Art, 2011 

Lewis Biggs You have often spoken about painting fast and slow. I think of fast painting as relating more to mental activity, with slow painting anchored more in the sensual, material world. What does painting fast or slow mean to you in the development of your work?

Lisa Milroy Let’s talk about fast painting first. During the 1980’s, I painted most of my still life paintings in a single day. I had to work while the entire surface of the painting was wet in a bid to keep thought and action bound as one thing. If I stopped for any length of time, I lost the connection between the two and the painting fell apart.

LB That sounds like a kind of performance, almost like American ‘action painting’, but what was the impulse for that performance? Was the approach to the painting determined by an idea?

LM To begin a painting, I organised the image of an object in my head and held it there for as long as I could before starting work, mentally visualizing various compositions, playing with different depiction possibilities, getting a feel for the painting as a whole. Then it was rather like riding a bike – the knowledge of what to do and how to do it somehow spread from my mind to the rest of my body and I could abandon myself to going with the flow. Painting a skirt for example, the pleasure I had in forming a mental image of the fabric with its marvelous play of blue and white stripes corresponded directly to the enjoyment I had of sweeping a brush loaded with paint up and down the canvas. In making such a painting, I was thrilled to see an image spring up from nothing and to recognize in it something I knew but had never seen before in that particular guise.

So yes, the painting started off as an idea but always in tandem with how it could be embodied in paint.

LB Can you try to describe how the initial enjoyment of the object and your reaction to it became translated into the act of painting? Is there some kind of equivalence there?

LM The objects I chose to paint were usually beautiful or visually attractive, and I wanted to celebrate that quality in paint. Such objects also stirred up my emotions - like souvenirs, they both triggered a sense of connection and of loss. The celebratory aspect of the visual in combination with this twofold emotional component churned up in me an intense feeling of being alive, of ‘aliveness’, which then filled me with the urge to capture it or mirror it in paint. While painting one such object, I’d concentrate on trying not to think of anything other than pure description and the enjoyment of painting, or else the marks I made became too self-conscious. Whenever that happened, my bond with the act of painting and the painting itself were ruined. LB There is evidently a transitional period in your work of 5 years or so, at the end of the 80’s and start of the 90’s, when the flow of ‘object paintings’ stopped. You then experimented with abstract paintings, and also started to make paintings derived from photographs. What happened to change your approach?

LM By the end of the 80’s, I was working within a set of ‘painting rules’. Perhaps this was fed by the notion of ‘finding freedom in limits’. I used only eight colours from which I mixed all others, and only painted with hardware brushes. My canvases more or less were two basic sizes, 80” x 108” or 80” x 112”. The shadows of the objects I painted always fell to the right. And as I’ve discussed, each painting took a day to complete. But towards the end of the 1980’s, I grew curious about other kinds of painting experiences. I wondered what it would be like to spend a week, a month, half a year on a painting, to paint on top of dried paint. I wondered whether I could change my mind half way through a painting about what I wanted from it, make mistakes, find other solutions and still come up with a painting that didn’t burden the viewer with my effort. Take my time and in so doing, not be overcome by doubt. My ‘painting rules’, once so liberating had begun to oppress me and they needed changing. I also began to think about the scenes I’d painted within paintings of postage stamps, Japanese prints or Greek vases, and longed to paint pictures of the world unmediated by an object. After painting objects in empty spaces for so many years, I wanted to return them to their place in the world and paint them in the context where they belonged. To achieve this, I started to think of places themselves as objects, or in an object-like manner. While traveling, I took photographs of those places that struck me in the same way that objects had in the 1980’s, making me want to paint them. During the 1990’s, I often used these photographs as the basis for my paintings. LB You mention Japanese prints, and these clearly gave you a wonderful motif for some ‘object paintings’ in the 80’s, playing with degrees of flatness, artificiality and exoticism, and you continued to make use of ‘Japanese’ imagery in ‘slow painting’ too. Can you explain the attraction?

LM Not entirely - but not being able to explain it is probably at the heart of the attraction! Japan is the most visually engaging place I’ve ever been to, and the most foreign. Perhaps it’s this combination – the utter pleasure of being drawn in through what I see, the wonder of it, and the alienation of being shut out through not understanding certain aspects of the culture, language or social customs – that makes it so compelling. This echoes the emotional push/pull of an object that I’ve already mentioned, in evoking a sense of both loss and connection. 

LB How did you get started on making slow paintings, and why?

LM In August 1994, I was invited to use a studio at the British School at Rome. August in Rome - it was simply too hot to move very fast. In London, I’d treated slowing down as a conceptual problem but in Rome, this extreme heat physically reduced me to a slower pace. Slowing down had little to do with an inner mental state. In my studio, slowed by the heat, I found myself constructing scenes of Rome instead of whipping them up in a flurry. A line in a painting, for example, grew out of the seam between two different coloured areas of paint rather than from a gesture made with flick of my wrist. Moving at this slower pace, I was shocked to find myself taking three days to complete a painting! My heat-driven discoveries in Rome paved the way for a decade of painting slowly.

LB How would you describe the mood or moods of your ‘slow paintings’?

LM Some of my slow paintings do have a closed atmosphere, or suggest alienation. Some people have described them as melancholic. In the process of slowing down painting, I became aware of the emotional component of loss in my work, and of my need to acknowledge it. The attendant pain was no longer containable by speed. But in such paintings, I did not want to swamp the viewer with actual sadness or anything of my own personal pain through the mood. I dislike paintings in which feeling has not been wholly transformed by art so that it’s that rather than art that excites the viewer. The mood of my slow paintings is perhaps the result of the imagination aestheticizing feelings of pain to create a visual filter that stops those feelings from becoming too ‘real’ in the painting. I actually prefer it when my paintings have less mood and more presence, as I think it’s better art. LB In the late 90’s, another significant shift occurred. Your paintings suddenly seem to embrace the human figure, and appear to express a wider range and more complex set of emotions. Was this development something you consciously sought?

LM In the mid-1990’s, having only so far painted objects, buildings and landscapes, I began to wonder how I might paint a person. I developed my approach to painting people through my on-going fascination with still life painting, by treating a person simply as a surface to describe, no different from painting a vase or building facade. By turning the person into an object, I could then apply my strategy of slow painting and was thus able to take on board portraiture and add people to my range of motifs. But as you point out, by the end of the 1990’s there was another sizable shift. My curiosity about the people I painted finally got the better of me, and I no longer wanted to paint people in such an alienated fashion, simply as surfaces. I wanted to register presence more than absence. This emotional shift also coincided with the desire to experiment again with other ways of making paintings. After almost a decade, I had at last satisfied my desire for slow painting. So, in considering how to paint the presence of a person, I turned to story-telling and personal histories, and began with myself as the subject for a painting. My first painting along these lines was an account of how I spent a day in my studio. The most straightforward way to accommodate so much information was to paint it quickly and sketchily, so once again I was back to painting fast.

LB Could you elaborate on how you perceive the relationship between loss and pleasure?

LM In the early 80’s, the paintings I made of single objects grew into groups of objects first arranged in a line, then in a grid and finally in a scatter. The larger scale and complex composition provided a greater challenge, and at the same time answered the problem I had of no longer being able to sum up an object in a single go. Picturing an object in my mind revealed different aspects of it with each second – so I was able to pursue a more complete description of an object by repeating it across the canvas. Moreover painting an object over and over again both confirmed my connection to it and my anxiety at its loss. No sooner would I finish painting such an object than it would desert my mind. But I’d immediately be able to resurrect it, and my own history of just having painted it, and distract myself from the pain of all such loss by quickly painting the object all over again. Repetition, like speed, became another means for me to regulate feeling, shutting it out or letting it in. The pleasure I took in painting made bearable the need to artistically explore and express something of this darker emotional side.

These days, I’m preoccupied with how to combine fast and slow painting. The pleasure of linking a mental image with the right material form remains undiminished, but it’s no longer shaped by just one mode of painting. It’s a relief to be able to match better the nuances of mood or state of mind I may feel or be interested in with options from a wider range of working methods. The painting starts more directly with me, rather than because of something external – I don’t seem to need the object or scene so much as I did in the 1980’s to trigger the desire to paint. This desire starts much more with paint and painting itself.