Loading... Please wait...

Thoughts on art - 2017

Perceiving reality

There is no single correct interpretation of what goes on in our lives. We all make sense of the input of life for ourselves. The more we sense, the more we refine our outlooks but all we ever have is our perception.

What is the reality behind our perception? What is absolute? Is anything absolute? The idea of spirituality may for many people provide answers to these questions but I suggest that art seeking to illuminate this reality is also worthy of consideration. Good abstract art displays aspects of reality cbehind the commonly perceived illusion of existence - behind the taken-for-granted landscape of our world - in order to help us, as observers, to reshape our visual experience. Good abstract art is certainly worth a second look.

The response of observers to abstract art is frequently, "I don't get it - what a load of…!" Why is it that a person might not want to try to "get it"? What has made them so perceptively myopic? How has their perception become so ingrained that they do not wish to discover a broader or richer outlook; to travel deeper into themselves; to step into new worlds? People are intriguing. Perhaps they just have not found the right abstract art. Perhaps they have been confronted by only market-place art, pretentious and dead art that is all about making money or finding fame. The sad truth is that many people are simply too busy or too comfortable in their lives to take on the challenge of discovery. Their daily preoccupation or their pursuit of comfort is restricting their development and that itself is a human tragedy.

Cutting through the surface

There is more to life than the bombarding minutiae of information buzzing and firing through my mind. This superficial and seemingly unavoidable white noise of modern life has capacity to stress me out, depress me or, worse, brainwash my mind. I know there is more to life than what I initially see or feel so I cut through the apparent present and step through to a world beyond the boundaries of logic and understanding. I venture to a place devoid of the plague of mass media, a place without preconceptions or directions. I arrive at a time-stalled point of opportunity to see truly for myself:

-          to see a stretch of landscape with its rhythms of hills and counter rhythms of footpaths and streams.

-          to watch a fading light repaint a scene with every slow blink.

-          to glimpse and hold a fleeting moment or to amass the coatings of experience.

-          and in terms of art, to peruse great pictures with an open-mindedness and visual alertness - to appreciate the layers of messages in the works.

When I draw and paint, it is like I am cutting through the surface of the present then step through the cut. I trust that I will find solid ground on which to stand. If the ground is not solid then I am not ready to create and I have to step back. When the ground is solid then it is the land and not my mind that spews and channels the hot lava of the creative process. The surreal sense of sure-footedness brings the bravado to use my learned artistic skills to capture the experience of this finite life crammed with incomplete meanings. Art is a process of meaning-making. Art is a place I go to process a complex and confusing world. Art is my refuge and the metaphorical cut is the entrance.


Creating an illusion of a three-dimensional object or scene on a two-dimensional surface requires a degree of skill. It is one of the early challenges set for developing artists. It is sad that many creators of art stop there. These artists may enhance over time the accuracy of their representations through honing their level of draughtsmanship but if they have an eye only for the literal then they have stunted the growth of their vision. They may establish a personal style of application of their favoured media but, without vision, they are failing to step out of their limited perspectives in order to look again beyond the surface - to search for underlying truths. These artists are not maturing. They are not finding their personal artistic voices. Their art fails to sing out and what emerges has no emergency; what mediates between artist and subject (the work of art itself) has no immediacy. Their work carries an intervening medium that dilutes the potency of their art - this medium is the artist's own blinkered perception - and it is avoidable.

Grow your vision. Find your voice. Arrive at immediacy.

Creating visual metaphors

Paintings and drawings that bear little resemblance to the physical world will impact only those observers who are sensitive to the visual message and only if the message is displayed as a rich visual metaphor for what the artist deems the true, deep, fundamental reality to be. For example, this reality could be the character of the sitter in the portrait, the ambience of the scene in a landscape or the sensation of the emotion. The richest visual metaphors arise in the artist from the act of letting go. The logical mind is tied to the same superficial reality that the artist is trying to get past so this mind must be left in its comfy old armchair in its neat and structured home. To conceive the ideal visual shorthand there is little point in the sweat and struggle of thought. This shorthand will not be found in the logical mind.

My advice is to cut through and step through the surface of what you experience. There you will find the visual metaphors you require for the equivalence you seek. These metaphors form a visual landscape of their own 'over there' and resonate when brought into art 'over here'. They derive from your own deep subconscious well of penetrating experiences and indelible memories. They flow from the swirling weather in this internal well. They possess an umbilical relationship to nature and are always fresh and authentic.

For some art, this visual equivalence transforms into recognisable lines, shapes and forms when brought 'over here'. The creator's mind re-configures and re-interprets the metaphor to 'make sense' and satisfy his own logic. Other artists detach entirely the tidy mind and trust the metaphor no matter how distorted or fragmented it has become from the original experience. There is no right or wrong metaphor. From 'over there' to 'over here', images are distilled through the filter of the artist's background and experiences, his education, his friends and family, his nationality, his race and religion, his politics, his hopes and relationships, the cultures that permeate him and through his own deep-seated fears. His DNA is in every line, stroke and pattern and it is the execution of this detail that is the transcendent jewel of his art. The artist must trust himself and be true to himself. He must work constantly to see and feel for himself beyond superficial reality. This is the dogged effort required of the artist. He is not trying to create nice art - as Marcel Duchamp said, "Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided."

Appreciating history

The dynamic process of raising painting from physical representation is well into its second century. Abstraction evolved and grew through artists attempting to see in a deeper way than ever before. They deconstructed the three-dimensionality of life to try to reach an incisive reality. Space was flattened. Shape now possessed penetrating meaning. Even line and point became powerful means of expression in the visions of reality of these artists.

The evolution of applying paint on canvas arguably reached a climax with Jackson Pollock's 'drip' paintings of the 1940s and 1950s. However, media itself evolves and allows new methods of displaying the artist's reality. The power of digital has barely had its surface scratched and one day the electric impulses of the mind may themselves be a sole medium for registering the world onto a tangible surface without the need for motor skills such as holding a brush or a pen. In the meantime, while mankind is still in the habit of physically gripping an implement to make marks, drawing and painting live on. Our times will be pictured by our artists - in whatever forms our times allow.

Today is tomorrow's history. Man's task is to build upon the provocative work of the visionary artists of the past. We are tasked with overlaying the present with history then solving the problems of the gaps. I do not believe we should be overawed by the visionary status of these men and women. They were just like us, struggling to find their voice, before they discovered their own personal and essential reality. Their message to us is to take our place in the succession of genuine artists and to use our hard-earned skills, along with our determination to see, in order to create a visual reference of the deepest truths of today. This reference will be tomorrow's art history. Our art will outlive us. Man will progress.

Considering music

How have the great composers of music captured their essential reality? When I consider the classical works which inspire me most, they are all harmonious compositions that use rhythmic phrases, movements and counter movements, subtlety of variation and an organic, instinctive flow to bring the world of the composers to my ears:

Tchaikovsky - 1812 overture

Debussy - Clair de Lune

Beethoven - Piano sonata no.8 in C minor, Op.13 - Pathetique - 1st movement - grave (allegro di molto e con brio)

Chopin - Concerto for piano & orchestra no.1 in E minor, Op.11 - romance: larghetto

R Strauss - Sunrise (opening) from Also Sprach Zarathustra

Rachmaninov - Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3 no.2

Beethoven - Piano sonata no.21 in C major, Op.53 - Waldenstein' - allegro con brio

Chopin - Concerto for piano & orchestra no.1 in E minor, Op.11 - allegro maestoso

Rachmaninov - Piano concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18

Mendelssohn - Hebrides overture

Tchaikovsky - Piano concerto no.1 in B flat minor, Op.23

Beethoven - Symphony no.5 in C minor, Op.67

Chopin - Polonaise no.6 in A flat major, Op.53 - Heroic

Chopin - Waltz no.7 in C sharp minor, Op.64 no.2

Ravel - Bolero for orchestra

Rachmaninov - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 - 18th variation

Beethoven - Piano sonata no.14 in C sharp minor - 'Moonlight' - presto agitato

Mozart - Piano concerto no.21 in C major, K467, 'Elvira Madigan' 1st movement - allegro maestoso

Dvorák - Largo, from The New World symphony

When I engage with the sublime jazz compositions of the 1950s and 1960s, I am transported to this era of freedom, intricate rhythm and emotional depth. For example:

September 19, 1955 - Erroll Garner - Concert by the sea - Mambo Carmel

April 6, 1956 - Art Blakey - The Jazz Messengers - Infra-Rae

July 18, 1957 - Charlie Mingus - Tijuana Moods - Los Mariachis

March 2, 1959 - Miles Davis - Kind of Blue - Blue in Green

June 25, 1959 - The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out - Three To Get Ready

July 6, 1961 - Duke Ellington & Count Basie - The Count Meets The Duke - Corner Pocket

January 5, 1962 - Chet Baker - Chet Is Back! - Well, You Needn't

August 13, 1962 - Paul Desmond & Gerry Mulligan - Two of a Mind - Out of Nowhere

October 31, 1962 - The Thelonius Monk Quartet - Monk's Dream - Blue Bolivar Blues

July 11, 1963 - Martial Solal - At Newport '63 - Poinciana

August 27, 1963 - Benny Goodman - Together Again! - Four Once More

February 9, 1966 - George Benson - It's Uptown - Clockwise

Art of substantial resonance will often follow the same format as music, employing balance and harmony, repetition and variance, movement and counter movement, control and surprise.

Popular music and popular art will always find a snug place to snooze, utterly content, in a world where comfort is a goal. Comfort, however, will never nourish the visionary artist. His calling is to find and chew on the little-acknowledged truths that lie sub-surface. His mission is to recognise and drink from the elusive flows of revelation before they slip past lost. He must see - really see - as composers of music hear - really hear.


Switch off your logical mind in the presence of painting raised from the ordinary - it will not help you to engage. Be open to a voyage of new-world discovery and be prepared for this discovery to be internal as well as external, to be of you as well as of the artist or of the painting or of the stimulus for the work.

The act of walking into a room, gallery or museum filled with extraordinary works of art flicks that switch off unconsciously in my mind. The act of 'walking in' is itself a release from the stresses of the superficial day - a day where the brain has churned to make sense of experience and to make the best decisions.

'Walking in' to the wonders of the natural world carries this same sense of release. The mind does not whirr in effort to comprehend the glories of nature. The mind slows down the wheels and cogs, the electric flashes and connections of meaning, and is at the best of times suspended blissfully, at one with its surroundings.

Some works of art may make no sense at all initially but if they captivate you then that switch is already being turned off. You are heading into a state of discovery where the voyage illuminates a new world of art in front of your eyes and shines a light on an old world of self behind - a world of inescapably incomplete meanings.

Selecting colour

Colour is light. Colour is literally the light of the world. The emotional impact of colour, whether in atmospheric washes or in shallow-relief pigment-sculpture, is personal to the observer and dramatic. The artist must offer the observer his best attempt at describing the experience that moved him. Colour has to be right. The lightness and darkness of tone have to be well selected. The intensity of colour must match precisely the power of the experience - the surge of the fleeting second (if that is the experience driving you) or the saturation of the slow-soaked hours (if the experience is amassed). Those rich visual metaphors that reveal themselves 'over there' in the landscaped language are alive with colour, tone and intensity. 'Over here', the accurate placement across the surface of the canvas is colour's crowning moment. Placement brings lift, carrying a heightened sense of light to coloured dots, lines, shapes and forms. The red and the green sizzle when adjoining; the yellow-orange and blue-violet shimmer. Colour on the canvas will point, direct and lead in a sophisticated dance with its three friends line, shape and form, to bring the observer the truest suggestion for the exhilarating experience - the experience that, it could be argued, commissioned the painting from the artist in the first place.


My experience is not your experience. A static dot manifests a different association to me than it does to you. It calls attention to itself for both of us but the connections that fire within us are dissimilar. The complex visual vocabulary of line with its active paths, its black-white life-death interruptions, its masculine geometry and organic feminine curves reconnect you and me to different landscapes and distinct souvenirs of memory. Figures and forms, textures and scraped and spattered events all bear the forces of tension and counter tension, of weight and counter weight. They ignite the family of senses in layers as does the unfolding of nature itself but, in our lives, you have your personal experience of nature and I have mine.

So, what value is my work to you? It is not that you will understand more about nature or ascertain why those particular aspects of nature inspired me. The value of my work lies in: how inspired you are by nature as a result of pausing, thinking and engaging with my work; how ready you feel to scythe away the thorny undergrowth that carpets the path to your own well of experience and memory; how open you have become to the voyage of holistic discovery, to make more of yourself; how defined your sense of belonging is now within the expanding universe of you; and how far you have been set dreaming of all that is fluid and intangible.

Valuing unpretentious art

There are vast golden mountain ranges of extraordinary art stretched between us and the horizon. Many millions of unknown artists produce work of deep and powerful art with which barely a few observers will fully engage. There are also many billions of examples of market-centred art out there that have no life force behind their creation and no resonance for observers. Making money is the object in these pieces. The raising of painting is a speck of cold dust hidden from the light under the fluorescent rock of the pound sign.

We become aware of the talents of many great creators over years of immersion in their art. You have to 'live with it' (their art) as Grayson Perry suggested in his 2013 Reith Lectures. We peel back the layers of their images as we grow and expand our own outlooks. The person behind the creation and the inspiration for their work reveal themselves as two hand-in-hand figures emerging, slow as the drying of oil paint, from the mist.

In contemporary art, time is not our companion. We must decide from the skin of the work if a contemporary artist is true to art or true to money or fame - if he or she is creating art that is unpretentious or pretentious. The aspect to look for is a pulse under the skin - evidence of life - a heat that warms our senses - a presence that lingers as we walk away. Pretentious art is inanimate, cool and hardly in the room at all. Unpretentious art breathes, speaks and burns into our consciousness.

All unpretentious art is valuable. Children's simple depictions of their lives are informative and significant. Adults' honest pictures of their reality are absorbing and revelatory, regardless of the artistic skills and honed techniques displayed by their creators. Where draughtsmanship and craft are combined with artistic vision, a special artist is found - and he or she may change our lives.

Flowing out

I haul the landscape with me. It's in my carry-on. A heavy English bag sewn together by Elgar, cricket and cups of tea, with Scottish handles for me to grip the Paisley Hills, Dad and my Scottish ancestry. A bottomless bag teeming with the scenes of travel. I pack it over here and it rearranges its own contents over there. Facing a blank canvas, the bag pours a painting out. Art escapes in waves of visual equations. The painting caught on the canvas is mathematical, musical, visual and emotional. It's a reconciliation of forces into a coherent geometrical entity. The last drop drips onto a surface poised with equilibrium - and the work is complete.

Art flows from me and maybe from you too. Remember, even the cavemen set aside time to make art. We have a deep primitive urge to create.


Pictures that are so personal they will be the only things I truly know how to create and only I can create them - that is the destination - but to an artist the destination is never a masterpiece. It is the journey that is the masterpiece. Each day of the journey is precious. Each day of the journey is a day lived. Each day of admiring the destination is a day lost.

Today is a new day and it is a day for a new journey. I undertake to make it a masterpiece. Join me on the journey. Bring a brush or a pen. Leave behind the fears that hold you back. There is nothing to fear in art. Come along and forget yourself. Art exists for you. Art exists in you. There is no such thing as time, only the present, so join me now.

If you prefer, then you may rip my art apart. You may wipe me out as insignificant. 'He can't be bothered to paint properly,' you might say. 'He's off in his own little world and his art is of no consequence to me.' From the tiniest part of self you leave me, the very root of my being, I will grow. I will survive regardless of your attacks. I may flourish because of your attacks; they will add iron to my spine. The art I make needs to be made. That's it.

We may all create and improve the world in a small way. In this sense we are all artists, all musicians, all poets, all kings. We need only to lift the latch on ourselves, only to discover the creative gem existing already within us. Lifting the latch is an art in itself not an intellectual performance. Acceptance of our inner jewel follows the release of the grip of the ego that pulls down with all its terrible might on the latch. And what releases the grip? Why, that is humility, of course, the greatest artist of them all.


About GalleryArt61

GalleryArt61 is designed to be a watering-hole for all people in their search of authentic contemporary 'abstract expressionist' art (see tab above for my view of what this art movement means). For people wanting to see it; for people wanting to create it; for people wanting to purchase it. The prices reflect what I believe the pieces to be worth; I am not looking for a quick sale. I am not particularly looking for a sale at all. The pieces are genuine and authenticity always carries a high currency.

The pieces in the collection 'live' somewhere between you and me in the way that poems "exist somewhere between the writer and the reader" (T.S. Eliot). Working out the pictures is a journey and never perhaps a fully understood destination. The works are authentic and complex (just like people's truest selves) and are painted or drawn in a dense yet, I hope, balanced visual language.

What are the meanings of the works?

That is for you to explore. Many of the pieces reflect the journey of sport, a journey in which I have found myself deeply immersed by virtue of my career. Many of the works of art respond to life's fundamental challenges such as grief, death, love, suffering, freedom and so on.

"I hate to be tied down to say this means that, because the thought within the image is much more than any one interpretation." 
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Any good work of art is far more complex than one can ever adequately write about or talk about.

Painting is the fullest expression of the profundity of life. It rises above the ordinary. Reason is left behind.  


Artist: Richard McIlwraith

Home: Worcestershire, England

King Edward's School, Birmingham 1981 - 1988
St Luke’s College, University of Exeter 1988 - 1992

Employment outside of art:
Teacher of Physical Education: Furtherwick Park School, Essex 1993 - 2001
Director of PE, Sport & Community: Smith's Wood Sports College, Birmingham 2001 - 2017

Extensive travel throughout Europe and North America