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Auto-biographical Fragment

I was born in Birkenhead; a shipbuilding town in the North West of England on the banks of the river Mersey, close to the stark, melancholic landscapes of North Wales. I trained as a painter and art historian in Liverpool and Manchester, and now live in Leeds. In 2018 I completed a practice-led PhD in Painting at the Royal College of Art, re-considering medium specificity within a contemporary frame. This involved reflecting on the nature of pictures, temporality and surface in respect of both the object and the activity of painting.

Though as a boy I enjoyed drawing, I enjoyed filling-in more. I was exposed to art early, through library books and visits to local galleries. Victorian paintings and reproductions of works by Brueghel, Bosch, Constable, Turner and Monet affected me a great deal, as did works by the Dutch still life painters and the flowers of Fantin Latour. As a teenager I immersed myself in the paintings of Friedrich, Van Gogh, Picasso, Utrillo, De Stael and Bacon, the first artist whose death I noted. 

I recall the smell of old books and the excitement of turning cracking, yellowed pages. Painted pictures became a way to imaginatively dwell. Music, play, stories, films and poetry fuelled this, though life’s tendency to ground flights of fancy at inopportune moments hurt me intermittently. Daydreaming was a practice noted in school reports, though I knew from events what painting-time was and what it was not; of what it could cloak and what it left exposed.

Making places to inhabit developed into a preoccupation. At a point in my mid-teens I became aware that paintings could capture and reflect what I felt. From this time onwards I hoped only to preserve thoughts and feelings in painterly form, making them accessible to others. That others might have no interest at all in my thoughts or feelings didn’t cross my mind. When eventually it did, I believed simply that they should. Now, I’d like to suggest only that they perhaps could. I remain interested in the shared possibilities of painting, and in communication and language.

The paintings that got me into university were a series of large-scale acrylic works on paper, of local industrial buildings, particularly gasometers and cooling towers. I’d become interested in encaustic processes, textures, surfaces, tonality and relationships between colours in close harmony.

At university I went backwards, resting too comfortably on familiar motifs as I re-trod past modes of making and expression, leaning this way and that towards or away from artists whose work I admired or resisted. I wrote about Hopper, Picasso, Minimalism and abstraction, thought about Raphael, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, and pushed paint about with a knife. Abstract Expressionism seemed important too. 

After a year or more of close harmony painting with a blade I stopped, scaled things up, reintroduced the brush and the gesture and forged ahead in an attempt to resist the pull of the real, by which I meant the objectively observed. I was a serious student, and what I felt about the world – how it appeared to me – seemed more important than what it might in itself be. Much later I read Heidegger and understood the meaning of Lichtung (clearing) and the possibilities of disclosure in respect of the activity and the object of painting.

On graduating I was offered a position as a Research Fellow in drawing and painting, where, in terms of my work, three things occurred. First, I stopped painting in acrylic and took up oils full-time. Secondly, I shrank back the scale, working on boards instead of canvases. Thirdly, I reintroduced a single vantage—a space with horizon, ground and sky. 

Fracture and dislocation, until then important to my practice, seemed now to be forms of dilution or ways around painterly problems. I’d learned this in part from my friend, the painter Daniel Pulman. The essence of Romanticism, as I saw it, positioned the subject singularly and foregrounded the lasting, loaded moment. I moved from a belief in expression per se to seeing my work as an attempt to reveal that which lies behind the appearance of things. At the same time I became acutely aware of a painting’s unusual form of immobility and of the necessity to take one’s own time to it. 

I’m comfortable calling myself a landscape painter with a concern for abstraction, and I mobilise a range of motifs. My concern is mood, or what I think of now as (configured) place—terms bound inextricably together. Yet place has since evolved into two places:

1. The site or object of painting
2. The imagined immersion into that which constitutes an image 

I draw from memory, allowing the image both lead and follow the processes of painting. Deliberate and involuntary memories come into play, and I rarely look beyond the paint when painting. Images come, go and transform—layers of paint obscuring and revealing what has been. I am a responder, surveying the composition, adjusting colours and tones, exaggerating and understating until I arrive at something that in its arriving gives me an impression of having determined itself. Only then is it free of me. Only then am I free to move on.

I consider the support and its role within the work. To me the object of painting is something more than a mere carrier of an image. The support becomes animated by its covering and in tandem with it constitutes the entirety the work. It is the painted object that rests most firmly within the studio setting. 

Philip Guston declared that ‘we are image-makers and image-ridden’. Yet in painting, the means by which an image takes shape, the material out of which it is fashioned, and the discrete form of its fashioning are bound to the language of representation. The image is never free of the paint out of which it is constructed, nor the paint unburdened by its inclination to conjure an image. 

I used to liken paintings to the world, but now I liken the world to paintings. Paintings still move me more singularly than other things.

Tom Palin, 2019


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