As part of my art reading spree, last week I read the new book about David Mankin, Remembering in paint (author: Kate Reeve-Edwards). Mankin, a Cornish painter, focuses his work on the landscape in which he lives and works. The book delves into Mankin’s process. I love studying artists' process, partly because I used to be very output-oriented in a former life, and the real meaning and importance of process in artmaking has been a more recent eye opener. The book is written in beautiful language (I like that) and contains wonderful quotes by the artist, as well as a large set of high quality photographs of his work. I find it a delightful book from which there is much to learn (see below).
I recently did an abstract landscape course with Lewis Noble, whose process shows resemblance to Mankin's in that he goes out to spend time in the landscape to really experience it and sketch and photographs it, whereby he zooms in on smaller elements in the landscape as one way of capturing the essence of it; after which he makes works on paper and collage works in the studio using his photos, before going on to canvas. I wish I had read Mankin's book beforehand!
Mankin explains that he creates abstract art because ‘I want to translate not just what I see but what I feel about what I see. This is abstraction: how you express the feeling about what you physically experience.’ And further: ‘....abstraction ....allows you to explore and express your feelings, giving you the opportunity to shape something out of nothing.’
For Mankin painting is all about the process. His process comprises a number of stages: sketching, working on paper, collage, and working on canvas. This is not to say that he works in a linear fashion: he goes back and forth, jumping between and within the process stages to different works (he typically works on about 12 pieces simultaneously). His daily walks along the coast form the basis of his work: he observes, sketches, takes photographs, and combs the beaches. Back in the studio he uses all this material to continue sketching and, later, painting. Poetry is another input into his process, as is the work of other artists, whose processes he studies.
Mankin starts to abstract his landscapes right from the sketching stage. He uses the small things in the landscape (a pebble, a bird’s wing), focusing on line and shape, to describe the big motifs (sea, sky) which are difficult to catch. He blows up these small elements, and makes them the focus of his images, using them to describe the feeling of the landscape. With what he calls his ‘glimpsing muscle’ he seeks out and uses glanced moments with small ‘events’ viewed at the corner of his eye, which together create the experience of the landscape. He crops the landscape, using the small elements to convey the feeling of the big picture, using the specific to describe the general.
The next stage, that of working on paper, is one of much experimentation, trying out bold moves which then can be applied later to the canvas. During the last phase, where elements of the works on paper and collage, notably composition, are transferred to canvas, Mankin lets his feelings within the landscape, the big elements, reign free, making marks with great energy, thus instilling movement in the painting. He then takes his distance from the painting, slowing down to find out what the painting is trying to say, reflecting, allowing the painting to mature. This period of non-doing, without which the painting would not get the depth Mankin seeks, is as important to his process as the period of action.
Another feature of Mankin’s work consists of the multiple perspectives he applies in his paintings, offering the big and the small, which gives a more honest portrayal of how the landscape is experienced than a linear perspective. One could say there is some realism in his work, which is a true depiction of reality as perceived by him. Mankin’s big lesson is the focus, throughout his practice, on looking – to look harder, to explore, to experiment.
Finally, also noteworthy is that his image collection is not just about photography, but also provides the opportunity to feel the landscape through and through. The photos and collected materials help him to initially be entirely intuitive and physical with the paintings, giving them a similar energy as that of the landscape that he draws from. ‘You have to let your mind wander and absorb what is around you. You want to allow the big elements.....to soak in and wash over you more peripherally, instead, focusing on the lines and forms and textures that make up the landscape. You’re taking the feeling of the landscape, and then filtering it.’ By collecting the various qualities out in the landscape and translating them into paint, he is remembering.