Not something I would normally do willingly, without resistance but then I didn’t really have the choice. Someone had done me a favour and I had offered something in return. The hope was, of course, that there would be a painting or drawing in my collection that would appeal.
I should have known better. After all, he had already told me how minimally he likes to live, and how perfectly ordered he keeps things in his home. I should have anticipated that the kind of work I make, the kind that evolves organically in a messy kind of way, isn’t going to fit well into an environment like that.
‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘actually people have been commenting on how bare my place looks and I’ve decided that I would like to put some art on the walls. This is what I want,’ and he promptly pulled out his phone and showed me images of Mondrian’s grid paintings.
Mustering as much grace as I could, I said, ‘Oh fine! No problem,’ and we went on to discuss which of the primary colours he prefers - red of course, but which red? He looked around the studio and pointed to a bright vermillion red. That didn’t surprise me, somehow, but when he told me that the canvas would need to be at least a metre tall, I felt a moment’s panic. Not the I don’t like painting big, just that I was thinking of all those straight black lines I was going to have to paint, perfectly, onto a very white canvas, where the white is as important as everything else!
I was, after all, talking to a perfectionist. I also know how easily a little slick of paint can find its way to where it isn’t wanted, and how difficult it is to completely cover something up with white paint when 'pristine' and 'precise' are keywords.
There was something else in the back of my mind, too. Doing my own version of one of Mondrian’s grid paintings had once been a task that I’d had to complete on a summer course that I had attended, many aeons ago. It was then that I learnt that, for all their apparent simplicity, these paintings are actually remarkably complex.
It’s all about balance. One has to consider the sizes of the rectangles and squares in relation to one another, as well as in relation to their position on the image plane. Then there is the question of the decisions that one has to make in terms of which colour goes into which size of space, and where it goes in terms of the overall painting, and in relation to the other colours, including the white spaces. Red is always going to dominate. Blues usually recede, but some blues recede more than others.
These were decisions that I needed to make before I got started because there was no room for error. Once a colour had been applied there was going to be little I could do about it without losing the pristine white….!
I was going to have to be a lot more systematic than usual.
It seemed to make sense to do a scaled down mock-up version on paper first. and began by using the golden ratio as my starting point for drawing the lines. It didn’t take long for me to lose the thread of the maths involved with that, so in the end I had to resort to instinct to draw finish the grid out . As this was a small version on paper, a draft, messing up wasn’t too big an issue. I could white out any colour in the wrong place to help get things back in balance, and it didn’t matter if the white wasn’t perfectly white.
When I finally felt satisfied with my mock up I braced myself for the main work. Armed with pencil and ruler I started to map out the grid on the canvas, having converted the measurements for the large version…only something went wrong with my maths (no surprises there) and, once again I ended up having to resort to instinct to complete the grid.
Needless to say the consequence was that, in the end, the final version diverged quite a lot from the mock up, involved several adjustments during the process, even additional grid lines in places to achieve a satisfying composition. All of which meant also juggling the placement of colours, of course.
That was when I cut up my draft painting and used the painted pieces to help me locate the best position for each colour, temporarily holding them in place with masking tape, and constantly rotating the canvas to check that the compositional balance looked right whichever way up it was. (This, by the way, is an invaluable technique whatever kind of work you are doing, and can help identify the thing that is ‘wrong’ with a painting at any stage while you are working on it).
Originally I had intended to leave the blank spaces as bare canvas, then thought better of it. For one thing, the white would look whiter when it was painted, and the texture would be more consistent with the painted sections. Also, painted, the canvas would be better protected from dust that would otherwise gather in the weave of the unpainted cloth. Then, just to add extra protection, I sprayed the whole thing with a quality acrylic varnish.
The extent of my relief at finishing the work was only exceeded when its new owner expressed effusive pleasure when I delivered it to him. I have to say, making more geometric work will not be a regular part of my repertoire, but I have to admit to a sense of satisfaction at having successfully broken out of my comfort zone and accomplished something unexpected. and I am sure that something learnt from the whole process will stand me in good stead, somehow!
Few people know that Mondrian drew his original inspiration for the grid paintings from trees, The abstractions came later, after he had encountered Cubism in Paris.