Artist’s Statement

My father came of a family of artists from several generations, and both my parents were good judges of art. The house I lived in as a child was hung with pictures by Sickert and various French painters. Somehow I must have understood, unconsciously, that all these good paintings were composed of arrangements of shapes. And by the time I went to the Slade I already knew that I wanted to paint compositions.

Although I started doing this as soon as I got there, my reason for going was the belief that it was possible to learn to draw. And I am glad I went before the tradition of teaching drawing, that had been handed down through the centuries was finally severed in the sixties. I must record my debt to Tom Monnington, who was not only a great teacher but also a superb draughtsman and a painter of compositions. He was the only person there who encouraged me to work from drawings. My mother also took a keen interest and gave me strict instructions never to draw the model in isolation but always as a human being in a setting.

Apart from our annual summer pictures, we were expected to paint only from what was in front of us. I found this practice stifling since it excluded all but the most static subject matter. I wished to learn to cope with the running and jumping, as well as the standing still; and to find ways of doing so from drawings, memory and imagination.

Photography has always eluded me. I regard the instant of translation from three-dimensional subject to two-dimensional surface as being that in which all decisions vital to one's personal realisation are made; and I am unable to relinquish these to someone, or to something, else.

It was, above all, the example of Sickert's use of drawing, as the intermediary between subject and rendering, that fired my conviction that it was still possible to create what Delacroix called 'big machines'. I wished to paint as if from, but without the presence of, the motif; to be able to use fleeting or inaccessible material; and to make the transient, or the invented, permanent.

I have wished to be a figurative but not a descriptive painter. The process of working from drawings has been invaluable for this.

Besides preparatory studies, I need, in the course of a work, to make further sketches in pencil, perhaps with wash, and also oil studies, for colour and tonal information. Although I enjoy beautiful colour in other people's work, it is not my primary interest. I like muted colours which, I feel, often contain a sort of power through restraint which is easily lost with the use of brighter colours. Tone is of greater importance to me; it is fundamental to pictorial unity and is the language of composition. Only by the rigorous control and organisation of the darks and lights can one make a design sing and come to life.

At the Slade I also learned something of the history of art and have never, then or since, felt the need, which so many of my contemporaries have, to rebel against the great European tradition. The artists of the Italian Renaissance, who were so inspired by classical art, produced something completely different from it. So did the great French painters of the nineteenth century produce something unexpected and new. And I feel that this great tradition still has the power to inspire artists for a long time yet. The various movements of the past thirty years have not had much effect on my work. I think the abstract phase was the most exciting but I have always wanted my paintings to relate to visual experience.

As to the subject, I think it is immaterial whether there is a narrative or not. Painting relies on abstract qualities that come from ones instinct. I particularly like scenes of dancing and groups of people, indoors or out, which contain movement. I feel that day to day life is so full of mystery and poetry that no-one can ever hope to do more than capture a fraction of it. But I should like my pictures to offer a suggestion that life - in some strange way - goes on in them after one has stopped looking at them, even in the dark.

© John Lessore