There are some important differences between the work I’ve been doing for the past 20 years and ‘painting’ in the traditional sense; though the colours are in fact applied by painting, with a brush, the work has a quality you could call ‘graphic’ for a number of reasons: first, ‘flatness’ is very important to me: I’m not really interested in trying to create an illusion of relief or perspective. Of course an image consisting of blocks of colour will always have some dimensionality…some colours naturally ‘stand forward’ from others; and I’m also very conscious of placing blocks of colour over others – I have a vivid sense of the physical presence of the hidden colour; but really it’s the 2-dimensional surface I’m interested in, and the interplay of forms and colours as the eye scans across the image. I’d rather the picture looked ‘printed’ than painted, and in fact I often prefer paintings as reproductions in books or on posters than as physical objects.
I started working with maps in the early 90’s; I’d always been interested in them, in the context of walking and climbing – and I collected them for that reason, but also because they were beautiful or interesting from a graphic point of view. In 1994 I took part in a group exhibition called ‘Gate 14’ at the RCA, which brought together a number of artists who were interested in various ways by aspects of travel; and for that I made a set of images by reversing linen-mounted maps – mounting them face-downwards and then working on the reverse. I’ve had a long-standing fascination with the grid as a graphic device, and the gridding caused by the folds of the map provided a perfect structure to work within. At the same time I found the texture of the linen very beautiful, and the simple act of reversing the map – trapping and hiding that dense mass of information – was a radical act of editing…the emptiness of the reverse seemed so much more void because of the lushness and complexity of the hidden surface – a genuine ‘carte blanche’. The linen fabric is often such a beautiful colour too, and provides a perfect surface for applying mostly flat planes of colour.

Painted maps ^

Once I’ve made lots of individual ‘patches’ of colour, I start to assemble them, often in the vertical tryptich configuration I’ve developed; then I leave them unfixed until I’m absolutely sure that they ‘work’. During this time I often move the colours around, trying different combinations and sequences; then when I’m sure, I mount the blocks onto a paper substrate.
I’ve kept video-diaries for a long time and I have a large archive of material from around the world. A lot of this is straightforward documentary, but I’ve also used film and photography as a way of logging specific things which I find interesting from the point of view of making work, and increasingly these became related to landscape…the shape of a hill, the colour of rocks and lichen, and so on. More recently I’ve become more methodical in the way I photograph and archive the colour-combinations and textures I see when I’m trekking in the Vercors, and I refer to these images when I’m making work. I often bring actual stones – even quite big rocks – that I find interesting back to the studio for reference.
ProcessProcess Process Process

( All photographs by Dan Fern )

In France last summer I made a series of pieces using yellow with a blue/grey overlaid onto it and I’ve been trying ever since to hit that specific combination again. The yellow’s a difficult colour to get right: a mixture of golden yellow ochre + white + flesh tint + a minute amount of cadmium red. Not just a difficult colour to mix, but the surface texture has to be exactly right as well – not too absorbent, and completely flat – because when that’s dry I work over it with a cool slatey-grey which is also very difficult to get right: white + black + Payne’s Grey – and the density of the colour’s got to be just right too, to allow the yellow to ‘glow’ beneath it. It’s really hard to get right, but I want to do it, because the original combination I hit down in France works so well alongside other blocks of colour. In the Vercors you often see particularly vivid ochres and reds, where the limestone’s been stained by minerals or by the soil; and when these colours are caught by the light they’re really beautiful, especially after one of the rare rain-showers.
Vercors stone ^

I have a real problem with greens, and hardly ever use them in my work. Of course I love the colour in the landscape, but somehow I’ve never found it possible to use greens satisfactorily in images. Apart from having a problem with the colour itself, I dislike its effect on other colours too. I’ve tried many times to make it work, without success. The only time I find it possible to like green-ness is to approach it cautiously, via grey…for instance there’s a particular lichen you can see on trees in the woods around Die which I find very beautiful…a grey/green…which sits well alongside the reds, pinks and ochres I use mostly.( This colour’s
mixed using titanium white + cadmium yellow + Payne’s Grey ).
The most significant colour for me for a long time has been a particular red – the colour you see a lot in Japanese lacquer-ware. I tried for ages to mix it, and I could never get it right – it was always too orangey or too scarlet. I found – after a lot of experimentation – that the key to it was to add a tiny amount of Payne’s Grey to an orange/red mix. Even then it’s not straightforward…the colour can often look perfect when it’s wet in the mixing-pot, but when it’s dry on the substrate it can be wrong. In fact the difference between wet colour and dry colour’s a problem all the time with acrylic, of course. The other thing is that on the whole I prefer to print the colour, especially any secondary colour, rather than applying it with a brush. If I do use a brush then I almost always ‘blot off’ and surplus pigment, using newsprint or some other absorbent stuff to get the flat, semi-transluscent surface I like. Any secondary colour that I apply later’s always monoprinted for the same reason – it’s rare that I’d want the second colour to obscure the first – I want a third colour to be produced, like in printmaking.
Actually the issue of ‘dryness’ is important; the landscape I’m interested in is a dry one – that’s one of the qualities that attracts me to it, and the colours and textures that are produced by the hot, dry climate; there are none of the dense, heavy greens and browns and greys of the north.
The other colour that’s essential to the work I make is black – and once again getting it right is very hard, and once again I found that the key to mixing a deep, lush black is Payne’s Grey. This does give it a very slightly blue tint, but that’s fine. Sometimes at the end of the day I empty the remains of some of the other colours I’ve been using into the black pot for extra richness, though you have to be careful to avoid any hint of brown-ness. I’d never use black ( or any other colour ) straight from the tube…it’s completely lifeless…you’d never see it in nature.

Extract from CONTROL/PRINT
Published by: Royal College of Art, 2007