I recently came across an obscure book written by an unyielding Scottish-Australian painter, Max Meldrum. The book, Science of Appearances, a hefty and unrelenting exploration of a scientific method for painting both challenges and inspires. His manifesto became the catalyst to much of my image making, photography as well as oil painting. His methods require a complete focus on tonal understanding and depiction, for a better description of what it is all about, check out the work of one of his students, Clarice Beckett, an unfashionable and dutifully ignored artist during her lifetime, her art thankfully was rediscovered while literally rotting in a shed on a farm and now graces the national gallery of Australia.
The book presents a series of scientific tonalism methods, essentially encouraging an approach to painting where tone comes before colour. Max Meldrum’s methods aim to capture the simple tonal reality of what we see in front of us – as faithfully as possible… which is not as easily achieved as it might first seem. It requires a learned ability to be able to dismiss a natural pattern-matching process that overtakes us. When our eye is drawn instinctively to an object, it is initially the tonal contrasts that creates interest and captures our attention, however our mind actively and sub-consciously races to match the forms with known patterns, say a face, and starts adding in the details – eyes, nose, and facial features. We known that these things are associated with the object, but they are not always what we are actually drawn to, or can even see. So to reconstruct the composition, either on canvas or film, should really only require a depiction of the tonal ranges and contrasts of light – rather than a detailed depiction of a facial features and details that our mind tells us is underneath the play of tonal tensions on the surface.
Modern image making, in relation to photography in particular, however places details (resolution) before tone. High resolution images are now the norm, we are surrounded by bigger, brighter screens, more pixels, more details. Higher definition. Digital has catapulted us into some other hyper-realism universe. I don’t think its really my thing. I think maybe it misses the point, capturing more and more detail, even beyond what the naked eye can absorb, in my opinion is adding further distraction from those characteristics that are the essence of a great image – the composition and tonal qualities – these things require no detail whatsoever.
So, this site is about the pursuit of capturing the moment just before comprehension, when shapes and tonal ranges instinctively catch our eye before the detail registers. These are the moments that are there in front of us to find, before they are lost in the detail, colour and complexity of everyday life. The essence of something much simpler. To explore what we can simply see if the detail channel can be switched off. It is bit of a battle against the inclination of our mind to fill in the gaps and concentrate instead on faithfully reproducing what is really there in glorious low-res, grain, raw contrasty shadows, loose forms, lost edges and tonal tension throughout.
So now my intention is to slow down my photographic process, mostly using film to capture tonal contrast and sacrifice detail. I still digitally scan and enhance the analog mood through post processing. My painting process on the other hand has been accelerated through the simplification of layers and brush strokes and working on small boards. One layer for tonal definition using cadmium red shades and a second layer to work purposefully but rapidly to build up form and enhance tones using a limited palette. So finally I am enjoying a convergence between across photography and painting …and enjoying the process much more than the outcome.