MICHAEL CRAIK

 

To begin, could you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

I’ve lived in Scotland my entire life, with the exception of one incredible year, when I went to study for my Masters degree in Barcelona in 1999. Prior to this I spent four years studying Fine Art at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen from 1992 to 1996. I’m originally from Edinburgh, but I’m now based in Fife, where I’m very lucky to work in a wonderful shared studio that sits on a cliff overlooking the sea in the small village of Kinghorn.

Like many artists I’ve juggled a variety of jobs over the years to keep my artistic practice going, such as working in theatres, installing exhibitions, running art workshops, looking after a castle, and gardening, the latter of which is the one job I enjoy and still continue to do. In more recent years the balance of work has happily shifted towards my studio practice.

Describe your journey to becoming an artist. Has it been easy? Natural? What has been difficult?

I’ve been working as an artist for over 20 years and I’m not sure if I would describe the journey to becoming an artist as easy. However, I find the question intriguing because when does one actually become an artist? Once one has left art school? Perhaps after a few exhibitions? For me personally, I think I’ve only started feeling confident in my role as an artist in recent years, even though I’m now in my mid-forties. Certainly for the first half of my career it often felt like a rather grandiose statement to introduce myself as an artist.

Painting and exhibiting have long been activities I wanted to do. Indeed, painting has always felt like a completely natural pursuit. However, I’ve never been very comfortable explaining that to others. For me, making art has always been a solitary process, something that’s necessary but not easily rationalised. The difficulty has often been finding the confidence to justify or simply explain what I do and why I do it.

Whilst at school I don’t think I ever contemplated the idea of becoming an artist. In some ways I kind of fell into art. Even when I began art school I was originally planning to study design, however I think the autonomy and independence that comes with being an artist must have appealed to me more. At art school the painting department had a strong figurative bias, so my work then was influenced by that. I think I found it confusing as we were encouraged to make choices very early on about our artistic direction, which in many ways felt like arbitrary decisions. I began by photographing and painting architecture - details of contemporary buildings that I abstracted onto a two-dimensional picture plane. Over time I began to select, replace and remove various elements including architecture, as I’m certain having a subject was probably just a device with which to make paintings, or a route into the painting process. I have continued to refine my focus and technique and have ended up with a pared back aesthetic to my work. Something elemental - colour and process. So creatively the journey has felt very natural and the work has evolved gradually.

How would you describe your work to someone?

My work explores the interplay of colour and repetition as a method of producing quiet, contemplative work concerned with colour, material quality and process. I make acrylic paintings on both aluminium and wooden panels and I also work with watercolour on paper. My acrylic paintings are minimal in appearance, although not in technique, and display simple blocks of saturated colour, accentuated at the edges by outlines of alternating hues. Some of the paintings have drips of paint that have accumulated over time at the edges, others have more subtle tonal shifts where the paint has been applied and then been removed.

What is important for viewers to note when viewing your work?

I don’t believe it should be for me to say what is important for a viewer to note when looking at my work. My own response to art is always a personal one, and I would expect the same of anyone viewing my work. I suppose, if I turned the question on it’s head then I could probably come up with a list of responses I hope a viewer doesn’t have, but even that would be folly, as once you make an artwork and present it to others then the experience of it is no longer just yours to own. I hope that when people look at my work, even if they don’t respond to it positively, that they can appreciate that it has been made with care and integrity but beyond that, I don’t know.

What is your process like? How important is process in understanding your work?

My practice is mostly a process-led approach. In simple terms, I create paintings by repeatedly applying paint and removing it again and the appearance of each painting is, more or less, determined by variations of this technique. For each work, I slowly build up layers of colour by brushing, spreading and pouring paint - often a combination of all three. In between layers I sand back the surface and over time this exposes previously painted layers of alternating colour around the edges of the painting. In some paintings, such as the works in this show, you find strata of paint hanging off the edges of the panel, whereas in others, you have fields of colour surrounded by softer bands. The process itself is quite time consuming and it can take several weeks, if not months to complete a painting. It’s also a very repetitive process, almost meditative, and when I’m painting, I sometimes feel like I’m creating something that perhaps only exists to document the time I spent making it. In one sense, I feel my work shares a relationship with geology, to the laying down and erosion of rock. Living in Scotland, one is constantly reminded of the forces that sculpt the land. My studio in Kinghorn, Fife, stands on a cliff overlooking the River Forth estuary.  Surrounded by this expanse of water I am aware that the need to represent the passage of time has perhaps permeated my practice through this connection.

What does your work aim to say?

I’ve never started from a position of having something to say, that’s not the nature of my work. On the contrary, in some sense I hope my work remains quiet. When I paint, many of the decisions I make about the work are responses to paintings that I’ve made previously. My decisions about colour are often intuitive ones, perhaps emotional responses. My decisions about the scale of a work are dictated, in part, by the method I use to make it. Therefore, rather than following a concept driven creative practice, my work evolves. I think that when you create work that’s process driven and has developed sequentially then it can often be difficult to pinpoint all your reasons for making it. That’s not to say I don’t give consideration to why I make the work, rather that it has always been through a process of retrospection that I’ve come to realise what’s of importance.

Can you highlight some of your influences and discuss how they have impacted your work?

It’s difficult to narrow down my influences. I have spent quite a lot of time in Germany over the last 20 years, as my partner is German and we’ve travelled regularly to visit family. During these trips I’ve been fortunate to see exhibitions presenting wonderful examples of Colour Field Painting, Konkrete Kunst, and Reductive Art, by artists, whose work I rarely have an opportunity to see in the UK.

Going back further, I remember being asked about my influences when I started my Masters degree in Barcelona in 1999. I have a memory of talking then about a particular work I had seen a couple of years earlier in a group exhibition of light artists at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. The show included a large James Turrell installation, one of his space division works, where a rectangular aperture was cut out of the far wall and subtly lit from behind. I had never seen his work before and remember feeling completely mesmerised by it. The exhibition was on shortly after I had finished art school in Aberdeen in 1996 and, the Turrell work, seemed very far removed from the figurative work I had been exposed to thus far. Around the same time, I visited New York for a week with my father where I was lucky to see Ellsworth Kelly’s work for the first time at MOMA. These two examples are not unique in being the only artworks that influenced me, but they provided an early jolt that made me realise that art, simply by exploiting colour and by playing with our perceptions, could illicit overwhelming responses and emotions that could not, nor need not, be easily explained. I wasn’t necessarily influenced to work with light or to paint on a large scale, but it was certainly the first time I began to think with confidence that less could be more.

Where do you find inspiration?

I don’t particularly go looking for inspiration, quite often when working, things occur that open up new avenues to explore. I’m much more comfortable with the thought that new ideas and gradual shifts in my work are, in part, influenced by a sort of osmosis. I refer back to a previous question where I talked about how my painting process perhaps shares a relationship with geological processes - forces that lay down and sculpt the land. I don’t make this connection because I actively explore this subject, but by acknowledging it I am aware that my work is not only a product of what I feel, see or explore, but it’s also a product of where I am.

Of course, I also find inspiration in the work by other artists. Although, because of where I live, the opportunities to view work by artists I admire are fewer than I would like. However, the studio where I work houses an apartment that each year attracts creative individuals from far and wide: musicians, poets, artists, designers, photographers, and writers amongst others. All come to experience this corner of Scotland and inspiration often comes with them.

In your experience, what is the best thing about being an artist? What is the hardest thing about being an artist?

No management and cold studios respectively.

What piece of advice would you give to a young artist?

The best thing I did at the beginning of my career was to move abroad for a year. Three years into my career I decided to study for my Masters. I didn’t return to education because I felt I needed a further qualification but because the course was taught in Barcelona and I wanted a fresh start. I wanted a change of conversation, a change of environment and a change of direction in my work. In a sense I viewed it as an opportunity to reinvent myself. I don’t mean I wanted to become somebody else, simply that I needed to put myself in a place where I could focus on the things that felt important to me and that otherwise got lost in the noise of everyday life. One acquires a degree of anonymity when moving to a new place, which allows you to start anew with a clean slate and refocus. My biggest career regret so far is that I haven’t undertaken more artist residencies. At present it’s more difficult for me to do so, as I have a family and the commitments that come with that. However, if I were to give my younger self some advice it would certainly be to look for and grasp more opportunities to undertake artist residencies.

 
Adam Reid Fox