I’m with that famous mountaineer on this; the one that, when asked why he climbed Everest, reputedly answered, ‘because it’s there’. It seems to me that proof often exhausts truth. The constant spin of explanation and counter explanation casts a sticky web over the real reasons we live and breathe and make. The fact is we do and it doesn’t really matter why, although stepping back and observing what we do is essential to our development. And this is true of painting. I often feel that watching things in progress is just as important, if not more so, than actually painting. For me that process is usually fast and intuitive. Most of my time is spent in preparation; getting in the right ‘frame of mind’.
When I was growing up I used to spend hours and hours arranging and constructing things that might these days come under the term ‘land art’. Later on I became incredibly absorbed carving dancing figures out of scraps of wood with only a small newspaper photograph to work from. I remember one particular figure that I was extremely proud of and I just couldn’t stop until, with one tap too many, her right leg snapped off. I was so upset ! Ever since I have been very conscious of that fine line dividing something that just has it, from something that’s just lost it. A tap too far.
At the same time , when I was about 10 or 11, I was profoundly inspired by a Roald Dahl story ’ The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar’. In it the rich and bored Henry Sugar learns from an Indian Yogi to harness the powers of the mind. In his case this meant being able to see through cards in a casino so he could make wads of cash with ease. What fascinated me about this was firstly, the amazing powers that can be unlocked by sheer concentration and secondly, how in aiming for one not-so-noble thing, making money, Henry Sugar, over the course of three years concentrating, became someone quite different. He didn’t mean to change but after three years and achieving great powers with his mind he found he no longer cared about money, it came so easily to him anyway. This fascinated me and I immediately set about staring into candle flames till the early hours, same as Henry Sugar, and praying and breathing salt water up through my nose and out through my mouth. Not surprisingly I never did develop any special powers, just a sore nose and eyes. However it did greatly improve my powers concentration and has proved invaluable in painting ever since.
In art I have always felt the act of doing and thinking and getting completely involved is way more important than whatever it is you actually are doing. I love going out into a big landscape and immersing myself in the day. Watching the big cumulus clouds build and tumble above me and the deep purple threat of a storm grow on the horizon over a field of bright yellow rape flowers. Above I love to draw and sculpt from the human figure and, were I to find a model patient enough, I feel I could do this every day for the rest of my life. It really would take one helluva patient model though ! And after a surfeit of observation I can spend hours working things out from my imagination; just seeing what I have understood, what my eyes have learnt and my hands discovered.
I suppose my point in saying all this is that life is immediately elevated from the ordinary by the way we view it and the energy we give it : whatever we focus our attention on will grow. We are meaning-makers. We construct our own worlds, consciously or not. So whether we choose to be artists or not we all of us are bound to be. After all every action states our intent and just because we passively go on repeating old patterns doesn’t mean that we haven’t chosen a way and are not responsible for it. Whether we like it or not every step is a personal choice so we might as well make it an active one that we can go on feeling happy about long after the event. That, to my mind, is the role of the artist. To lead the way in waking up to who and what we are; to better make our meaning and be proud of it forever after.
*Toby Mulligan’s Portrait of his daughter, ‘About Time’, was selected for The BP portrait award 2012. It was hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London throughout the summer and is currently in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. He has done a number of filmed portrait demonstrations for Winsor and newton, Liquitex and Cass Art and this year he has been filmed painting landscapes for Sky Arts TV, to be shown in October. He also works on the iPad with the Brushes app and has been commissioned by Samsung to demonstrate painting with their new tablet.
He was commissioned to paint Roger Federer in 2014 for his annual charity gala in Geneva, and his work is in private collections around the world, including Mick Jagger’s chateau in France, where he lived before coming to London in 2012