Oil and Water I

Hughie O'Donoghue

"The first paintings I made of bodies were in 1984-5. I had two criteria that I decided to adhere to. Firstly, they would be life-size or larger so that the relationship to the viewer would be intimate. The second criterion was that the images would emerge out of the physical process; that is, the pushing and spreading of paint across the canvas, scoring into it, lifting and removing paint, rebuilding it, adding glazes and scumbles. I was aware of the long tradition of figure painting that was still practised in Britain, the tradition of the 'observed' figure where an artist would paint a posed model in a room, who might well be naked. Nothing, to me, seemed more unnatural than this. What I was after was something different, something visceral which was about how it feels to be in a body but also something that announced itself simply as what it was - paint. I was looking to achieve a tension between the image and the 'material'.

The core of the paintings was invariably flake or lead white oil paint, a warm white, dense, heavy and solid, extremely opaque and now illegal unless you are a picture restorer. The tones of white were built up as layers that were added and subtracted over time as I made decisions and intuitive corrections. I did not know what the painting was going to look like before I made it so there was a tension built into the working process. I had good days when I thought I had made progress but I also had bad days when I would leave the studio despondent after having removed more paint than I had added and the painting was looking less interesting than when I had begun the day's work. I believed in this process though, understanding that an essential ingredient of making a painting is the risk of failure - art is not a demonstration of skills or talents but a process of trying to speak directly. At some point a painting would 'turn a corner' and start to look like it did not need too much more input from me. Then began the difficult process of finishing the painting, the knowing-when-to-stop part. I found and still find that this takes time, simply looking at the painting and getting some emotional distance from it. There are strategies that you can use like turning the painting to the wall for a while or looking at it on its side so that you see it with fresh eyes as a thing, not just an image. The painting represents its subject but it does not illustrate it so it needs to be judged on its own terms."

Hughie O'Donoghue, The Visceral Body, Hughie O'Donoghue, edited by Jo Baring, Lund Humphries, London, 2023

Hughie O'Donoghue (b.1953)
Oil and Water I
Oil on canvas
80 ¾ x 74 ¾ in : 205.0 x 190.0 cm
Signed, titled and dated by the artist verso
Acquired directly from the artist
Purdy Hicks Gallery, London
This painting is closely related to Oil and Water, 1999, Hughie O'Donoghue, edited by Jo Baring, Lund Humphries, London, 2023, p.94, fig.12 (col. illus)
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