Thursday, 15 January 2009

Peter Doig
Tate Britain
01 May 2008

Blotter 1993
Oil on Canvas 249 x 199cm

The retrospective at Tate Brittain was one of the best I have seen for a contemporary artist and of particular interest to me as many works had a melancholic 'feel'. I have picked one of his earlier paintings, 'Blotter', that won the first prize in the 1993 John Moores exhibition and is owned by the Walker Art Gallery. The painting is behind glass with a large thick white wooden frame. None of the others in the room were framed and looked the better for it!

Peter Doig has said (Source: Walker Art Gallery Web Page) that “The title refers to (amongst other things) the notion of one's being absorbed into a place or landscape, and to the process through which the painting developed: soaking paint into the canvas.”

Could it also refer to the use of blotting paper as the medium for dosing LSD? Taking this hallucinatory drug can cause the user to experience radiant colour, make surfaces appear to ripple and can induce intense self-reflection.

The work was painted from a photograph (Walker Art Gallery Web Page), and shows the artist's brother standing on a frozen pond looking at his reflection. The figure is almost plum centre and wears a blue thermal padded jacket and a red headband.

Perhaps he is pumping water onto the ice by the pressure of his foot. He looks like he is absorbed in either his own reflection or this movement of the water under/on the ice caused by his weight. For me, it is this self-absorption or focus on his repetitive action that gives the image its melancholic feel. Probably because I can remember the feeling as a teenager, of being intensely engrossed in a small details in the landscape, rather than the splendour of the scenery. The relation of the figure size to the landscape gives a sense of isolation that is heightened by the choice of the portrait format making a towering enclosure of the trees.

The edge of the pool is on a 20 degree diagonal and the figure and the backdrop of the trees are reflected in the water. Concentric circles spread out from the tapping of his foot on the wet surface causing the water to ripple and pulse. It is interesting how the horizontals and verticals (trees) all lead the eye out of the canvas making this action the focus of attention.

The colours in the water are pastel lilacs with thin yellows, greys and whites. The colours are subtler than the photograph portrays. The path is a pale aquamarine, stippled with white. The trees behind are dark green and lilac green against a lilac ground. They are convincing as birch trees when seen from a distance. Behind the trees one can see a pale horizon line fringed with a dark silhouette of a distant tree line (blue under lilac) and pale sky above.

Most of the surface is layers of pale stains with areas bleached with spots of turpentine. Then the white (sometimes tinted) for the snow is brushed over the top. The trees are dark brown and then painted with black and green to give the birch bark effect. There are some large blobs of white and lots of smaller speckles to denote falling snow. The larger blobs are very thick and stand proud of the surface.

Despite these attempts at aerial perspective within the paint on the surface, the image reads as flat and one has to make quite an effort to discern depth. The result is that standing back we can ponder on the narrative, but up close we are reminded that it is just paint on canvas.


  1. very interesting Mike and bookmarked:)

  2. As addition to my short comment while following the melancholic path I may remember that so many persons have died by having broken in the ice, for example the famous expressionistic poet in the age of 23, other associations might come: Narcissus, suicide of young people by getting drownded (cf. Hesse, Unterm Rad)...

  3. I forgot the name: the expressionistic poet Georg Heym