The King’s Arms

Part 1 of an ongoing series examining the method and subject of specific artworks; find the rest in the publication Making Art

Arthur Laidlaw, The King’s Arms, oil on paper, 2013–2014

Title: The King’s Arms

Medium: Oil on acid-free paper

Date: 2013–2014

Size: 148 x 210 mm


Process:

This picture was made during a period of material experimentation. I have been quite nervous about oil paint in the past — something about it’s ‘importance’ in the grand, classical narrative of art history scares me. You only have to look at the gestural audacity of Titian or Tintoretto (below) to feel the same anxiety I felt when picking up a tube of Matthew Harding’s ‘Vandyke Brown’. This paralysis is in part due to the way so many oil paintings have become fixed as canonical examples of art’s ‘linear progression’ by classical-norm-entrenching art historians, A-level syllabuses and History of Art BAs alike.

Tintoretto, Christ Washing The Disciples’ Feet (c. 1575–1580), National Gallery

After producing many in situ inks, prints, watercolours, and drawings on paper, I decided that the way for me to slightly undermine the ‘seriousness’ of oils would be to use it on paper. I was familiar with paper, and it is a material support that has been largely relegated to the locked doors of prints and drawings rooms around the world.

I haven’t made many oil paintings since this small one, but I have become very attached to paper. It remains the basis for much of my work today, whether large or small — and my conscious choice of paper as a ground on which to work has come from the kind of material confrontation this small painting represents, between the traditional mediums of the past and my desire for newer, less ‘serious’ modes of expression.

The original sketches for ‘The King’s Arms’

The painting was made in my basement in early 2014, based on two small sketches in one of my A5 sketchbooks. The original drawing was made from my car on a cold December day in 2013. As is often the case with compositions that appeal to me, the drawing has since served as the basis for a number of other paintings and prints on the same subject (one of which can be seen at the bottom of this discussion). As in my Boxing Day series, I like to work from the same original drawing again and again, to explore where the limits of the composition are, and to what extent the geometric forms of that drawing can be reduced or expanded (before the whole thing collapses).

The King’s Arms (detail)

Here, my palette is reduced to two basic colours, plus black and white. Each of the colours is squeezed almost straight from the tube onto the paper — any mixing of colours is done well before the paint dries, within the composition itself. The impasto (basically, ‘thick gloopy texture’) of the painting allows you to see the brushstrokes, and where paint is or isn’t mixing. My aim was to try and draw the viewer’s attention the use of oil paint as a medium, and show its thick painterly substance on this flat, dull, unprimed surface. I have emphasised the paint’s texture even further by the delineation of the windows and walls of the buildings with the reverse end of a paintbrush, literally scraping away one surface layer of paint to reveal another beneath (of an entirely different colour). Finally, the viewer can see the stained discolouration of the paper to the left of the painting; this is where the turpentine has stained the unprimed paper (much like oily fish and chips in a newspaper), which again reminds the viewer of the material juxtaposition of oil paint on paper, a surface to which it is not normally applied (especially untreated). As noted in the medium description at the top, the paper is acid free; this is essential to significantly decrease the time it will take for the oil paint to corrode (and possibly even eventually destroy) the paper surface onto which it’s painted.

Subject:

In the immediate foreground the viewer can see a side of The King’s Arms pub, with Wadham College out of the frame on the left; beyond the pub, past the small corridor of windows and on the right is the Bodleian Library, and then, in the far distance, are the roofs of the High St. Both the drawing and the painting were made only a few months after I left Oxford. Thinking about it now it’s hard not to see the picture as a kind of look back at university – both literal and figurative – seeing both pub and library from the outside.

Arthur Laidlaw, The King’s Arms II, oil on paper, 2013–2014
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