To Paint: Liz Polunin

Vladimir & Elizabeth Polunin preparing stage designs for the Ballets Russe

Having been an international viola player and a chiropractor specializing in musicians’ injuries before turning to painting, I am fascinated by the movement of paint on a surface and gestural brush strokes as a means of expression. My work is also influenced by my grandparents’ stage designs for the Russian Ballet and a variety of practical courses I have undertaken on the techniques of various artists of the past two centuries, tutored by, amongst others, David Tress. As well as completing my MFA degree, I came to West Dean College to further develop those experiences toward a sustained individual practice – that I might find myself as a painter. Finding ways to avoid falling into conventional ways of thinking about painterly representation are increasingly important to me. I have just completed an excellent Short Course with Emily Ball on ways to explore just that. As one exercise of many equally stimulating, we were asked to paint the taste, smell, consistency and ‘feel’ of a date or a strawberry. It certainly got us out of the habit of trying to ‘get it right’ and I found these seemingly simple attempts at capturing the essence of the fruit – by observing formal qualities such as colour, character, weight and movement, as well as by way of expressive, intuitive feel – appealed to me enormously.

Liz Polunin

In a recent dissertation I made a formal comparison between two very different painters, contrasting the compressed intensity of Francis Bacon’s figures with the wild and violent landscapes of David Tress. I learned a great deal about the specific techniques of each artist, the power that can transferred in the application of paint or graphite, and the influence of the chance mark in my own work. I was also fascinated by a recent screening of a film about the painter Gerhard Richter, especially his method of pushing paint around with enormous squeegees, layering multiple surfaces so that parts of underlying colour showed through as a palimpsest of vibrant pigment. It confirmed to me why I prefer to use unconventional means of mark making – pouring and dribbling paint, wielding very large distemper brushes, knives and cut credit cards, working over irregular and irrationally applied gesso, using graphite blocks or scratching and carving into the surface – to push the boundary between sculpture and painting.

Chestnut Tree, West Dean Estate

I want to maintain a distance from conventional representational painting – for example, not to paint a tree but the tree-ness of trees. Here in West Dean’s gardens, there is a giant chestnut tree that leans on its elbows with great weight. Every time I pass it, I am reminded of how we occupy such a different relationship with time – that within the lifespan of the tree, a year is such a short duration. The amazing longevity of these forms, gestures that are intimate and immediate yet established over centuries, are what draw me to such landscapes – why, for example, I like to draw the forest of 1000-year old Yew trees in Kingly Vale, which lie about as though at a Roman feast! I paint with the aim of engaging the viewer (as much as myself) in an experience of the natural landscape through dynamic, gestural compositions that hover between abstraction and depiction.