Peter MesserTempera, my studio and what happens there

The StudioTempera is the term for paintings executed in egg yolk or other emulsions. Egg yolk has a high oil and fat content and contains the natural emulsifying agent lecithin. It produces, essentially, an oil-based paint that can be thinned with water but quickly dries to a water resistant film. No, it doesn't go "off" and no, I don't eat lots of meringues. Traditionally, it is used on a gesso ground - another Italian word meaning gypsum. This is a kind of fortified plaster made in the studio from a mixture of whiting or chalk and a glue binder, usually rabbit skin. It is applied, warm, to a panel, in a succession of thin coats and, when dry, is lightly sanded and rubbed over with a dry cloth. Making gesso panels can be a tricky, time-consuming business and so I make several at a time, usually over a weekend. Tempera paint is freshly made in the studio in small quantities by simply combining raw powdered pigment, egg yolk -sometimes with a little oil added - and water. It is applied thinly, in layers, to produce a characteristically luminous and complex flat surface. I also use another emulsion made from gum arabic, oil, dammar varnish and glycerine in conjunction with egg tempera when working on paper. As a result of all these processes, an artist using tempera tends to develop an intimate relationship with his materials before the painting even begins. As a working painter, I feel there is a rightness to this which I would not readily find in simply squeezing out a blob of a commercial art product.

My paintings come about in a variety of ways, often triggered by a title or phrase, either read, overheard or invented. My sketchbooks contain more words than drawing. Indeed, words can pin down an atmosphere more acutely than a drawing at this stage. I keep scrapbooks and I take bad photographs. Seldom much more than a hint or a circumstantial detail, but enough to start on. I do some drawing, scribbled planning, from life or made up in the studio, or both. If I make a nice figure, sometimes I trace it and move it around the composition, looking for the optimum position. Or else I just know where it belongs.

Peter Messer StudioThe painting itself begins with some rough, schematic brush-drawn lines followed by broad, translucent washes of colour, further brush-drawn lines and further washes of colour. At this point, the references recede and there is a sense of pushing the boat off the beach into the deeper water where the real sailing starts. The painting becomes a world of modulation and accent, of the gathering of control and the relinquishing of it. Accident is important but no more so than strategy. Much careful work is put in only to be obliterated, but often this too informs the final surface. The paint can be stippled, spattered, glazed, dabbed, incised, scraped back, built up, washed thinly or minutely handled. Occasionally, someone looking at a finished painting will turn to me with a "poor-you" expression and say something like "All those leaves......." I suppose that people can buy what an artist makes, but the making of it belongs to the artist alone. The painting is finished when nothing more can fruitfully be done.

The kind of painting upon which I've staked my contentment is probably destined to remain out of step with much contemporary art practice. I am quite comfortable with this. The late writer and critic, Robert Hughes, said this at a Royal Academy dinner:

"We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water; art that grows out of modes of perception and making, whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel: art that isn't merely sensational, that doesn't get its message across in seconds, that isn't falsely iconic, that hooks into something deep-running in our nature. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at its own game".

My friend and tutor, the late Stan Smith, said this in a pub:

"Just make the paintings you most want to see".

If I thought that painting was solely some kind of reiteration of the ‘seen’ world, I would probably have found something else to do.  I have no wish to ‘confront’ the world, nor do I wish to ‘subvert’ it or ‘challenge perceptions’ of it, although it may be what I seem to end up doing.  I don’t even, particularly, want to discuss it.  I both like and need to paint in my own way, and have spent most of my life so far in learning to make the work I most want to see.  You can scour whole rainforests of writing on art without encountering a non-condescending use of the word ‘picture’.  I like pictures.  No doubt they are irrelevant, which may be why so many people, like myself, share a slightly shy but deep-rooted hunger for them.

What the critics say

"These are quiet paintings; the outcome of long observation and unhurried craftsmanship.  Whether by their close colouring or their delayed charges of detail, Peter Messer's paintings hold attention by means of their subtlety.  Each picture sustains and renews interest precisely because, like the world everyone knows or recognizes, it may be enjoyed, understood or engaged with in a dozen ways yet still retain its enigma."

Larry Berryman

"Messer is not seeking paradise.  There is no need to voyage to the South Seas.  His "motif", very wisely, is for the present time a distillation in paint of his inner turmoil and his small victories over it, within the purlieus of a small Southdown town.  Beware though, the shark still has pretty teeth, dear!"

Mick Rooney RA

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