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Transcript of Martin Greenland on 'Before Vermeer's Clouds' podcast

Hi, I've written quite a few notes, I was going to improvise but I thought if I improvise I will miss something out. I hope it's not going seem too stilted as I try to actually read my own handwriting.

I wanted to speak a little bit about college days and the reasons why I actually started to paint in the way that I do. We spent two years on foundation talking about 20th century art predominantly. Right at the very end my tutors who I admired immensely said 'Now, here's something different, we're going to show you something and they showed us renaissance painting and in particular there was 'Bacchus and Ariadne' by Titian.

I was amazed because my tutors who I admired so much were absolutely in awe of these paintings and I thought if they're in awe of it there's something there for me. It wasn't the first time I'd come across paintings like that. I'd been looking from childhood at paintings like that but never regarded them as the same sort of qualities that my tutors were then sort of endowing on them.

That set me off on a determination to do what they could do. I was determined to try to do myself what these quite wonderful artists were capable of doing in those days. It meant me being a bit of a Luddite. It meant me being someone who rejected certain things that 20th century artists and things that I up to that point had been doing. Using photographic references and various other things at that particular stage.

I thought I'm going to go right back and work from drawing and draw more. I'm going to start to invent. So that when I actually got onto my fine art course after trying all sorts of different things I eventually managed, dropped into a way of working which was completely inventing what I did in my work.

There were lots and lots of things that I was determined to take on. I didn't want to replace the act of painting. I've put down that there's something about the smell and the feel of the studio which was very, very important to me and it still remains very, very important to go in there and be a painter.

One of my tutors said that one of the reasons why he started painting in oil was simply because of the smell of it and that was something which I've had because my father, who wasn't an artist but used to paint, I recognised that in his work. That was one of things which was a catalyst in my own development.

I enjoyed the solitude of being in the studio. I wanted to go out and experience the world, to draw the world, to look at it, to feel it and to make my own reference material when I was out there. I knew what it was like to use a camera and when I had used a camera, I looked at photography when I was on foundation, I found it very interesting and useful in itself. As a discipline in itself. When it came to painting I wanted my paintings to be something completely different. Something which came almost entirely from within.

My reference work was to go out and draw and this is something which I still do very much. My drawing is an enquiry, I don't actually use my drawings for any reference for any part of the painting. What I actually produce when painting does actually come entirely from within. We'll lead onto that in a little while.

There are various things which I've been very keen to show in my work. I'm very interested in a tribute to nature as raw and vital and perfect in it's imperfection. I'm very interested in how nature is quirky. For a start there is the self-perpetuating nature of nature. No matter what man does, nature wins over. Nature wins back. That was something which I'm very, very interested in. It's a big argument at the moment of course, about the environmental thing.

There's something very, very fundamental about nature. It's always been there, we all come from nature and when I work in landscape I don't feel as though I'm a landscape painter. This classification gets me down a little bit. When I go out in the world I take references or I look at the world in its entirety and I see nature. I see things growing. You might find an urban environment where nature grows, where things perpetuate. I find that very interesting too.

So when I think about my work I'm determined to get this nature into my paintings and therefore they become landscape paintings. I suppose in a way a lot of people are probably scratching their heads and wondering about this one. It's a traditional-looking landscape painting in the John Moores and I'm going to lead onto reasons why this particular painting has come about.

My past John Moores successes, the entries I've had in John Moores, I think one might call it more gritty, more post-modern, the references to the 20th century, 21 century, have been very much in there. If anybody remembers my last John Moores entry which was back in 1995 called 'Landscape with Ruins', it had within it a landscape which was full of that nature persisting and yet within it was also things which mankind had been despoiling the environment with. Rubbish bags, there was a burnt out car. There was a lot of these things and I'd been working in that way quite a lot.

I'd been working within my painting to try to make those paintings look as though they were real places. Even though all those paintings themselves were complete invention. I'm sort of sidetracking a little bit there which I'll come back to. Within those paintings I was trying to really show that, yes, this is landscape painting but landscape is still there. The cities peter out into the suburbs and then the landscape, the countryside, the rural, then takes over.

But really there's a very blurry edge these days. We're all surrounded by landscape if you want to put it that way. That's what I was doing, but in this particular painting, partly because I'm getting very tired of a cynical nature which tends to underpin everything, especially in the media, I had worked on paintings not quite like this but I worked on certain paintings called 'Vision of Heaven'. The working title to a lot of my paintings had been 'Vision of Heaven'.

It's something which I've been very interested in for quite some time. I always fancied myself as a bit of an existentialist, but it's difficult to have an existential feeling and still sense that there was a person or god somewhere. I'm still agnostic, I still don't know. I don't think anybody knows. But that still doesn't stop me being very interested in the potential of painting, a 'Vision of Heaven'. I had done a painting called 'City of Gold', which almost led onto 'City of God', the film was made 'City of God', so I left that title out.

I've made a painting 'Images of Heaven', there's a little painting I sold in Liverpool just last year called 'Cities of Heaven'. They were catalysts, they were starting points for this particular painting. I was very interested by the idea of portraying an idea of Heaven. Once one starts to set one's ideas going that what would be in Heaven. Everybody's idea of Heaven is going to be different. If people believe in Heaven at all then your own personal Heaven is going to be something which you yourself are going to want to see. So everybody's idea of Heaven surely is going to be something very personal.

In my painting it was going to be a personal thing and I also felt that should one actually enter Heaven it would actually be a place that you would actually need to be able to relate to on the human scale. It would need to be not a fantastical place which was completely awe-inspiring because surely that would not be a comfortable place to be. The Heaven that one enters would have to be one of those places where you felt comfortable. Constantly comfortable. How that place might look.

When I was thinking about this business of the place being that sort of place - a place where it is just easy - easy like Sunday morning or that sort of thing. Something made me relate the clouds out of Vermeer's 'View of Delft'. It's a painting which I've been contemplating for quite a long time. I'd even painted them into another painting where the clouds were the same clouds but lit by moonlight. Quite often I used to look out at the sky, seeing drifting cumulus at night and think this is just like Vermeer's 'View of Delft', the clouds are the same except it's at night.

Then that started me to think about the qualities of those clouds in Vermeer's 'View of Delft', there are one or two other paintings where you get what is almost talked of as a perfect sky. So I thought of this idea of this almost perfect sky, it's almost as though God was guiding Vemeer's hand. That made very interested in what a lot of commentators have said about not just art but about music, John Taverner talked about Mozart as though he seriously believed that God was definitely writing Mozart's music for him.

You can almost feel as though God was guiding Vermeer's hand in painting these clouds and surely, I thought, that means that these clouds feel positively heavenly. The idea of having the clouds there in this painting. Taking the clouds out of the 'View of Delft' which was a very naughty thing to do because in fact the whole 'View of Delft' is a wonderful painting even though it's a very specific place. I was interested in taking the clouds there and putting them into my place which is completely non-existent.

That was one of the catalysts of the painting. One of the other very strong talking points which is causing me a little bit of anxiety now is this tower which again was one of the catalysts for the paintings. I say that I invent everything and indeed I do. I've even invented Vermeer's clouds because it's not actually Vermeer's clouds, it's more or less, as much as I could make it. This tower, I'd seen in a photograph what I believed was a conical striped glazed tower and I think the place was Samarkand but I can't be actually sure because I can't even be sure I actually saw it now. When I saw that I thought that is the most amazing object. Again it's like one of these God-made things it's Islamic architecture, beautiful Islamic architecture. And I thought 'What does it mean?', 'What's it there for in Samarkand?'.

It felt like something you can encounter in Heaven. The way I've posititioned it it's almost like a fulcrum, pivot, in which the whole painting revolves around and I've made it very prominent, deliberately so. I've also been a bit tricky because it probably means less than people think it does, or it might mean more. It doesn't, to disappoint everybody, have this great meaning which I'm going to reveal to you all, but it's very, very important for what I was actually trying to put into the painting - none of us know what Heaven looks like, it could easily be something which belongs there. That was something which got me really started on the painting itself and I tried a few ideas but the way I tend to work nowadays, have done for quite some time, is to simply start.

So, when I'm in the studio, I produce the canvas and I sit down and I go. Sometimes I do some quite detailed drawing out, sometimes I just put very, very quick paint down which is all underneath. There's some very rapid work which goes on underneath, there's some very rapid work which goes on underneath, a lot of people think that I actually paint almost by numbers, going from one corner to another. That doesn't take place at all.

The painting is built up in various traditional layers but it starts off very, very loose. When I actually start to clinch something then I start to refine it and start to reach into the paintings. The inventing side of painting is very, very important to me. It's the most exciting part of the painting, as well as bringing ideas together and thinking about possibilities, that's very, very important as well. As my ability to paint gets more and I think potentially what I could do, that is very, very exciting as well because then I know that I could potentially do this or do that. But paintings when I get going I really don't know a lot of the time what I'm actually going to be doing. Sometimes a vague idea, sometimes a fairly strong idea. I get mental images flashing in and out of my mind. Sometimes they reference something which I've thought about before and sometimes they just come out of the blue from nowhere and I have to try to pin them down.

When I'm working on a painting various things start to happen. The paint itself which I've started to put down, starts to develop an idea, it starts to suggest all sorts of things going on. So, some things I deliberately placed in the painting and some things just happen and quite a few things just happen - the way the landscape disappears into the distance and certainly there's a distant line right to the very distant there and it was later on in the painting it felt like some of my experience when I was down at college in Devon and there were hills which I used to explore by bike and they were happy times. They were sort of times when you felt as though this is kind of Heaven in a way. I felt that's appropriate, but that came later on simply as I was exploring the painting.

One of the things which not many people have really understood, I suppose people have noticed it but not really quite understood what's going on, this idea of Heaven that it be constantly the same day. Would it be constantly like Groundhog Day, constantly sunny? For us to appreciate beauty do we not need the dark side of things? What is beauty anyway? To appreciate the light you need the dark. At times part of the painting was painted in night-time conditions which formally didn't work so they had to go. But one thing I was very interested in doing not right at the very conception of the painting but as it started to develop in its early stages was thinking perhaps I could make this painting at different times of the year.

So, what started to happen - this side became January and it moves through the seasons so centrally you've got midsummer. The light changes, over here you've got this low light coming from over there and then it shifts across so that it's overhead. Then it's lowering again on the other side. So there are things happening in the light which actually couldn't happen if that was just taken from a single image. You couldn't get all that reference to the changing seasons.

There are things in there which I know about nature, know about the environment which I put in and I know about them I don't know who knows about them but I put them in anyway. The gorses in the foreground is a winter flower but it actually moves through the spring, in fact the gorse flower is quite a lot more than that as well. It's one of the first things to flower. I thought, yes it's sentimental but I like that, I like to see things like that. The things that I enjoy I don't see why I shouldn't put into a painting.

This side of the painting is snow-bound. There is a stream trickling down beneath and it's melting. The snow is then moving into the spring. Melting and becoming a stream as it goes down there. Here the bloom, the May blossom. So you've got May/June there. Then there's elderflower. Fox gloves. Plants which occur naturally, some of those plants which perpetuate. They are there all the time, even in a city landscape you get those plants which are determined to keep being there.

I see these things all the time. I live in a rural environment more or less, I live in central Lake District. I live in a town but the countryside, not dissimilar to this in the foreground, is only five minutes away. So a lot of my own environment is represented here because I do find it to be especially beautiful. Where we live we can go up behind our house on to the viewpoint, the crags behind the house, and look across the lake to the central fells of the Lake District and for all intents and purposes you're in Heaven because I ask myself could I actually anywhere in the universe be any better than that? Could anywhere in Heaven be better than that.

But I didn't want to paint a picture of the Lake District because I don't like painting things as they are. It doesn't interest me, I like to invent it. We move through the things which are cropping up in the paintings which some people probably haven't even noticed really. Here there's a backyard. I was thinking would the mundane be there in Heaven? As well as the fantastic and the awe-inspiring. Surely, the mundane, the backyard. Would walls and things exist in Heaven?

There's a gable end of a terraced house here with the washing on the line and the image of washing blowing on the line is something which I've had in paintings for quite a few years. I return to themes quite a lot in a symbolic way. I was writing these notes and I put down the word cleanliness and next to it I put godliness. It's a purging almost. Washing clothes is the most simple basic human endeavour. Letting them blow on the line, just letting the wind.

It also had a link to that quality that I find in Vermeer's 'View of Delft'. It's a bright and breezy washday atmosphere in that painting. It might seem terribly mundane to put it that way but that's how it feels. It just feels right to have that washing blowing on the line there and to me it's like a purging and refreshing, distilling of things, a cleaning up. I daresay in Islam they would call it jihad.

Here, there are some ordinary little buildings but they refer to some things I did when I was at college. I made a little note about what I was trying to refer to there. I painted a little painting called 'The Little Street' which again I took from one of my Vermeer's paintings, I nicked his title. And I had this little building, shop, with an awning hanging out and it was just a simple painting of a backstreet with a little shop with a very empty window with a little awning hanging out and it referenced something in my childhood and a lot of the things I put into my paintings now are sometimes it's a knowing thing and sometimes I work in my paintings and I ask myself questions afterwards.

One of my phrases which I've got on a t-shirt is 'Paint first. Ask questions later'. I put things in paintings and then work it out and maybe use it again. There's something which goes back to my childhood about the little shops like that. It must be maybe there was a little corner shop I used to visit or something like that. But that sort of time of life when life was uncomplicated. That sort of feeling as though maybe that sort of feeling is the sort of thing you would experience again in Heaven. When you didn't have any complications, you were looked after. That life was constantly a bright sunny day. I assume we all had bad times in our childhood from time to time but we do tend to remember the good times. I'm sure we do, I do.

Even though I'd worked these little buildings in a slightly larger painting I thought I would like those to go in. Where I said about putting as many things into the painting as possible I wasn't wanting to cram the painting I wanted to make them work enough so that there was plenty there for me to enjoy and to know.

There were buildings here which the landscape starts to feel very much like Exeter actually, the red brick and the red stone that I saw when I was in Exeter and they were reasonably happy times when I was at college. There were bad times and good times, they were formative years and the towers here I think somebody referred to that as being almost like a classical temple but I was really more thinking of the tops of the Cathedral that you could see from across the city. As you move across there's a dome which is probably a mosque.

I'm trying to make it pantheistic. Within Heaven, because it surely just doesn't belong to, I'm fairly sure, I'm on dodgy ground here, but I'm sure it doesn't belong to just one religion. I'm sure the non-believers are going to get there as well. At least I hope so.

When we get to here there's potential reference to all sorts of things. One of the things that I very much enjoy about Vermeer's painting is that when one looks beyond the bridge, there's a street lit up into the distance and even though all those buildings were based on real buildings you think what was there? There's that kind of intrigue which goes on, it's an illusion and this is a complete illusion. There's no reference beyond what's actually there, the paint. There's nothing in the entire world, I'm sure, even that, which you could say that comes from so and so. Even though they're there and you think yes and I can just go down that path there, you're just going through the paint of course. It's an illusion.

When I'm working I like to really seriously believe that this environment could exist. That I could actually find myself in this place. Down here, you can't see terribly well, there's actually just to the side there, it's so small you wouldn't even notice it but I know it's there and that's important to me, there's a sky-lit building which was intended to be a studio because I thought well surely I'd be allowed to paint if I got to Heaven. I'm sure that being in Heaven isn't one of the sort of things that you just do nothing.

There are so many interesting questions which were thrown up in my mind once I started to work on this. What does go in Heaven? The business about labour being a very godly thing, are we all going to be working in Heaven? Is Heaven going to be more or less what it's like on Earth without any of the bad stuff? It certainly throws up a lot of ideas about what might be there. That's there. There are little cloisters and things here and there, a lot of the things that I was trying to get into the painting I wasn't able to simply because formally it wouldn't work.

One moves across and we move through into August and then the tower appears and then the sky starts to clear. A lot of people have seen this as an environmental thing. That this is melting snow, ice-caps and then the world's going to heat up and it's going to bake and there won't be any clouds left and it will be completely blue sky and the whole world's going to crack and crumble. It wasn't my intention to do that because it isn't supposed to be that sort of place.

It isn't on Earth but it could be on Earth. When I'm working on any of my paintings I'm very careful not to move into what I might call the realms of fantasy. This is a very grey area but I think you might know what I mean when I talk about fantasy paintings as opposed to this painting. I don't ever try to make whatever I invent in my painting be something which is unbelievable. I'm very interested and it's not exactly a sore point but it's a difficult thing at the moment in a way or it's an interesting thing but I find myself sort of having mental battles with computer-generated imagery and things which one sees on the television and in films because there fantasy knows no bounds. You see amazing things, a lot of which goes straight over my head because for me fiction is always best when it's almost convincing or completely convincing. There's something slightly not right about it. That's when it gets to be most exciting. As soon as you go beyond that and it starts to get beyond the bounds of believability then I switch off.

It's a defensive thing in a way but I find my argument with a lot of computer-generated imagery it just goes too far. When I was thinking about this painting, when I was thinking about a lot of what I am doing recently, digital manipulation and the way that things are brought together and what I'm doing, there's not a lot of difference. I'm manipulating imagery, I've been doing it for twenty odd years and everything in here is something which I've tweaked, I've put in.

It's all invented. In lots of digital manipulation, lots of actual photographic references are brought in and then they're changed. I'm going one more than that, I'm actually inventing the whole thing. A lot of time in my paintings I try to make it such that those places then look as though they exist. Then I get a problem with people saying you've just done it from a load of photographs and they just walk past it. I've noticed people walk straight past it and I think yeah we all have our likes and dislikes, people might just say it's a couple or photographs or that it's been painted from a real place. Painting outside is something that I have enjoyed very much but no, I choose to paint as though the painting exists and I try to make it convincing.

We're moving across here, the birch on one side is green and this side it's turning yellow so the autumn is changing as we move through the tree. Until we get down to this side and then there's this gold box here. This was put in partly for a formal reason because at first I felt as though something was needed there so it was a bit of an afterthought. It's an experience of something gold, something one might consider very, very precious in the landscape. It's something which I've worked into paintings. One of my John Moores entries a few years ago 'Released', back in 1993, contained a very large plinth which appeared to be made out of solid golid. Certainly it was golden.

That's something which I've thought about for quite a long time and I've put into paintings to be able to wander through a landscape or an environment and then just come across something like that just happening to be there. Not knowing where it's come from, nobody's put it there, nobody's taken it away. Also, there's a reference to a line in a Christmas carol called the Little Door and it talks about gold, I think referring to Christ, which is neither bought nor sold. That's the kind of gold I'm thinking about here.

Let's face it. Gold is simply something which comes from the earth, just like all these things. So, also what I was doing for myself, although probably it needs pointing out that yes this is gold, it's been crafted but it's also only equivalent with everything else within nature. The brambles growing there, the bracken, whatever happens to be there, if everything is God-given then surely the gold, the bracken, everything is on an equal level. We are all born equal. One is told that we all enter Heaven on an equal basis. Again I find this cross-reference with the idea of Heaven coming in again. I just thought somehow in the darkness of winter that that sort of wandering through winter woods that gold shining out, it's that light against the dark, it's the brilliant against the very drab.

I find winter wonderful in it's drabness but to actually experience something like that would be an amazing thing. Again, it's putting something into the painting which I would like to experience. I never have and I'm not sure I'd leave it there myself if I came across something like that. When I was writing my notes about that I was thinking that the secret of life perhaps being contained in that box. That seems a little far-fetched. It wasn't really something I was thinking about but I was thinking that this may be what people were actually thinking and I'd like people to be able to think in that way.

Whenever I've been working on anything, I tell people and I tell myself we all come to whatever we experience in life with our own experiences. All these paintings around the wall, we all experience them in a different way, they all mean different things to us. In this painting, you will see your own things. Some of you will like it, some of you won't like it, some of you will probably hate it. I don't think the London press like it very much because nobody's made any comments about it yet, in fact they haven't mentioned the whole show, I think they need a good kicking.

Everyone here will see things in this in their own way and will want to read it in their own way and will want to see something more here and something more here. I don't actually want to give too much away in a painting, I think I've given enough away by painting in the manner which one might say is quite a straightforward way of painting. The things which are shown one can see what they are. I recognise that as something. I don't want to give too much away because in a way it's like when you get a DVD and it's got the making of the film. How disappointing that can often be when you actually see how they've made the thing. They've created the illusion which can be a wonderful experience and you think that's a shame it's ruined it for me now.

I was hoping I wasn't going to disappoint people by saying it's actually about this and them thinking that's a shame I thought it was much more important than that.

Hopefully, I've shown more for you than perhaps you might have seen.

- On a previous talk we were informed that your painting was originally framed

Yes it was

- And the curators of the show asked you to remove it. So how do you feel about that now?

Well, I'd rather have it framed again. I'm getting used to seeing it without a frame. What was said about the frame and it's not just me but I thought contrary to what was said about the frame - they felt that the frame contained it too much, that it didn't expand. I painted it like this and then I produced the frame, put the painting into the frame and for me it felt as though the parameters, as though the periphery expanded. That potentially it was opening up. I felt that without the frame I felt as though it was actually contained. I actually painted the edges black.

It was a funny thing because the judges, in fact it was Julian, who rang me up as I was standing at the checkout in Asda to say 'Do you think they could take the frame off?'. And I thought well I don't want to miss a potential chance here so I said 'Yeah, OK', but I actually would prefer to see it with the frame back on it. I just think it worked really, really well.

What was it like?

It was a floating frame. There was a couple of centimetres of gap round it and then it is about five inches of lined American pine. So, it's a lined wood one, but it's quite simple. It's just flat. I thought it's a fairly contemporary looking frame, it's not old-fashioned. I don't think there was a problem there. I think there is a general unity in the whole show, I think they were wanting to keep. I don't know whether they would actually put it back on.