Last year I had a little money spare so bought a great big pile of smallish (12x12) canvases. Most of them have been sat unused in the cupboard the whole time (and only serving as an extra annoying thing when we moved house), but today they started coming to life. For a couple of months I have been planning to do a series of unusual portraits of great scientists; today I started. I’ll be sticking to my signature painting style – brightly coloured blurred background, black-outlined solid mono-coloured image floating in the foreground.
During the Age of Enlightenment there were many amazing portraits of scientists, experiments and natural phenomena. A particular favourite of mine is Joseph Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump. This depicts an early experiment to detect the presence of oxygen, whereby a bird is suffocated in a vacuum. The picture seems keener to express a dramatic scene, than a scientific explanation. In fact it was painted before Science was codified into a formal system. Natural Philosophers (the precursor to Scientists) were just beginning to understand how successfully observation and experiment can explain nature. The mystery and wonder of new discovery will always be a vast mine of artistic inspiration. Wright painted many other dramatic candlelit scenes often of experiments. Last month I saw his Three Persons viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool. It’s not of a scientific theme, but it still looks cool.
My portraits will appear to be of a bust of the subject, as opposed to of the subject themselves. I am finding photographs of the scientists I have chosen, and creating sketches as though I am planning to sculpt their head and shoulders. However instead of actually making the bust, I will paint it. I am not going for realism, or traditional reverence, but still aim to show my respect. It will be quite a large collection of portraits that I am going to pitch to the alternative galleries about town.
Let’s see; who have I chosen to honour. Einstein, obviously. Because of his contributions to our understanding about the nature of space and time, but also because his is a familiar face – perhaps the only scientist who most people could recognise. Other quite well known faces, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell... Some less well known faces, but who still made massive contributions: Michelson and Morley (calculated the speed of light), Emmy Noether (mathematician and theoretical physicist), Edward Wilson (biologist and environmentalist), and Hermann Minkowski (mathematician who laid the groundwork for relativity). Some old/ancient favourites: Tycho Brahe, Galileo, William of Ockham, Euclid, Johannes Kepler and Pythagoras. I’ll definitely also do ones with Manchester connections: Alan Turing, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, James Joule, and (because he’s on TV loads) Brian Cox. The portraits will include excerpts of relevant writings, and references to the subject’s contributions/discoveries. (Sorry, this paragraph was just a list of weird names.)
It’s my firm belief that Art only changed the world when the world moved slowly; changes were small and slow. Now all the changes are accomplished by the efforts of scientists; and these are the changes that have taken us from horse and cart to space flight. Art remains important as entertainment, but struggles to remain relevant as an intellectual pursuit. Contemporary attempts to intellectualise Art often spiral into nonsense having no relation to reality. As an artist, a humanities graduate, the best I can hope to do is to shine a bit of light on science; and as a writer, not to misrepresent science. And to stay away from post-modern relativism. That gets on my tits.