A Formal Introduction, 2016

Helen’s paintings are ‘haptic, overtly handmade and never pre-planned' but beguilingly patterned.  We caught up over email a few times during 2019, discussing things as varied as Bonnard and Picasso. How paintings can slow your heartbeat whilst patterns can strike a primeval chord. 

Waves, 2018

Colonel Mustard did it, 2011

PINK SANDS - I am interested in the experience of making your work and the function it performs in your life, so I’d like to ask about your house and perhaps the environment you work in? 
HELEN BLAKE - My house is quite higgledy-piggledy. It’s a tiny old cottage which we built an extension onto. At the moment there’s a lot going on because there are three generations of us living here; but that period is coming to an end in a few months and it will then be back to me and my partner. There are a lot of pictures, one or two larger pieces but most are small. I have collected these over a long time, and there are also pictures which belonged to my parents. I have these hung three deep in places, but I am careful about the layout and making sure that the works complement each other wherever they are hung. The spacing is important. 
As far as my studio is concerned, I’m very lucky to have a large studio with a high ceiling in an industrial unit. The walls are all white, and I have nothing on them unless I have temporarily hung up a painting I am working on so that I can look at it and think about it. So home has a lot to look at; my studio is empty of visual interference. 

Blue Boy, 2015

PINK SANDS - And you live in the Wicklow mountains, which is a beautiful place. 
HELEN BLAKE - It’s easy to take for granted the things you see every day, but sometimes when I’m driving home in the evening and I see the clouds, or the cloud shadows drifting across the mountains, it can be breath-taking. I remind myself to stop thinking about what I’ve been working on and just notice what is in front of me. 
PINK SANDS - There’s a mindfulness aspect to that, opening yourself up to what’s there, in the moment. It seems linked to the desire for a painting to contain no imagery and be only itself. 
HELEN BLAKE - Yes that's a good observation, and I think it’s important for me to be very open about how the painting was made, everything is hand-made and is only as regular as I can make it without using any aids such as masking tape. I have nothing against masking tape, it is an excellent tool! But it gives too uniform a line for what I want. It would also alter my experience of making the painting. To paint a line as straight as possible I have to draw the brush along the surface very, very slowly, breathing slowly and often holding my breath. Sometimes I can feel my heartbeat slowing as I get into a painting. So everything is as perfect as I can make it without any help. 
It’s interesting that you’ve brought up the question of whether my way of working is meditative. Another interviewer recently asked me whether making my work was a form of meditation. My initial response was ‘no’. However the more I thought about it, the more I can see that maybe although I’m not painting for the purpose of attaining these physical changes, I guess I may be experiencing the same physical effects as someone who would regularly meditate. 
I’m the sort of person who spends a long time deliberating over a decision in order to be as sure as I can be that I make the right choice; and it’s the same way with my work. But rather than producing a state of anxiety, which is what those ways of existing can produce outside the studio, yes it can become an almost meditative experience. I spend a long time concentrating on colour and thinking about possible next steps in a painting before I actually go ahead and put it down.

Lots of Love 2, 2017

PINK SANDS - Maybe there’s a similar experience available to a viewer. As they look and are drawn into one of your paintings and how they work? 
HELEN BLAKE - I like that idea of being drawn in, and of slow-looking being essential. I’ve made a lot of small work in recent years and part of the reason for that is that I think the size encourages the viewer to physically lean in towards the painting, almost echoing my hunched posture when painting it. 
PINK SANDS - This hunched over stance and your method was suggesting to me an almost penitent process, but it doesn’t sound like that’s your experience, perhaps its more about intimacy or self sufficiency? 
HELEN BLAKE - The word that jumps out at me from all the questions you’ve asked me is ‘self-sufficiency’. I have never considered this word in relation to my practice before, but it is actually very apt. That’s where the decision is coming from to not use any aids (no masking tape, pencil guides lines etc). There’s a strong desire in me for truth to materials, even respect for materials. I do think of paint as an incredible medium and I want to work with it, as if I have a partnership with it, rather than batter it into submission. And staying with the idea of truth to materials, I don’t aim to create an illusion, I stay away from suggesting three-dimensionality, and I want what I make to be very obviously simple paint on a flat surface, applied by hand, with all the resulting little wobbles and flaws and imperfections. I do work in a way which is very self-contained. 


Lane swimming

PINK SANDS - I wonder if you felt a sympathy to what Stephen Forge said in our last pattern interview, about the edge being where the artwork is. Where the mechanics are exposed and where the guts of it happen. 
HELEN BLAKE - Yes, a lot of the things that Stephen said in his interview really stuck a chord with me – his insistence on showing the bones, the idea that it’s all happening at the edges, where the construction can be seen. It’s really important to me that the work I make contains many tiny edges, where colour fragment meets colour fragment, because this is where things happen, where and how colours become activated. 
PINK SANDS - I noticed you’d seen the Bonnard show at Tate and seemed impressed. I love the way he weaves colours/marks through each other. I expect he’s someone you find interesting? 
HELEN BLAKE - Yes, he was a fantastic painter and I’m very glad I got to see that show. He is of course very much about the colour, and quite obviously an instinctive arranger of colour areas. The colour relationships are so exciting, and he activates colour by, weaving colours and marks through each other. He’s also an artist who reacts to pattern. When you consider that all his paintings were painted from memory in the studio and never in front of the subject, (“The presence of the object… is a hindrance for the painter when he is painting”) it’s noticeable that he remembers and records a lot of pattern, either deliberate intentional pattern - the checks of the tablecloth, or the pattern of bathroom tiles or the pattern on a wall; or random, coincidental pattern such as the lights and darks of foliage in full sun. And then there’s the juxtaposing and weaving of colours within the shadows of the people and objects which he’s remembering. 
PINK SANDS - There was a funny review of Bonnard by Picasso in the Tate catalogue to his show. He was really arsey, basically saying Bonnard’s too indecisive and not got the bottle to take creativity by the scruff and throw it into the future. It really made me laugh. Why’s Picasso so threatened, if he’s such a future maker himself do you think? 
HELEN BLAKE - Yes, I didn’t know Picasso was so scathing about Bonnard, I was really surprised to read what he had to say. Especially seeing as what Picasso essentially seems to me to be complaining about is that Bonnard is too sensitive to what he sees and to the way he makes a painting. Picasso says, “Another thing I hold against Bonnard is the way he fills up the whole picture surface, to form a continuous field, with a kind of imperceptible quivering, touch by touch, centimetre by centimetre…it’s an extremely orchestrated surface developed like an organic whole…” to me this is high praise! Picasso says, “Painting isn’t a question of sensibility; it’s a matter of seizing the power…” “And that’s what I hold against Bonnard. I don’t want to be moved by him.” It almost sounds as if Picasso, ever combative, and ever wishing to be seen as combative, was annoyed at and wanted to deny his own reaction to Bonnard’s paintings. 
PINK SANDS - A natural bodily or cultural reaction! that’s interesting. Do you feel like patterns get lost in a time of constant image proliferation. When everyone’s trying to tickle your eyeballs to get to your brain. Or does that make them somehow a particularly relevant thing? 
HELEN BLAKE - This is certainly the age of bombardment with images. But I think patterns touch a chord within us that is almost primeval. Some of the earliest known pieces of artwork made by a human ancestor are simple geometric patterns. Life is all about patterns: breathing, the heartbeat, the rhythm of walking, night and day; even birth and death is a pattern of human existence.

Belt and braces, 2019

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