Philip Clairmont Paints a Triptych

PHILIP CLAIRMONT: The idea of doing a set of progress photographs of the Staircase Triptych arose when Mark Adams came to see me just as I was about to begin a big painting. He had the idea of doing photographs of one of my paintings right throughout its various stages.


I started the Triptych that same afternoon while Mark was there with his gear - his lights and cameras. To start with I was a bit self-conscious with having him there: although in another way his presence became quite stimulating. From Mark's point of view it was a photographic exercise. He chose the moments when to photograph the work.

This particular painting was based on a drawing I did last year. I had done a staircase painting in triptych form - which was bought by the Manawatu Art Gallery - and this was a drawing made about the same time.

The staircase is a subject I've used more than once. Recently I did another staircase painting which was a sort of prelude to a triptych - the right-hand panel - but it didn't get beyond that. Apart from the fact that there was a staircase in the house I was living in, in Newtown, what interested me about the subject were the spatial elements, the strong feeling of the interior you get from it, the different levels and so on. It was a useful pretext for doing a painting. This particular staircase had a single lightbulb... there was a mirror. . . there were paintings on the wall…

Progress photographs by Mark Adams

I'm very interested in the series thing - the triptych where you can look at different phases. A triptych is a very challenging format. It's something I could stick with for a long time.

The thing that was unusual about this painting was that it was done in one session. It didn't use elements of other paintings. With a lot of my works you can see parts of another painting coming through from underneath. But this triptych was a one-off work, done in one long session. It's a risky way of working - but I liked the risk and the challenge.

I began this triptych, as I generally do, with; the priming, putting down three colour backgrounds: prussian blue in the middle and raw sienna in the two flanking panels. I roughed out the ideas - the forms, the lines, the spaces -with acrylic paint. From about the stage of the fifth photograph shown here I'm beginning to introduce oil paint over the acrylic underpainting. The advantage of the acrylic in the initial stages is that it dries quickly, so you can work over it almost immediately.

I always find that the earlier part of the painting is the more crucial part. When it gets to a certain stage everything seems to fall into place. At the beginning I need to get it down, rough it in quickly. Later I reach a more reflective stage where I sit back and have a good think about it.

Progress photographs by Mark Adams

Looking again at these records of the different stages I feel that there could have been a number of different ways the painting could have gone. I like the total statement though. One of the difficult things often with my sort of painting is to determine when the conclusion has been reached. One of the beauties of this photographic process is that you can record stages of a painting and, looking back, see how it could have shot off in all sorts of different directions, still using the same basic structure. It would be an interesting experiment to make some time.

These photographs are in black and white: but the colour can be seen to be in direct conflict with the spatial thing. In the centre panel particularly the green accentuates the feeling of night - I wanted to get that feeling of night-time. I have an obsession about artificial light - it's very different from natural light. It has more of the dramatic, more of the theatre about it. It calls up your own private universe.

In the original drawing for the Staircase Triptych there's actually a figure emerging from a door. I did a big triptych in 1977, when I was living at Waikanae which was loosely based on a painting by Signorelli of Saint John the Baptist - part of a figure emerging from a lit doorway. It was a very unusual, a very strange painting. I think I had in mind the feeling that I got from that now defunct triptych. It was never completed, and it has probably been painted over.

PHILIP CLAIRMONT Staircase Triptych 1978
oil on jute canvas (Peter Webb Galleries)

ART NEW ZEALAND: What stimulates you to begin a painting?
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: I need an image, a starting-point for my paintings. I can't get any reward from doing 'abstract' paintings-colour for the sake of colour; form for the sake of form. I like to start with a subject - whether it's a chair, a fire- place, a staircase-and then transform it. At one stage I was starting to disintegrate the image entirely - the image was being lost: but now it's coming back with renewed force.
ART NEW ZEALAND: So you can take this transformation process a very long way- almost as far as you like - you can take it to extremes?
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: Yes. I think an object has a life of its own. It has an essence. And it's that essence that I'm trying to express by changing and transforming the shapes. For instance: a chair suggests a human presence. In a way I have avoided painting the human figure directly. I've painted piles of washing on a chair- just suggesting the human presence.
ART NEW ZEALAND: How do you actually begin a painting?
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: I usually start out by making a drawing. So, when I paint, I'm already working with second-hand in- formation. It's a step by step process. Sometimes I find that a drawing can't be taken any further - it's a work in its own right as a drawing. Then there are drawings that are 'drawings for paintings'- you are thinking in terms of paint even though you are using a pencil', or pen- and-ink.
ART NEW ZEALAND: With regard to paint's power of transformation, the way that paint can transform itself, or seem to transform itself, into different substances: what about formal transformation - do the forms also develop a life of their own, once you get them into the painting?
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: Yes. To talk about space. . . what seems to be coming out in the more recent works is a tendency to take the viewer into the picture only up to a certain depth. Then a halt is reached. In my paintings of the past I have perhaps had a tendency to overwork the painting, to garnish it with too much extraneous stuff. Now I seem to be sorting out the more essential things, making the same statement in a simpler way, with broader areas of colour. And where there is detail it is now more meaningful in relation to the spaces.
ART NEW ZEALAND: You said that, in away, you had avoided painting the human figure. And yet you have painted portraits - and self-portraits.
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: Yes. And I have painted crucifixions - which is a dramatic way of showing the human predicament. And I have done figure compositions - usually reflected in a mirror, at some distance. It may be that one of my ambitions as a painter is eventually to come to terms with the figure - to do something significant with it. I don't think any modern painter - apart from Francis Bacon maybe - has managed to do this.
ART NEW ZEALAND: What about Max Beckmann?
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: Beckmann has used the figure - but in an almost heraldic way. Bacon has managed to say something new about the human condition in his figures. I do regard myself as a figurative painter. And I do put a lot of myself into the objects that I paint. .
ART NEW ZEALAND: And are you an expressionist painter?
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: I don't object to that label. .
ART NEW ZEALAND: There is a 'magic' quality in the way you approach your subject-matter.
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: All true art is magical.
ART NEW ZEALAND: That is very much a romantic approach. You have quoted Baudelaire and Rimbaud in some of your titles and inscriptions. . .
PHILIP CLAIRMONT: Well I feel that painting should be a struggle all the time - an attempt at a break-through. It does involve derangement of the senses, and a bombardment of the senses. There's a danger when the viewer becomes accustomed and conditioned to a particular style. . . You were talking about magic before. I think that paint itself is a magical substance. The act of remaking or transforming an object is magic. Paint has a life of its own if you're tuned in to it. There's an element of surprise. I'm always quite surprised by what I produce. I like to keep all the options open.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 11 Spring 1978