'On Making Pictures' (frieze, 119, 11/2008)

Glaswegian novelist and artist Alasdair Gray answers questions from frieze about his approach to art, life and literature.

Alasdair Gray was born in Glasgow in 1934 and studied Design and Mural Painting at Glasgow School of Art from 1952-7. Since then he has exhibited widely across Scotland, particularly in his home city of Glasgow, where he has undertaken several mural commissions for many of the city’s churches. He is also a prolific writer: he has published 19 books, and has won both the Whitbread Book Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. His most recent novel, Old Men in Love, was published by Bloomsbury in 2007.

A publication on a series of Gray’s works, which were commissioned in 1972 by BBC Scotland for a potential film project, with accompanying poems by Liz Lochhead, was published by Sorcha Dallas in October 2008. The pictures Gray made for the project were shown for the first time at Sorcha Dallas in April 2008. A major retrospective of the artist’s work is planned for various venues in 2010. In 2009 Cannongate will publish a visual biography of the artist’s work, A Life In Pictures.

FRIEZE To paraphrase the questions asked in the endpapers for your Book of Prefaces (2000): ‘Who are you?’, ‘How did you get here?’, ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘What should you do?’

ALASDAIR GRAY I am a maker of pictures, books, plays, born in Glasgow and still there because nobody has paid me to leave it for long. I am going nowhere that I clearly foresee. I should live like Jesus but I am too selfish to try.

F One of your self-portraits is captioned ‘Gray as a harmless old josser’. To what extent is self-deprecation such as this (and the negative criticism you often include on the dust jackets of you own books) a creative position, a genuine reflection of your own self-image or an essential disguise?

AG Self-deprecation is the safest disguise for my overweening arrogance.

F Many of your images depict people in domestic settings – the kitchen or the living room – solitary figures, occasionally couples, many with a cup of tea by their side. Is home where your heart is?

AG My emotions are chiefly engages with my work and as my studios have mostly been at home I have worked there more than elsewhere, but am equally at home wherever I draw or paint.

F The cover of Lanark (1981) features a detail from your painting Cowcaddens in the Fifties (1964). Can you describe how Glasgow in the 1950s influences the early stages of the book ad how your home city remains a source of inspiration for you?

AG I attended Glasgow School of Art from the age of 17 to 22, as exciting and formative a time for me as scholars have found their Oxford college or medical students St Barts. Are not all artists and writers inspired by the places that educated them? Remember James Joyce and Marc Chagall in Paris recreating pre-1914 Dublin and Vitebsk.

F A two-part question: if you had a time machine, what year would you travel to? Are you affected by nostalgia, or do you look forward to the future?

AG The only good use for a time machine would be forestalling accidents. I am not nostalgic but the past is my raw material, the present where I try to make art of it, hoping it will be linked to the future.

F How do you account for the recent resurgence of interest in your work in the contemporary art world?

AG I cannot account for it. A few months ago I would have said it was caused by Glasgow art dealer Sorcha Dallas promoting it, but she recently said the interest existed before she and I met.

F Do your pictures always grow from your writing, or have any of your pictures ever grown into a novel?

AG The pictures are made of shapes, the stories of words, so they don’t feed each other, though when illustrating a book, I try to make images the reader could not deduce from the text, even if I can.

F Are writing and painting equally difficult? Do they stem from the same imaginative source? Is one more enjoyable than the other?

AG Painting and writing are equally difficult when a lovely idea has to be slogged over to keep it alive and true to a single outline. Both are equally enjoyable when I see or hear I am working well. (I read sentences aloud while making them).

F What art inspires you at the moment and why?

AG At the moment (4.25pm, Thursday, 17 September 2008) I feel glum and uninspired because three hours ago I learnt that a drawing I am turning into silk-screenable form must be done over again.

F What writers in particular have influenced you and why?

AG Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg, for the same reasons that others enjoy them. Rudyard Kipling, William Blake and Hendrik van Loon inspired me by showing writers can make their own picture books. Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth (1944) gave me the idea that a wall painting could be the greatest kind and should be made by artists who could, even if nobody else wanted them.

F Is your mural for the auditorium of Òran Mór in Glasgow finished yet?

AG No. I and Colin Beattie, the owner of the building, knew before the work started in 2002 that its size made estimating the completion date impossible. He agreed that me and my assistants would be paid each week the hourly rate of a fully qualified tradesman - £15 an hour after insurance. This satisfactory arrangement persists. Before the building opened to the public in 2004 the auditorium ceiling was completed. Work on the eastern gable, side-aisles, ventilation ducts and other arts are now being completed by Nichol Wheatley, whose firm Perfect Circle Art is separately paid by Beattie to install my designs for decorated dados, friezes, pillars, pilasters and other repetitive work. Some delay is caused by the auditorium being used for sales and university conferences, concerts, banquets, large private functions and one meeting of the Scottish Parliament, and also because I take days or weeks off to work on other pictures or writing.

F What inspires you to make a mural?

AG The vanity of making my biggest possible paintings publicly visible.

F You have written widely on political issues. What do you see as the ideal relationship between art, literature and politics?

AG The ideal nation would have many democratic local governments helping their electorate use local resources to make their homes, gardens, streets and public buildings good-looking and interesting to visitors – but to themselves first. So every district should have a theatre and concert hall, gallery, pubs, restaurants, churches and public offices beautifully made and decorated, a set-up only obtainable by educated public servants who connect the people they serve with architects, artists, musicians and writers they are able to commission. These should be local if they know of good things made elsewhere, or invited from elsewhere if they are willing to learn about the locality. Recently Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Arts Council have employed English consultancies to administer local arts festivals and Creative Scotland programmes. The administrators were highly paid consultants so lost no money and time by consulting local artists or communities.

F Has you local Scottish material estranged many readers?

AG Seemingly not. Where I live is as unique as everywhere else, but sufficiently like other places to seem partly familiar to those who read my English, though it is written with a Scots accent. I also use material from other places. The Institute in Lanark combines experiences of any British hospital and university with the London Underground and BBC Television Centre. And in my best short story, ‘Five Letters from an Eastern Empire’ (1983), Glasgow University (or any other) is caricatured as the capital of an elaborate, obsolete, oriental empire.

F Are you more influenced by the ideas in a picture or the look of it?

AG I do not understand this question, because I see no difference between a picture’s ideas and its appearance.

F Do you make your pictures from memory, imagination, photographs or life models?

AG All my portraits and nudes are drawn or painted from life. Landscapes are based on drawings, sometimes helped by photographs and, when of very big places, sometimes maps. On inventing a figure of the sort once called ‘a moral emblem’ I keep using it again and again in murals and illustrations. Pictures on a mural scale often combine what I think are real appearances with imaginative inventions.

F What is your preferred medium and why?

AG I start most pictures with an outline drawn in pencil or an architect’s Rotring pen on small surfaces, with a painted-loaded brush on large ones. If done on paper, pencil or pen drawings are then mounted on a rigid surface. I prefer to draw on the furrier side of brown wrapping paper because it can be tinted with a variety of mediums – watercolour, ink washes, wax crayon, pencil. Backgrounds and other large areas may then be painted with a flat acrylic colour. In murals the largest areas are emulsion with smaller areas in acrylic, final details in artists’ oil paint or commercial enamel.

F Your paintings sometimes contain images within images: for instance, the paintings leaning against the wall in Making Pictures (Film Sequence with Liz Lochhead) (1972) behind a young woman drawing a portrait, the comic book on the table in Spring Onions (1967), the child’s face in the corner of one of The McChlery Children (1970) portraits, or the multiple television sets stacked behind Malcolm Cooper and Fidelma Cook in your 1977 portrait of them. Can you tell us a little bit about this recurrent pictorial device?

AG Seeing worlds within worlds and different worlds beside each other pleases me as much as stories within stories. William Blake asked God to keep everyone ‘from single vision’.

F Would it be right to suggest that your very bold use of line – often reminiscent of woodblock prints or highly graphic political pamphlets – suggests a certainty, confidence and conviction about that which you depict?

AG The certainty you refer to is not in me. I have a wavering mind, as most artists do – Vladimir Mayakovsky called himself ‘a cloud in trousers’ – but am only happy with I have made, usually after several attempts, to look certain.

F Who was Symington the Agitator from you work of 1969?

AG A communist bus driver I knew in the 1960s. When government grants were available for those who wished to extend their educations, he acquired good academic degrees in several fields of study in which he never tried to work.

F How does the intimacy of drawing or painting at home affect the kind of images you make, as opposed to that of working on the scale of a large public mural?

AG It produces smaller results.

F A number of your images – such as The Rainbow and Snakes and Ladders (both 1972) – are subtitled ‘Film Sequence with Liz Lochhead’. Can you tell us about the film for which these were intended?

AG Macolm Hossick, a producer at the BBC in Glasgow, having commissioned Scottish schools television plays from me, suggested I work with him privately on a film that showed my pictures of a young woman in a single interior (his home) interspersed with his live camera views of her. We agreed that, since the film needed a story, the woman should be an art student at home by herself, remembering the beginning, middle and end of a love affair in the same room. There would be no spoken dialogue, but an interior monologue giving her thoughts. I was friendly with Liz Lochhead, who willingly wrote a series of poetic monologues giving the course of the love affair. My pictures illustrated these. The girl was played by Doreen Tavendale. Her lover only appeared in my pictures and was played by Russell Logan, to whom she was engaged (they have now been married for nearly 40 years). Mr.Hossick expected me to make several small pictures quickly, knowing I can draw likenesses fast. But I regards my facility as the starting point for bigger and better paintings. It took me a year to finish most of them, by which time Hossick had left the BBC and gone to live in Corfu.

F What is the relationship between The Engineer and The Feudal System in your work from 1950?

AG They are from a series of 14 pictures illustrating a lecture I gave in Whitehill Secondary School in Glasgow when I was 16, telling the story of mankind from the last Ice Age to the establishment of the welfare state under British socialism.

F In pictures such as Archie Hind on the Banks of the Clyde, Dalmarnock Power Station Behind (1977), you name the figures depicted in your titles. It seems that the people around you are very important to your work. Do you see portraiture as a tribute to the sitter, or would you accept that there is often something rather unkind about a good portrait?

AG A good portrait is a well-considered appreciation of someone’s appearance, so should not flatter but portraits are hardly ever cruel. Only Otto Dix made good portraits that I think unkind because when painting a few people (though never himself) he emphasizes defective traits by reducing their common humanity. No other fine artists do that in their straight portraits – not even William Hogarth, Francisco Goya or Henri de Toulouse – Lautrec. The queen in Goya’s royal family group [The Family of Charles IV, 1800-1] has the face of many grumpy aging women but she did not complain so why should we think Goya cruel? I feel the portrait of Archie you mention is inadequate rather than unkind – I have made better pictures of his face – but he did not complain and the setting is one he chose, and I’m pleased with it.

F Quite often your pictures include text. Which comes first, the words or the image? Do you ever get frustrated with the fact that pictures cannot speak clearly enough on their own?

AG The pictures come first, except in book illustrations. Most good pictures do speak for themselves and don’t need elaborate labeling. But people who commission portraits want my signature on them and so I also began putting in their names, addresses and sometimes references to weather and the political climate. The 40 or more streetscapes and portraits commissioned in 1977 by the People’s Palace in Glasgow, a social history museum, were intentional historical records, so I wrote locations and people’s names on the picture surface instead of on labels that might get lost.

F Are you particularly fond of one picture you have made, over all others?

AG No.

F Is there a question that you haven’t been asked that you would like to answer?

AG Because I’m not high up a scaffolding completing my decoration of the auditorium of Òran Mór’s east gable wall. (The question is: ‘Why are you drinking too much?’)