Work for "Dwell Time" magazine

This piece was written as a submission for “Dwell Time” blogs paper magazine. Their site is concerned with mental health issue. The work was to be about 750 words and as I can blather on indefinitely, given half a chance, it was a very good exercise in sticking to a word count…. ish.

“Hello, how are you today?”

Another Friday, I don’t quite like them, I have to leave my house to attend a counselling session at 11.30am. I panic leaving home on Fridays, well, any day really. I’ve suffered from agoraphobia with panic attacks for 40 years.

Duayne, my nice N.H.S. counsellor has recently diagnosed that my mental health conditions are due to PTSD, predominantly caused by my childhood sexual abuse and repeated trauma. “40 years for a diagnosis”, I could have paid off a mortgage quicker. No two-week rule for mental health diagnoses.

On arrival, I have a questionnaire to complete each week, it’s only to find out if I’m planning a more permanent solution to end my maladies, no one wants to get sued. During this routine, I have a mental flash back. I’m about 5 years old lying in bed at my parents’ house.

Good, my parents had finally gone to sleep. My bedroom faced the old goods yard in Eccles. I stayed awake for hours listening to the whistles, hoots and bangs, the sound of the engines straining to pull away with their full complement of heavily ladened trucks. The engines chugging noise started fast and loud. Then suddenly as the huge iron wheels gained traction on the shiny steel track, a loud snapping noise, followed by a loud bang, as all the trucks couplings strained under tension. Gradually the chug became a deep boom and the wheels squealed as the engine slowly began to move off.

“Hello Martin, how have you been this week?” Duayne asks. “OK” I reply.

Lying or as I now think of it, a verbal economy of remembered truth, has become a normal part of everyday life. It’s not because avoiding telling the truth gratifies me with pleasure, in fact, the complete opposite is true. “How are you, Martin?”, people ask, I want to reply, “I’m tormented by demons from my past, my head is spinning, I can’t think straight, I can’t stop shaking, my heart thinks I am running a marathon, I want to run away and hide, help me stop this, please!!!”. Of course, I don’t say that.

I’ve learned, along with a vast proportion of mental illness sufferers, that publicly, honesty and truth are virtues better kept to ourselves. Neither honesty or truth are expected by the inquirer, and if we persist with these virtues, it would undoubtably equate to a loss of friends.

The fallacy that the virtual perfectly sparkling worlds of Facebook etc are new modern alternate realities, is unfortunately a wrong premise. This alternate presentation of reality has been the domain (sorry, no pun intended) of mental health sufferers’ years before the internet was even a twinkle in D.A.R.P.A.’s eye.

Unfortunately, the perfect life style presented by social media and sense of failure, inadequacy and personal imperfection they create for us mere mortals is experienced by a mental health sufferer every time someone asks, “How are you?”.

My fellow sufferers and I, have by necessity, had to learn to self-regulate negative responses to this question. As with the internet, posts or chats filled with seeming negative, self-indulgent and self-pitying speeches, get very few “likes”, even if true. Socially we have been forced into a world of sanitised whitewashed speech. I used to say, “I’ve been better, I’ve been worse”, but even this non comital reply will make the inquirer’s smile curl down at the edges.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want pity, sympathy or a well-meaning platitude, but if you ask me the question “How are you Martin?”, at the precise moment when my couplings have taken up as much strain as they can, the metaphoric wheels of my brain are struggling to grip on the tracks of reality and the squeal of anxiety starts to grow lounder and louder in my brain, be thankful that I have spared you from the truth, accept my lie with a grateful heart, because the truth isn’t really the response you wanted when you asked.

Duayne gives me a sideward glance, a knowing smile appears across his tilted head, he raises one eye brow. My head droops… Duayne asks again, “Hello Martin, how have you been this week?” …. “Not good I reply “, a tear falls to the floor. “Why don’t you tell me about it, we can spare ten minutes out of the session”. “Thanks, Duayne”, I reply, “You’re a pal”.

This is dedicated to all N.H.S. staff, who even though they are paid to listen, listen from their hearts and not just their wallets. Please actively support our free health service.

Making room for “X” Quality

Fratres Part. Martin Gillbanks. Acrylic on canvas. 2019

“I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”

A quote from Arvo Part, from the essay White Light by Hermann Conen, as translated into English by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (found in the liner notes of the ECM release of Alina).

The Brief is to:

1. Initiate self-directed practice with a measure of independence

2. Evidence a knowledge of contemporary art in relation to identified themes.

3. Experiment with media, method and materials responding to unexpected outcomes.

4. Develop creative and imaginative solutions to identified problems.

5. Demonstrate initiative and resourcefulness in decision-making.

I pondered over this brief for some time. Its summation, personal to me shouted “step out of your comfort zone.

Challenging my usual process

To maximise the opportunity for “X” quality I knew I had to make some drastic changes to my practise, inspiration, materials, tools, mind set, motivation at time of painting etc. I have been reading “The art spirit” a collection of Robert Henri’s teachings, essays, letters and notes. Hardly contemporary one may say, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant to today’s artist.

Changing Size of work, Canvas not paper

I had been told by Peter to “make my work bigger”, as it tended to be sketch book sized, at its biggest it was half imperial watercolour paper (400mm x 570mm). So change watercolour paper for canvas. Instead of 400mm x 570mm paper, I changed up to 1800mm x 1800mm canvas. I didn’t have a frame for the canvas so I stapled it to the studded plasterboard wall. I also changed my normal format shape from landscape to square, as a square has less inherent interest, adding more complexity to an aesthetically pleasing end product.

No use of brushes, use plastering tools

I wanted to experiment with the tools used for applying the paint, brushes seemed to predictable. I decided that I would use tools from my previous profession as a builder. I thought that plastering tools were more suited to an experimental process. As the canvas was hanging directly on flat plasterboard it could be similar to plastering. I had no idea how this would play out but acrylic paint was chosen, instead of plaster. (Upon application cheap acrylic paint, having little body to it, was very hard to control as it was excessively runny).

Fully saturated colours straight out of the tube, no tints, no tones or shades

Tint = colour plus white. Tone = colour plus grey. Shade = colour plus black.

As most of my previous work involved mixing secondary colours from two or more pigment, then altering these colours by tinting, toning and shading, I decided I would use pure colour straight from the tube. The finished works colour harmony would have to be achieved by study and knowledge of the colour wheel, colour theory and the use of complementary, split complementary, diads, triads and tetrads colours.

Using unusual and different reference material

Contemporary, modern and post modern art is not my usual place to look for inspiration. It’s not that I have a narrow blinkered view of what is considered “Good” art, but I have a nagging feeling that some of this “Good” stuff is only “Good” because we are told it is. Galleries, collectors and investors, work hand in hand to set sickeningly exorbitant prices for work that they judged to be “Good”, they bolster and manufacture artists reputation, in an attempt to justify these at best mediocre works. Two such artists I place in this category are Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin. Nothing personal but we need not look any further than the works of these two artists to observe the prices fixing, money laundering nature of “high end art”. We have now got to the point where art works are first and foremost a “blue chip investment opportunity” for corporations, banks and/or the world’s controlling elite, as advertised on “Maddox Art Advisory” website. ( )

But I digress. I looked at work by many artists including:

The performance art of Andrea Fraser, the interactive installations of Hans Haacke.

The painting of Elaine de Kooning and Gerhard Richter.

Picasso’s drawings

I spent many hours before commencing the work looking at Picasso’s early work, both drawings and paintings. I had been given the book, “Picasso. From the ballet to drama. 1917-1926”. Picasso’s drawings are superb, the fluidity of his line and the seeming effortless nature of his mark making, reveal his mastery of achieving, so much with so little. We may be fooled into thinking that its execution is simple, it is not. I wanted to feel a little of the confidence, that is manifest in these drawings.

Starting the work

I stapled the canvas to the wall, after levelling with a spirit level. I primed the canvas by plastering it with white household emulsion paint. The household emulsion was very runny and constantly fell off the hawk and trowel. I learned to measure out just enough paint on to the hawk to work swiftly, causing the least amount of spillage.

As can be seen in the image above, some paint was deposited on the floor , but not too much. This priming process was very enjoyable, but tiring. I had not considered what effect this physical plastering work would have on my medical condition of chronic fatigue. I was exhausted and felt very ill. I was pleased I had to give it time to dry, before any further work could be done.

I reflected on how difficult it had been just to do a single white coat skim. I realised that I had to complete the work as quickly and efficiently as possible. The least amount of energy I had to expend, the better. I again spent two or three hours looking at my reference material.

Music and Art

I also wanted to include aspects of Kandinsky’s work ethic and method. Since being twelve years of age music has played a huge part in my life. The same was true for Kandinsky.

In Renée B. Miller’s article for the Denver art museum’s “Wassily Kandinsky’s Symphony of colours”, (available at dated March 19, 2014 wrote;

“For Wassily Kandinsky, music and colour were inextricably tied to one another. So clear was this relationship that Kandinsky associated each note with an exact hue. He once said, “the sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.” The neurological phenomenon Kandinsky experienced is called synaesthesia (or “joined perception,” from the Greek word syn meaning “join” and aisthesis meaning “perception”). It’s a rare but real condition in which one sense, like hearing, concurrently triggers another sense, such as sight. People with synaesthesia might smell something when they hear a sound, or see a shape when they eat a certain food. Kandinsky literally saw colours when he heard music, and heard music when he painted.

I wanted to explore this phenomenon for myself. I chose pieces of music by Estonian composer Arvo Part. I chose:

Fratres for strings and percussion. Fratres for violin, strings and percussion, Fratres lente for strings and harp ad lib, Fratres for string quartet, Fratres for cello and piano, Summa for strings, Fratres for eight cellos. These pieces were listened to over and over as the work was carried out. I have called the work “Fratres”, which when translated from the Latin means “Brothers”.

Arvo Part created a new musical language, a style that he liked to call “Tintinnabuli”. “Tintinnabuli comes from the latin ‘Tintinnabulum’ meaning “a bell”. Part’s simple style comes from his fascination with the beauty of a single note. In simple terms, Part’s “tintinnabular” music is characterised by two types of voice, the first of which (dubbed the “tintinnabular voice”) arpeggiates the tonic triad, and the second of which moves diatonically in step-wise motion. The works often have a slow and meditative tempo, and a minimalist approach to both notation and performance (available at

The colour application proved to be a little easier because the paint was slightly thicker.

Short Written Assessment of Crit and Feedback.

Reflection on critique 14-5-2019

Before the event I was traumatised, terrified, but I knew I had to go through with it, as part of my new therapy. Jo Neil mentioned before we started that we may unintentionally say something that would help, inform or bolster a fellow student’s working practice. This became the positive focus of my anxiety.

I began to reappraise the content of my presentation, trying to focus on parts of my making experience that may benefit others. I included a quote from the American artist George Bellows about being thoughtful and painstaking, whilst at the same time being impulsive and abandoned and how our in-built quest for perfection endangers our ability to grow and experiment, stunting our long-term artistic potential.

I was so encouraged after my presentation that a fellow student who has suffered said that they “got” the work, it made them feel safe, secure and in no danger from anything unexpected. It had been my study of Outsider Art that helped me to see a work could be a safe place for both the maker and the viewer. If you wanted to step through any of the 630 pictorial doorways, you could, but if not, you could relax in the symmetry of the completed work.

I learnt a huge lesson about how through the process of making I became precious and protective of the work. It had been made on crap paper, with cheap paint and thrown in the bin. But after a total of ten hours work and having it framed, the work had value to me. It was of far more worth than the mere sum of its material costs. It seemed to have its own story to tell, the emotion and security I hoped to convey some people “got”. My intended narrative was observed and experienced by fellow mental health sufferers.

The next time I do a work like this I will be more present in the moment from the outset of the process. I will have no intention of throwing the work in the bin but the unfolding process this time has taught me a great lesson.

I was dreading speaking, but we have such a great group I felt as though they were all supporting me, without judging.

Acrylic and a watercolour portraits

Acrylic left – Watercolour right

Elizabeth Peyton. 1995. Princess Elizabeth aged 16. Oil on canvas.
Elizabeth Peyton. Peter Doherty. Watercolour

My approach and the expected outcome from each of my works was in complete opposition. The acrylic work was an exercise in how little work was needed to gain a likeness with subtlety of tone, hue and mark. Whereas the watercolour was to be bold and vibrant, each brush stroke being clearly visible, making full use of the transparent medium of watercolour.

The acrylic portrait was inspired by the work of Elizabeth Peyton, (even though Mr Doherty’s portrait above is watercolour, I wanted to achieve this style in acrylic).

The watercolour portrait was a conglomeration of lots of different artists, Lucian Freud, Alvaro Castagnet, Aine Divine and Charles Reid.

Aine Divine
Aine Divine

Looking at mine now, paynes grey is not the colour to use for shadow areas of the face. It looks dull and muddy.

No grey, done today

Watercolour Portrait Exercise

Finished work

Andrew Holland my sitter suggested I try this exercise. Andrew is a great artist, friend and the main reason (apart from Peter, Steve and Jamie) I am on this course.

The medium used in this work is watercolour.

The process and ideas behind the exercise

  1. I started with a quick 5 minute preliminary sketch. Paying as much attention to the setting as to Andrew. Then an extra 2 minutes could be had if needed. I needed.
  2. All materials were prepared and ready to use in advance. A simple watercolour palette was used, along with 2 brushes, a 3/4 flat and a 1/2 flat, both cheap synthetic brushes.
  3. The preliminary sketch was then divided into 9 equal sections (3 rows of 3). From top left to bottom right, the sections were numbered 1 to 9.
  4. The work was painted 1 section at a time, in a semi random order, only allowing 5 minutes for each section and timed by a stop watch. The order in which to paint each section was decided upon as follows. A number was picked between 1 and 4, each number corresponding to a predetermined set of numbers (1 to 9), that would dictate which section I worked on next. My order was 3,7,5,2,8,1,9,4,6.
  5. As we can see in the painting section 5 contained the majority of facial features. The idea of the exercise is to force you to give the same focus of attention and time to the background setting as you would to the sitter’s face. The time limit doesn’t allow for fiddling about with details in any one section, more than it does in any other. This leads to a greater sense of cohesion in the work. It also helps, or should I say tests your knowledge of colour theory, as you don’t have the time to piss about, worrying if a green contains too much blue or a purple too much red. Each section required mixing colours from scratch, as the palette only had a small mixing area and differing amounts of water were needed for each new mix.
  6. When the 45 minutes of painting was over, it was time to have a look at what had happened, this was my first opportunity to look at all nine sections as a finished work. When I was in the throws of painting, each section became its own independent piece of work. The only time I thought about the adjoining sections was when I got to the edges and realise that the edge I was working up to was still wet or even worse, just started to dry and working in to it would cause back runs.
  7. Now was the time to decide if I needed more time on each section. I did and was allowed another 2 minutes on each section to consolidate the piece. After a further 18 minutes the work is finished. It was a very revealing process, it made me think about how much time I would have normally spent on the face and comparably how little time I would have spent on the background.
  8. The amount of water added to the pigment was of paramount importance. Because only having a set amount of time, every edge I was working up to would be wet into wet or wet into drying, the latter are the most problematic. An example being section 7, it was painted 2nd on the list and section 4 (being above 7) was painted 30 minutes later when section 2 was almost completely dry, the “almost” word is the problem. Far less water was added to the pigment on the edge of section 2 where it met with section 7. We can see a back run in this area on Andrew’s right shoulder.

It is no masterpiece, although I think it has a great sense of, spontaneity, life and colour. Technique took a back seat and fervour the designated driver for the afternoon. This exercise is great for learning to paint loosely. It frees you from worrying about anything other than getting the thing finished in time, making you work from intuition and instinct, rather than from thought and technique.

Total time for work. 70 Minutes

Sketch books

Here are some recent sketches from my sketch books. The main theme of the works done lately is internal and external spaces and the absence of people.

Pen and ink from photograph
Pen ink and white gouache
Pencil pen watercolour
Pen ink and white gouache
Pen and ink
Black acrylic and Paynes grey watercolour
Pen ink and watercolour
Marker pen and gouache
Marker pen and gouache