“I think all visual art is a metaphor”

Following a previous career as a forensic psychiatrist, James Anderson’s colourful carborundum and layered woodcuts convey the emotion of inner worlds. We discuss abstraction, inspiration and the hard work of practice with him.

Artist:James Anderson

HAUSPRINT: As an abstract artist, where do your images begin?

James: It’s difficult to know exactly where some of these sort of abstracted images come from. Certainly in a number of them there have been ideas I’ve started from which have a very clear basis in the external world and they just become elaborated, abstracted into the image that then develops, and it may not necessarily be recognizable as the object that it started from, but that’s what initiated the process. 

HP: Do you see your images as metaphors for ‘real’ things?

James: I think all visual art is a metaphor. It’s standing for something that may be very easily recognisable in terms of a representational image that is then made, but even a representational image is itself a metaphor. You are generating a two-dimensional image to stand for a three-dimensional object, so abstraction is really just an extension of that.

HP: How did you find your way into becoming an artist printmaker?

I’m actually a relative newcomer to printmaking, although I’ve done a good deal of art in various forms over the years but I’ve been a doctor in various guises for most of my working life and for the bulk of it working as a forensic psychiatrist which is a criminal psychiatrist which is very interesting as you can imagine, going into Broadmoor and prisons and appearing at the Old Bailey and all that sort of thing. More latterly I ended up looking after doctors who had drug and alcohol and mental health problems, but I retired completely from that about two years ago and I’ve spent my time since then either printmaking or bicycling. 

As a psychiatrist I can’t really escape speaking a little bit about my early life. I grew up in Cambridge, my Dad was a GP there but part of that sort of rather enlightened generation after the war who were keen to see a much better and healthier society. He was a very keen advocate of the NHS when it was instituted in 1948 and at the same time he was a very keen painter, I mean very keen, he did a lot. He told me he said to his father that he wanted to be a painter but his father said to him “Don’t be so ridiculous, you’re going to be a doctor” so he was a doctor. 

So you see all the influences that shaped my subsequent career were pretty well established, but he was great fun my Dad. I was one of five kids and it was a fun household, but there was a lot of painting and art about. We had a bit of an art library in our loo upstairs so I was exposed very early to the Penguin Modern Painters series. 

HP: Did you find some artists you could connect to in that series?

James: I particularly remember Willem de Kooning and Georges Braque, Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron, so they were very formative an influence. At school I wrestled with ideas as to what on earth I was going to do in life, as all of us do I suppose, but in the end I decided to do medicine, which I did. Initially I worked as a more conventional hospital doctor which was itself very interesting. I did that for about 10 years and latterly worked in the Caribbean for a year. Then came back to this country and retrained in psychiatry and then did forensic psychiatry for most of the rest of my career. 

HP: What are the connections for you between the arts and the sciences? 

James: I think actually it’s very interesting, the overlap between psychiatry and literature, psychiatry particularly amongst specialities within medicine, and the humanities generally, but I suppose literature particularly has always had very strong associations with psychology and psychiatry. If you think about it William Shakespeare was exploring very complex psychological themes long before psychiatrists were ever invented, if one looks at Macbeth and Hamlet and so on there’s a lot of overlap, and so within medicine there are a lot of people who have interests of one sort or another in various aspects of the humanities. There is a lot of overlap. 

The other thing that I’ve always been really interested in is the psychological and cultural developments of the early 20th century where there was this extraordinary overlap between science and the arts so that while on the one hand you had quantum physics being developed you also had Sigmund Freud emerging in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. At the same time you had Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque unpicking the image in the development of Cubism, so it was this very interesting gestalt that existed at the time, where everything was being unpicked and the superficial imagery of everything was being dissected to reveal the underlying principles and structures that lay behind it.

HP: Were you making art alongside your work as a psychiatrist?

James: All the time I continued to do quite a lot of art, largely life drawing at Morley College, which I did for I think for 17 years and saw lots of different tutors in that time. It was very interesting actually, the difference between the kind of teaching I got in art classes and the teaching I got in medicine. It was much less, obviously, and understandably much less directive, and I had this idea that actually the best art teachers were those that just kept your enthusiasm going, a bit like spinning a bicycle wheel, just keeping it going without actually telling you exactly what to do, and it’s a very difficult thing to do I have to say. 

HP: Whilst studying medicine you also made time to study art. What has stayed with you from that time?

James: I was lucky enough in the middle of my medical studies to do a year of History of Art which was terrific. It was a very enlightened aspect of the medical course I was doing that encouraged people in their third year to do any subject they like and people did everything from art history to theology and philosophy but I did the development of Modernism

I’ve always loved early Renaissance painting, the boldness and the simplicity of the form and the colour and the directness of the imagery. That was reinforced in my gap year when I went to Italy and saw Giotto and so on. In terms of more modern influences, Picasso is hugely influential. I really don’t think there’s anybody who has his visual intellectual complexity and sophistication. You may not like him and you may not like his personality but I think he is so remarkable in terms of his ability to invent in so many different genre and so many different media. It’s a bit dispiriting because one wonders what the hell one can do in comparison but he is nonetheless fantastically inspirational, and with him Braque, who is a rather more modest character but is also a wonderful painter. Alongside them Henri Matisse for his fantastic line which I don’t think anybody in the 20th century bettered, even Picasso. I know they’re rather headliners but you can’t really escape them. 

HP: And more recent inspirations?

James: Perhaps more modestly some of the English Modernists – I particularly like Roger Hilton. His raw imagery is terrific, you can hear the booze emerging from it. He was a terrible alcoholic but it’s very powerful. Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Heron I like very much and of course Hodgkin who is somebody that I’m afraid may be all too obviously an influence on what I’ve done, because having got into printmaking I came across some of Hodgkin’s developments in his printmaking, which I just found terribly exhilarating because he seemed to do things with conventional printmaking techniques that nobody else did – well, not entirely conventional, because he embraced the carborundum technique.

Once I went to the Alan Cristea gallery which in those days was in Cork Street in London and one of the terribly nice and very helpful people on the desk took me downstairs and he pulled out a plate that Hodgkin had used to do one of his carborundum collagraphs. It was so exhilarating to see it so I went away and started experimenting with that technique. I like the immediacy of it, the gestural flamboyance of it. Of course the other thing it provides that nothing else does in quite the same way, is that added three-dimensional embossed quality, so that you’ve got a three-dimensional component in the printing which can be very exciting. Combining those techniques with others like aquatinting and different plates can generate some really interesting imagery. I hope it’s not simply a pale imitation of Hodgkin but it has got a bit better and it certainly got bigger.

HP: Often when you title work you use landscape references. Is this intentional?

James: I am interested in landscape but am I particularly interested in landscape? I’m not sure. I think that inevitably it’s one of those emotional scenarios where it inevitably provokes a response, so often it’s a source of the sort of images that I develop. Another of those Penguin Modern Painters was Ivon Hitchens. I think there are some correspondences between him and Hodgkin in the bold gestural quality of their mark making and it’s that sort of signature, that gestural line, particularly, that I find very interesting.

It is like handwriting really, and you can so often identify an individual by the quality of the mark making that they use, in ways that I have to say I find very difficult to actually analyse or describe in any kind of detail, but it does have some sort of psychological meaning. I think one can interpret something about the individual from the particular signature that they have. I don’t mean the literal signature, I mean the signature of their markmaking. 

HP: How do you decide on which colours to bring together in a print?

James: It’s largely the result of experimentation but I think one of the things that has been so helpful is how important it is to use extender, because if you are using multiple plates, you’ve got to allow each plate to have the opportunity to be heard. One of the mistakes I made early on was just plonking one plate on top of the other and one colour would then completely obliterate the one underneath. I learned if you use lots of extender, up to 80% sometimes, it allows the colour really to shine through.

HP: How many colours go into each image?

James: In part I’m restricted because the kind of printmaking technique I’m using largely restricts me to a relatively small number of colours for each plate. I have to think about the combinations that the summation of the plates will produce, because I’m printing one plate on top of another, diluting the colours down so they’re relatively transparent so that each one shines through, but is summated with the colours of the added plates.

Sometimes I tend to use colours in the same sort of harmonic tonal range but at other times more contrasting colours, largely through a process of experimentation. All these different components of the process have their own momentum that just keeps the ball rolling, and I think the fact that the work that I’ve been doing is abstract is again in part a response to that dynamic process I describe, in terms of how the image is developing and my ongoing response to that.

HP: Do you have to be very organised?

James: As a printmaker you do have to anticipate and plan well in advance because you’ve got to try and anticipate how the image is going to develop. That’s not to say it necessarily does develop in the way that you planned, and actually integrating some of the accidents that crop up is one of the interesting and exciting aspects of printmaking, so the image becomes more abstracted as the process goes on. I don’t want to sound too portentous about it – it’s fun.

HP: How has your work developed from when you started printmaking?

James: Since I’ve been coming to HAUSPRINT which is about 3 years, my work’s got bigger, which I like. I like big, I don’t know why but I’ve never been very good at expressing myself modestly. It’s also got more confidence. Up until about a year ago I felt I was just sort of finding my way, notching up those ten thousand hours that you have to. Now I’ve learned some of the techniques that I’ve described so I feel more confident in the process. It has got more abstract but it’s also using a combination of different techniques – using aquatint in combination with carborundum. In terms of my printmaking history, which only goes back five or six years, I have gone from originally doing line drawn traditional etching, which I really like, but i’ve always been ultimately more attracted to these bigger, more abstract ideas.

HP: What do you like most about printmaking?

James: Although it’s a technology that’s very ancient, compared to modern printmaking techniques incredibly inefficient, it nonetheless generates images that are unique.

Group discussion

HP: To what extent are your images internal states or internal landscapes?

James: It’s that eternal dilemma when you’re talking about visual arts as to quite how you can determine exactly what it represents, but I hope what I was saying about the nature of the signature was suggesting that actually it is about you and about your emotional state, not necessarily in the here and now but it is inevitably about your inner world. 

Even the most obvious representational art is about an inner world, but it is so difficult isn’t it to determine exactly how and exactly what, but it’s so clear whenever you look at one person’s imagery compared to another’s it’s quite clearly very distinct and nobody’s the same.

Audience: Is printmaking a way to get what’s in your head out of your body?

James: An experience that I found terribly distressing at the time was that I once had to interview a man in Belmarsh prison about 15 years ago, who had killed a child. He was deeply ashamed of what he’d done but he was driven by hideous internal forces and one of the things that was terribly striking was he actually told me that he could not actually sit in front of a blank piece of paper because if he had a pen he would just stab it, he said he would just destroy it and so obviously for him the paper was a very clear metaphor for the body, the flesh. I was very struck at the time by how interesting that association was. It relates to the question because he couldn’t free himself from all the stuff that was in his head. He couldn’t let it go.

HP: Do you find making your work is a relaxing process?

James: When I retired from my career I noticed I used to sleep a lot better, not that I was consciously weighed down by some of the distress that I inevitably encountered, but I think obviously it affected me, so it is very nice not to be weighed down by that.

I have to say that I don’t actually find making artwork particularly relaxing. People always say “Well it’s so nice to do these things, it’s such a relaxing hobby” but I’ve never found it relaxing. One of the reasons I never pursued it as a career when I was at school was because, being a highly neurotic individual, I found when the self-critical faculties started kicking in in my adolescence nothing was ever good enough, so I found it really difficult to do any kind of artwork. It was much easier to do something that was rather more prescriptive, I can see that, and I have to say that as I got older I just stopped being quite so mean on myself and it became a bit easier. I find it a lot easier now than I did 40 years ago.

HP: Just thinking about the image of picking up a piece of paper, how artists have a very intimate relationship with paper, and for that man not to be able to do that is quite extraordinary, because for us the way in which we pick up our paper to use, or think about your sketchbooks, they have to have a particular paper in them for us to be able to feel comfortable with them, or the way we choose your papers, it’s what we are doing all the time, isn’t it, It’s like a love affair with that paper.

Audience: It’s really about the sensory world. I think sensation is very strong in printmaking isn’t it and I think that’s where the joy is in a way, because on the other side is the angst of “Is it any good and what are you doing?” It’s the joy side that drives you forward because you love the exploring the intricacies of why that particular thing is giving you more pleasure than that.

HP: Yes, the things that are really satisfying like a very good black or a certain paper or the heaviness of the carborundum, the surface on the paper is really satisfying.

James: I do agree, I think that there are elements within printmaking that extends that sensory experience in a way that other more traditional image making doesn’t. It does have a very important added extra. 

HP: I wonder if we’re more excited about the paper and the stuff whilst making than later, because we we generally show the work to people under glass. It’s a really interesting question – do other people get as much as we’re getting from it? I’m not sure that they always do and I wonder about that, because that is what’s so special about it. There’s quite a lot of misunderstanding about it – it just like looks like a flat bit of paper to most people. 

Audience: There’s a misunderstanding in that some people aren’t aware that some things are printed into the paper and some things are like a skin on top of the paper. I think for most of us it’s that sculptural quality of squidging into the paper. There is an intensity about it which is very satisfying.

James: The other thing is that as with absolutely everything the more you know about it the more interesting it becomes and certainly my appreciation of printmaking has increased enormously since I became interested in it and I now find it riveting.

Audience: When you spoke about the blank piece of paper being stabbed or his compulsion to stab it, my immediate response was that the paper represents all the possibilities in life and you have to make a decision to make a mark on it, but that pressure was too much for him, but as obviously as an artist I’m familiar with that blank page problem. I sometimes think of printmaking as quite an elaborate means to get over that because you’ve done so many processes, between thinking, that you don’t have to deal with that blank page in the same way.

I was also thinking in relation to your prints that there are structures that you seem to come back to, almost like grids and they go from top to bottom or bottom or right to left and whether you’re shying away from analysing those in any way or what your natural tendencies are to get rid of that problem of the blank page and what they might reveal about you?

James: I do find the blank page threatening and I do find the relief that comes from printmaking is in part because of all those processes that provide a kind of momentum. Once you’re rolling it makes it easier to confront some of those decisions which are difficult I think. 

Audience: It also allows you to send things in different directions. If you’ve got the opportunity of producing a beginning several times over you can take that beginning in lots of different directions. I’m too neurotic to paint because what if I got rid of a bit that I liked last week and I don’t like what I’ve done this week as much, whereas with printmaking you’ve got that wonderful sense of a starting point and you can always come back to it unless you’re doing a reduction print where you cut everything away.

HP: You quite often do that square don’t you so you’re containing the page, aren’t you?

Audience: You’re giving yourself some known structures to work within, some kind of comfort points to start yourself off with and using those big square plates you’ve got some of those structures as well, that you stick to. I think it’s great to see this kind of series of things appearing that are all the same size but having that it gives you a kind of a comfort to work within. There are some very controlled things and it’s all okay in a way, but you know some things can be left to see what happens but there’s other things that are very firmly dug in there.

James: I think it’s rather interesting the way we developed this conversation because I think, as we were saying earlier, it is all about our inner selves but I hesitate to know exactly how.

HP: That’s pretty normal, we’re all kind of on this road of discovery of what we’re doing and who we are and why we’re doing it so I don’t know if anybody really comes up with a crystal clear solution to what it is, you just keep on going and when you’re on a roll you know it’s happening and you know what you’re doing and you’re going forward so then you’re in a good place.

Audience: If you had a crystal clear solution then you’d stop and you wouldn’t make the next one would you?

Audience: It propels you forwards because there’s always something else you can add. I think also there’s something about being at this certain age in life and exploring one’s artistic language, because we’ve got more facility to do that. It’s almost like a return to childhood in terms of exploring play and the sensory and that seems very joyful I think. Printmaking affords that play of the sensory world. I think it’s a lovely space.

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Etching was originally invented as a method for adding decoration to armour during the Middle Ages. Artists began to use metal plates for printing in the 15th century, when Albrecht Durer made work on iron plates. Later artists such as Andrea Mantegna in Italy and Rembrandt in Holland went on to make etchings on copper.

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