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Andrew Cranston

Andrew Cranston is a Scottish artist and “painter-storyteller” whose works often use linen-bound book covers as painting supports, at times leaving their original spines exposed, and re-surfacing them with layers of oil, acrylic, varnish and collage. For Cranston, painting is a “mix of thinking and doing”, and in his layered paintings, a story emerges that describes the particular intersection of daily life – as represented by still-life scenes featuring pears, fish, cats, tables and chairs – and the wider sphere of knowledge represented by the book as object. Each book becomes a scene and a story, as well as a record of a particular vision of light, space and time.

Interview by Christabel Stewart 
Portrait by Lewis Cranston

CHRISTABEL STEWART Can you remember the first book cover you used to make a painting? 

ANDREW CRANSTON I can’t remember the title, but it was a German book which I found in a drawer in a studio in Düsseldorf, during a residency in 2006. When I painted on it, it felt instantly resonant and full of possibilities. Long before that, I had painted on found objects such as record covers, so it’s possible I had also painted on books, but that was the first time that I consciously used one. Paul Housley was actually the first person I remember using them really effectively as a support. It was in a show he hung on a garden fence at a house in Bermondsey. That would be about ten years before it occurred to me to do it myself.

CS You write a lot and have an obvious love of literature and the beauty of the book as an object. Is there a frustrated writer inside you? 

AC I feel something of an imposter there because I don’t know what I’m doing, but I find writing pleasurable and useful, especially first thing in the morning. It’s the only time I can think in words. The day gets more visual and less verbal as it goes on. Painting for me is a happier mix of thinking and doing, exercise even. I discover ideas through playing with materials – writing seems more alienating and angst-ridden. Being a lone wolf, though, I like how writers have an unquestioned and protected sphere of solitude. It’s accepted that novels and poems will generally be written by people alone in rooms. It’s just the way it is. This seems much more contested in visual art. You feel, or are made to feel, that painting away on your own and shunning collaboration is selfish, if not self-indulgent. The books I buy to paint on are almost always cloth-covered hardbacks, which I fillet from their insides. I choose them for their colour, shape and surface, and these formal qualities trigger ideas for paintings. Only occasionally does the content or title of the book become part of the work. Sometimes I’m lucky with particular qualities the book has and half the painting is already done for me. I do love books as objects. I suppose books have a certain hallowed status in our society, signifiers of civilisation itself, and even though the world is full of books – the majority of which are rubbish – cutting a book up and destroying it to make something else still feels iconoclastic, even sacrilegious. This appeals to the punk within me.

CS Has your relationship with narrative altered much as you have been working and developing your style? Is there a correlation between style and narrative? 

AC I think over time the correlation has become less obvious, and narratives more implied. That first time I made a painting on a book, which I mentioned earlier, I made a painting – an illustration even – of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), showing the character as a huge insect. It was an obvious, even dumb, choice, which was part of the appeal of doing it. I probably wouldn’t do that now. Ideally, you find a method or palette that feels right. This always seems to take a long time to find and is best not looked for but stumbled upon. It’s often a realisation that one thing you might be trying is better suited for another. I think artists have to be opportunists and stay open to changing their minds all the time.


I’ve always got a lot from a phrase of Emily Dickinson, “tell all the truth but tell it slant”


CS Does a painting write itself, like a journey started with an unknown arrival point? 

AC Yes. There can be a momentum that allows you to follow the logic, for want of a better word, of the work, as if you are not wholly in control. It’s not at all a mystical thing but feels like a natural form of thought. “What does the painting need?”, you might ask yourself, or even, “What is this painting that is emerging?” When I was a student in Aberdeen in my twenties, I read some books on Zen Buddhism which helped me with this kind of intuitive trust. Sometimes the notion for a painting, the “idea” if you like, can be so light and fleeting, the merest glimpse of something seen or felt. 

CS Titles are important to your work and often have literary allusions or origins. Do you keep a journal of potential titles for works? 

AC You never really stop collecting, so yes, I am always receptive to the possible application of a phrase or a title. I’ve always been a list maker. I collect titles, and I find that if I have a thought for a painting it can be filed under a sentence, in a notebook or on my phone. This allows me to keep returning to it, until it’s ready to paint. This is especially the case when I am away from the studio. Sometimes I want the title to be somewhat cryptic, and work at a lateral angle to the work, so the viewer might mentally be diverted somewhere else, or be faced with a different set of associations. At other times it does exactly what it says on the tin.


CS How important is Scottishness to your work? I have seen a particular book cover painting where the word Scotland remains on the spine. 

AC Leaving a title or label invites certain associations or baggage with the viewer, so something like “Scotland” will stand for certain things, imagined or real. The use of it can be something of a red herring in that it might have very little obvious connection to the work. Scottishness is a factor. I suppose, when it comes to subject matter, you give yourself permission for some things and deny yourself others. Scottishness in its broadest definition gives me a lot of scope and potential – certain places, histories, culture and attitudes that I am attuned to and have access to. Even though I don’t like or agree with the notion of “staying in your lane”, some climates, palettes, subjects can remain alien territory where you are always a tourist. There is a certain strain of dark, droll humour that I’ve come to appreciate more and more and see how – in performers like Chic Murray or Ivor Cutler – a certain austere dourness becomes strangeness. Growing up, this humour was part of the air I breathed.

CS To me, I’ve always recognised the very time-specific nature of your paintings: a hazy morning, a midnight revelation, a long, lazy afternoon. These are times when a moment is somehow allowed to take place – a slowing down. Do you start a work with a specific time in mind? 

AC Often there are very specific moments that I have in mind, usually from my own experiences, but intentions often slip and change once you are actually painting. Sometimes we seem so receptive to noticing things it’s as if the flow of time has been stopped or slowed. It might be a moment where something specific happens but often it’s the opposite – a lull in activity, a lack of drama, or the moments before or after an event. I think of a Hopper painting of a man sitting on a bed. The figure is so frozen and still that it strikes me as not a posed stillness but one of those vacant moments where the enormity of a situation leaves you paralysed. I am drawn to those liminal in-between times – dusk, twilight, or to use a vernacular word that nobody actually uses, the gloaming. The light seems to be hanging. Film directors have fetishised it as the “golden hour”, where there might be an ethereal quality to ordinary moments – Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) is the classic example. It might be unexpected moments of the night, brought on by insomnia or the fear from a sound next door. I once spent a summer in Norway and travelled above the Arctic Circle where the sun never sets. The quality of light was extraordinary: at midnight, long, long shadows. It was psychologically unnerving because of our habit of measuring time by change of light. Time didn’t seem to be moving forward at all.

CS I feel you care about the characters in your paintings. There is an empathetic curiosity, a need to capture meaningful, elusive, moments. A flickering of a candle, the fading light of a sunset: illumination of thought, humanity. 

AC Yes and no. What you say is all true and I do try to tackle big feelings and not shy away from life itself, as art often does; but on the other hand, painting is its own thing and has an element of artifice, like a play – how playwright and novelist Luigi Pirandello creates his “characters” to have some independence. I’m involved and removed at the same time. I was recently asked to do a self-portrait for a project and however hard I tried I couldn’t do it. I’m not sure why. Possibly it is too close, and I need to get at those feelings and meanings from a less direct approach. I’ve been asked a lot about the inclusion of animals – cats, dogs, birds – in the paintings. I do think there is some aspect of empathy involved, a point of view, and our awareness and attitudes to animals reflects our humanity or lack of it. It’s like in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), where animals play a part in identifying the truly human in us, empathy being the key difference between us and androids.

CS Do you see small works as short stories and therefore larger works as novels? Could painting work in this way? 

AC I have thought of it like that sometimes. I hardly ever read novels these days because I have so little spare time. I almost only read short stories and poetry. It suits me that a poem can be read quickly but digested slowly. I like the compactness that comes with those two forms, and how when you might be getting only a section of something, ambiguity seems to play a bigger part. My son Lewis is a filmmaker and we talk about this quite a bit. It seems sad that often filmmakers only seem to make short films early on in their careers as a stepping stone to make feature films, and then never go back to making shorts, whereas a shorter form has its own, arguably harder, demands and might be much more appropriate for certain ideas.


CS Would you agree that you can’t be a painter if you’re not a poet? 

AC Yes, that’s probably true. There seems to be a convincing relationship between the two. There’s the bare-faced poverty of it in its essence – some words arranged on a page, coloured mud on a surface. Constraints often play some part, self-imposed or by circumstance. There’s the question of representation and finding ways beyond mere appearances – how something looks, feels, smells. It is often an attempt to translate a thought or feeling into another language, the language of painting. People mistake that for some stylistic choice whereas it is – to sound very grand – a search for a poetic truth. Approaching painting in poetic terms, rather than journalistic reportage, gives you a sense of freedom. I’ve always got a lot from a phrase of Emily Dickinson, “tell all the truth but tell it slant”.

CS Do you envisage a time when you won’t paint on book covers? 

AC Yes I’m trying hard – like a smoker – to give them up, but I keep acquiring them. It’s as if they find their way to me. Our neighbour, who buys and sells books, regularly leaves me little piles. ◉