Geoffrey Laurence has been drawing and painting the figure for more than 45 years. Pathos and Eros dominate his expressive interpretation of the human condition. He works in pastel, charcoal and oil paint with glazes, using color to highlight his structural forms. His work seeks to marry contemporary and classical painting styles and to confront the increasing public misconception that photographic vision equals human vision. In dealing with the human figure, he strives to portray a world that we have not seen before, rather than one we already have. Working directly from life, his motifs spring from personal life experiences and empathy with the contemporary world, incorporating cinematic time into the works, as if something is about to or has previously happened outside the canvas, through ambiguity, cinematic lighting and via the use of triptychs and diptychs.
He trained in painting, graphic design, photography and printmaking in London from 1965 to 1972 and received his LCAD and BA in painting there. He spent the next 20 years concentrating on drawing and painting, working exclusively from life and specifically with the figure, whilst also working freelance in the allied arts fields of illustration, fashion and interior design.
He attended the New York Academy in 1993, receiving his M.F.A. Cum Laude and relocated from New York City to Santa Fe in 1996. Since then he has continued to work with the figure in drawings and paintings and his ongoing Holocaust Series and has taught painting, drawing, and anatomy in New York, New Mexico, Florida and Washington State.
His work is in museums and public collections in both the USA and UK.
Q&A WITH GEOFFREY LAURENCE
What concept or narrative is behind the painting, Nightingale?
The painting is about aloneness. Not necessarily loneliness, per se, but those moments when you are suddenly keenly aware of your own being; your own floating consciousness in an infinite universe. These brief and altered experiences often take place in the still of night.
When I lived in London, back in the early 1990s, for a period of several weeks one autumn, I would hear a solitary nightingale’s plaintive song; it sat in a tree on the street that was just outside my apartment in Hampstead. It would start to sing in the middle of the night around 2 or 3 am, just when all was still and quiet and most people were sleeping. The street was echoey at that time of night, and as I kept the bedroom windows open, it would wake me and I would lie in bed, half-dozing, listening to its haunting song, so very beautiful, but so alone.
I have never forgotten the feeling of that singular experience, and I wanted to make a painting about it. I sometimes like to make triptychs, which I have been doing since the 1970s, because the panels form a triangle in which the meaning of the painting sits in the middle between all three. The multi-panels also resemble a cinematic progression of scenes whose meaning we contemplate as a whole at the end of the movie.
In the left panel, you see a picture of a nightingale in a garden at night sitting on the rim of a water fountain. In the middle panel, you see a girl caught in the low light of night and blurred as if slightly moving, perhaps in contemplation of her solitude. In the right panel, you see the corner of an Italian garden with a crumbling statue and formal hedges.
When I have visited formal gardens in Italy with their tall and lush dark green columnar cypress trees,—like the Villa d’Este, or those around Lake Maggiore or the island on Lake Garda where Catullus wrote some of his most famous poems—I get that same haunting feeling of solitude as the nightingale’s night song, especially at the end of the afternoon, moving towards twilight with deep shadows. Hence the right panel image.
How much time is dedicated to the execution of the work before you actually start the process?
My paintings can take many weeks and expenses to complete. So, before I invest in that time, I make sometimes several drawing studies and colour study paintings before starting. I do this in order to finalise a composition and motif, once I am sure I am going ahead with a project. I can spend several months just on those.
What is the price range of your art?
My painting prices range from $20,000 to $125,000. Generally, they are in the $30,000 to $50,000 range, according to square inch size. The most one has sold for so far is $98,000. My drawings are $2500 to $4000, depending on size and type. My galleries have always set or increased the prices of my work and those prices per square inch have not increased since 2010.
Are you represented by a gallery?
How true are you to your artist statement?
I believe I am still struggling to achieve my stated intention of attempting to marry the reality of 600 years of classical painting with the changes that were achieved through Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, etc., after 1900 and make work that is contemporary to my time. I have no idea if I succeed in those stated goals.
How much time does it take you to create a painting?
Sometimes it can take me six months or longer to complete a work. Because of my technical process and methods, drying time is necessary between layers. I usually will work on several projects at a time, though my output has slowed down considerably since my galleries closed and I have not had the option to spend all my time in my studio.
What is your ultimate goal for your artwork?
I believe that when a true work of art is successful, it becomes a mirror, reflecting back the persona of the viewer, and therefore giving different meanings and responses for each individual. My ultimate intention is to make my audience feel on a deeper emotional level, and for my images to remain in their psyche long after seeing them. I have been told many times that they do. I try to make work that is ambiguous in that context, so the viewer is forced to search for its ultimate meaning relative to themselves. I also try to imbue a sense of time into them, in that something has happened before, or will happen after, the event shown. In other words, something is taking place outside the painting with regard to the specific motif. In this current world of fast food, and photo-based painted imagery, I want my paintings to stay with people. The great painters throughout the history of oil painting have always done that to me.
Do you have a motto or process you always stick to? If so, what is it?
I try to let spirit guide me to and through the work. I do not get pictures that arrive in my head like mail that I copy from. I get thoughts and feelings of images that suddenly appear in my mind by themselves, and that I try to understand and interpret into images. They can sit in my conscious mind for weeks, nagging at me until I make them into something physical. Possible imagery flashes through my mind all the time, depending on what I am doing, seeing, or hearing, but it's only the ones that linger and nag that I eventually turn into a painting. Their longevity makes me feel confident to take them further.
Technically, I always use an indirect painting technique of layered paint. I make a charcoal drawing of the composition which I fix with casein, and then a complete grisaille or underpainting in one colour and lead white. I then make a complete warm/cool middle layer of two colours and white. Then I make a top layer using a full colour range of pigments followed by a glaze layer, adjusting the tones and hues and the push-pull effects. Each layer is complete and covers the previous. Therefore, each layer has to dry before the next is applied. In some pieces, like my recent Interior piece, I stop at the warm/cool layer. I grind my own paint, especially my lead white. I construct my paintings in relation to the changes that will take place as it dries. That is why the works take me so long to complete, but I cannot achieve the desired results I want without, bearing in mind the eventual transparency of the oil paint when it has finally fully oxidised after at least 80 years.
What are you saying with the piece, Berlin?
Part of my work has been based since 1996 on my personal circumstances relating to the Holocaust and WW2. In this piece, I wanted to touch on the cultural phenomenon of the years just before the war; the freedoms and creativity that was happening in Europe at that time—especially the renaissance that was taking place for Jewish artists—and that were lost forever in the events that followed. I don’t think that the arts in Europe have ever really recovered their loss. The piece talks strongly about time and memory.
Is the work a part of a series?
Yes. I am intending to paint at least 3 more paintings based around skulls from my anatomical bone collection. I have already completed one previously—Crossing Over—and am in the middle of the next.
What are you trying to express, or where do you see yourself going, with your body of work until now?
I think it is extremely hard to be objective about one’s own work. I am still trying to bring whatever I feel is inside me—my journey, if you like—into the outside world in the form of paintings. I would like to be given the opportunity to be able to paint full-time again through painting sales and representation, and to be able to make larger paintings again. My current studio is small with low ceilings, and I am unable to paint over a certain size.
What is the average size of your artwork?
I was enjoying painting larger and larger until 2010, up to 11’5” and generally at least 6 feet high, but with the loss of my larger studio, my paintings currently are in the 48”×30” range or smaller due to size restriction.
What is your education? Exhibition history? What awards have you won, and what collections are your works in?
LCAD | Byam Shaw School of Art (1965-68)
Graphics and Typography | London College of Printing (1968-69)
BFA | St Martins (1969-72)
MFA cum laude | New York Academy of Art (1993-95)
13 solo shows and too many group shows, collections or awards to mention here. See my resume on my website here.
What's on your easel?
My current piece in my skull series. I am still working on the composition, adding a partly shown pair of shoes on the right-hand side. The figure in the background is my aunt as a young girl, who committed suicide in 1939 in Berlin, and whom I never had the chance to know.