Heather Libson In conversation about her work with fellow artist, Claire Beynon

HL        So we agree that small is monumental…

CB        Small can be monumental, yes. Small can open up a much larger space and then invites you to travel differently through the image.

HL        I really agree with that. When I think of those really tiny little Paul Klee drawings that are monumental and there’s a really beautiful Samuel Palmer at the Tate Gallery that I always go back to… These are very small pictures that draw you in.

CB        Well, actually, if you think of William Turner’s watercolours, they’re all tiny postcard-sized; some of them are smaller – some of them are a little bit bigger. When I was in Venice, we were looking at a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition of his little drawings and some of them, were 2 inches across by 3 inches deep and they were exquisite. A tiny horse or hands but you knew how big a hand is. We know how big our hand is…We know how big a forest is. We know how big a bridge is, or a lake of water. We know that.

HL        Absolutely, and so when I’ve been making these works, I’ve spent time on them. I mean, we often talk about mark-making and walking away and less is more but they’ve still taken a huge amount of time – these small, small paintings. Because that dance has been quite a long one sometimes. Sometimes it hasn’t been… You know how sometimes it goes slow, slow, slow and then there’s a moment where the payback is the one quick piece of work?

And I have found it also completely and utterly fascinating, to then have the challenge of these tiny little postcard-sized panels. It was a daunting prospect, because, I was in this space, it was all I could do in my old little studio in the house at the beginning of lockdown. And in fact, I find it infinitely fascinating working on that scale and it would be so easy on a small scale to put too much into it. The challenge is not necessarily doing less, it’s keeping those marks from being too descriptive, too illustrative.

CB        Yes, absolutely. And I also find, what’s fascinating about working on something tiny is it’s a very intimate engagement. And it’s quite meditative; you know – you’re right up, close and personal and so our engagement with a small piece of work is quite different and often more intense because you’re zooming in, so that you can zoom out. That intimacy is just different on a small scale…

HL        Yes, it is different. But I wanted to paint more physically which meant two things – making some larger scale work because I really wanted that movement that you get when you’re working large and also, I realised what I had been missing when working on the smaller paintings, was the fluidity of arm movement.  And the moment I started putting these little paintings on the floor to work, so I was standing above them and they were on the floor, I got that distance and flow, that you just can’t get when you’re working on a tabletop…it changed the mark-making.

So, there’s an awareness. I’ve been very aware of how I’m making marks. And then, the apple tree shadows… In my ‘Meditation’ on my little apple tree outside my studio, I’ve really been thinking about what a brush does! How you use a stroke from thin to thick… the pressure you need to apply.

CB        The physicality. You know, it’s visceral and the body is so involved. The smaller works, somehow, it’s more the hand than the whole body; the hand and the eyes. Again, it’s the intimacy we talked about. Having an aerial view makes a difference, because then the body does become involved.

HL        It does, and painting a shadow, you know, you’re chasing something.

CB        It’s ephemeral.

HL        You have no control because it can disappear at any moment. It’s so transient. It’s so beautiful. And you have to take a deep breath…it’s like a kind of meditation. You have to breathe when you’re making those kinds of marks. You have to think about it, you know? Before you put that brush on the paper. It’s such a commitment. There’s nowhere to go if you… But I’ve found that, a very, very beautiful way to start the day.

It’s very centring… and the light is changing, the leaves are shimmering. Holding onto something that’s so fleeting just for a moment, observing it, then letting it go because the shadow has disappeared, has been enlightening and meaningful, actually. I’ve really enjoyed that.

I’ve been looking at my old, large paintings too and although they’re very abstract, I know I spent absolutely hours on them with the tiniest, fine brush, so that as well as working from the distance, when you got up-close, they looked immaculate. Possibly it’s to do with age; but nowadays, my focus is different, I don’t feel the need to be quite so precious about things. I’m trying to capture a feeling, a memory, a colour, that’s there, then it’s gone…

CB        It’s so ephemeral. Yes. And actually, I always think there’s something about a painting… you feel like you’re capturing a moment and if you turn away and look back, it’s a different moment. And so, it’s fleeting.

I want people to be able to see the aliveness of the process and the mark-making that’s so exploratory and we don’t know what’s going to land on the page and so we make decisions and then we go back and we make another decision and we re-work areas and there’s all that backwards and forwards. And there’s a part of me now, that wants to stop before I think it’s done. Leave the unworked parts and leave the slightly unfinished bits.

HL        Well, I think, you have to walk away when you get those bells ringing and you’re thinking “I think that might work – ooh, I’m not sure.” It would be so easy then, to make another mark and it is such a dance! I’m literally, you know, physically going backwards and forwards, pacing about, then sitting down and squinting at something and thinking “Okay, I’m going to go away (and make myself a cup of tea) and then I’m going to come back and surprise myself and look at it again with fresh eyes.” And then you think “Okay, I’m going to be brave. It’s done.” It’s being brave to leave it.

I just want to express myself as succinctly as possible. It’s a difficult thing, a tempting thing, especially when you have some technical ability, to make the marks, to be seduced and overstate something.

CB        But in a way, it’s us asserting ourselves over the image and in the end the image needs to assert itself over us. And it’s collaborative. You’re working with the medium and you’re working with the ground and in the end, the medium and the ground have the last say! They tell us when they’re done.

HL        (Laughs) I think they do.

CB        Often, we regret it if we don’t listen to that and we push…and then it’s “Ah, I’ve buggered it up. I’ve ruined it”.

HL & CB  (Laugh)

HL        We do! And you remember it, don’t you? It’s like a lost love. You know that it was really good some time before and you can’t get it back to where it was. It’s regretful, hugely regretful. You think back to it longingly but it’s gone!

CB        Too late!

HL        You’re at a different phase in your relationship… and that’s it…

CB        The magic’s gone out of it…

HL & CB  (Laugh)

Heather Libson (UK) and Claire Beynon (NZ) met in 1983 while they were students on the MA Fine Art course at Chelsea School of Art, London, and have been friends ever since.