HEAD to HEAD with Jack Coulthard

A talk given by Jack Coulthard to a group of friends and former students from the 1960s to open the exhibition Bigger Pictures held at the Creative Innovation Centre, Taunton on Saturday 7th December 2013.

Art is a Good Idea

Because we were all together then and we are all together now, we could talk about Art Schools.

There was life BEFORE ART SCHOOL, but that was kid’s stuff.

So what did we need from Art School? What could it give you?

It promised to give you a technical skill, confidence and show you the way to success.

Now I had already noticed (back in the late 1940s) that these promises were already on offer. The only difference between 1948 and 1968 was the name of the club you had to join. In 1948 it was THE JOHN CONSTABLE EUSTON ROAD IMPRESSIONISTS. By 1968 there were lots of new clubs: from Life Class Academic to Conceptual (ART IS DEAD) with Basic Design (ART GRAMMAR) and Abstraction in between.

It didn’t matter which club you joined as ing as your body of work was consistent with that style and it could be intellectually justified by PUBLISHED TEXTS which provided a minutely argued dictionary of terms, as did Roman Catholicism, Marxism and Free Market Capitalism.

If you could you were made.

Now, it didn’t matter if you didn’t want to join a club, and you were looking for a way of working which could picture YOUR own sense of life - then expressionism was the easiest to follow ….. HORROR FILMS WORK!

And if you were agitated, scribbling comes easy.


But after a time you suspected that something is being left out. Being stranded in a wild, dark Daily Mail tenement isn’t much of a life!

What was being left out?

I didn’t know THEN, but I know NOW that my discontent, my angst, would be the best possible generator of an answer.

To feel totally incapable of making any connection between this human universe we are living in and the huge catalogue of all the Art works in the world could be the best place to start?

None of the paintings you saw were really LIKE what you are seeing now - something about the figures does not match.

So what could you do?

You could draw translations of master works which seem to fit with your present temperament. Better still, you could draw translations of works which do NOT fit with your present temperament. This is where it REALLY comes ALIVE.

You will notice I said DRAW.

It is important to DRAW WELL!

The best way to learn to draw well is to make a full length comic strip or, more high tone, a graphic novel.

You will have noticed that in FINE ART PAINTING if a hand is drawn badly, say as a bunch of bananas, it will nevertheless be read as a hand. If you do the same thing in a comic strip - the joke is that, instead of a hand, this character has a bunch of bananas.

So, drawing masterworks is a good way to find out here THEY end and WE begin.

Just for fun, please visualise a Rembrandt self portrait with a Mickey Mouse head of the same size beside it, both in front of a Byzantine Icon or an Egyptian Wall Painting. Then visualise yourself dancing in front. You will READ each image as REAL, according to its own convention.

You read all four as REAL at the same time. Not even Rembrandt could do this, visualising four different images at the same time. Photography and colour printing have reorganised our brains. We think in a different way, and what Nicholas Poussin called THOUGHT becomes not just a possibility but a duty. Poussin, when praised for the beauty of colour in one of his paintings said "COLOUR? ..... STRANGE ..... I meant it for THOUGHT."

We, in the 21st Century, KNOW that there are 100 different ways of seeing, believing, thinking (or as many as there are people on the planet).

Thinking is a fine tool. Thinking is imagination in action, and imagination in action is invention.

Imaginative thinking invented animals, racism, cigarettes, agriculture, Scotland, chewing gum, aborigines, music and the absurd - if we can do THAT it should be possible for it to make a picture.

Imaginative thinking makes jokes, and jokes are the best proof of our brain’s ability to bear contradictions and make connections between opposites. And ART, as a theatre of improvisations, may be the best place to make concrete these contradictions and discordances so that they can exist together, as in reality, THEY DO.

Maybe that is what ART is for .....



1. European painting went to the dogs with the invention of photography (and its required flat surface).

2. European painting failed when it forgot that painting began when the cave artists saw forms in the SURFACE of the rocks.

3. Cezanne and Jackson Pollock saw the error of the flat surface of photographic painting

4. Paul Klee made a joke with his doodling, "taking the line for a walk" on that flat surface

5. Mechanical Perspective destroys Chinese, Japanese, Indian Painting AND Celtic Illuminated Pages (and Van Eyke too).

6. Pablo Picasso and Jimi Hendrix saved us all!