Blaise Smith‘s ‘Schoolwork’ paintings are a series of 20 works commissioned by Presentation College Carlow, a secondary school in a rural Irish town. Smith attended the school for a whole year, a fly on the wall, painting from life; students and teachers in classrooms, at the gym, on the sports fields, getting a feel, a sense and over time forming a relationship, through paint, with the place. It is, in essence, a portrait of the school and by extension a record of the education system in 21st Century Ireland.
All his work is painted directly from life – he doesn’t use photography as he finds photos don’t give you enough detail – and after a few months setting up his easel at the back of classrooms and in other areas around the school he eventually blended into the background and was thus able to capture the intimate moments, the fleeting nature of time, an unremarkable view, of the Irish education system.
As he says about the series:
The aim of the paintings is to make a portrait of the Irish school system today. Imagine if an artist had been commissioned in 1950 to paint a similar series of paintings – these would be a very interesting social document even now and I hope that my paintings, painted in a medium proven to last 500 years – oil on gesso panel – will be just as fascinating to future generations
Painting from life is a difficult craft and one that Smith has been honing for many years. I thought it would be worthwhile including his thoughts on painting in the style he does. It comes from an essay he wrote on painting way back in 2004 and is as relevant today as it was then:
There is something magical about rural places. They have that stillness, held, when you find yourself among trees, or buildings where people have worked for generations, adding a mark here, a roof there. How to hold it and convey it ?
I use paint. Placed on to a flat surface to correspond to observations I make about what is before me. I am using my own eyes and I am really standing there, in the place, in front of the Farm for as long as it takes to complete the painting.
Most people are surprised to learn that I paint everything directly from life. Most people assume that I work from photographs but I don’t. There actually isn’t enough information in a photograph. Besides, because I am there, I hear all the history and stories about the place from the people who live there. This gives me a greater understanding of what I am looking at and trying to depict.
The way one of my paintings comes out in the end is invariably a surprise to me. I have no idea how they come to be like that. I can tell you what I did but I couldn’t say or describe how I arrive at a particular point. Presumably the painting itself is that description. I feel that I just work until I get a result. However, all the time, I am actually standing there, looking, and it is this consistent observation of a thing, otherwise ignored, that gives these works a validity and a value, at least to me. I believe it is important that someone is taking the time to look at this stuff. During the making of a painting, over a period of weeks or months I am gradually adding more and more information about the subject, layer upon layer. I am also making value judgements this part looks best, now, this moment, just as the light hits the hillside, just so. I’ll put it in. A painting is a conglomeration of firsthand information. Its surface is made up of hundreds of thousands of individual observations and the attempt to recognise, record and organise them. It is this surface quality that gives painting a fundamental advantage as a medium. When the painting is hung on the wall it gives back these bits of information at the rate in which it was recorded because each mark must be evaluated by the viewer
If you want to read more on how he frames his pictures, why he uses the colours he does, and so on, check out the full essay called ‘How I Paint’.
You’ll get the chance to see these paintings at The Crawford Gallery, Cork, Ireland from 17th January – 10th February, 2013.