Writings: Cordelia Oliver

At a time when young people at the very start of a chosen career in art are “discovered” and rocketed to fame and fortune by dealers and promoters with an eye on the main chance, it is satisfying to have watched the steady development of a talent that one always knew to be potentially significant, but which has had time to come to fruition from away from the spotlight, so escaping the kind of hothouse treatment that can so easily force commercial success at the expense of true creative development.

Seated Girl, 1976, 80 x 60cms

Right from the start, from his student days at Glasgow School of Art, Douglas Thomson has found his most crucial subject matter in the human image, often enough, indeed, in the human physiognomy alone. Not for him the narrative imagery which has become almost mandatory for success in Glasgow nowadays, and by comparison with which his own work may seem unusually simple. Deceptively so, as it happens, for Douglas Thomson is, first and foremost, a painter, not a linear talent but in essence a colourist, using his medium lovingly and in a way that calls up an answering respect in the viewer. The images he creates are seldom, if ever, preconceived but gradually take shape through a sensitive manipulation of pigments, scumbled and layered over, under, and through one another like coloured wools in a rich and complex tapestry.

A series of collages from his student days were indeed based on the landscape around Culzean Castle where Glasgow School of Art maintained a summer school. Strength and gentleness are qualities which, when combined as they are in Douglas Thomson’s best work, make for memorable imagery. A portrait of a seated girl, painted he was still a student, is an admirable attempt to convey weight and volume in a given light. as well as character in the sitter. And the painting of the human head which to become an obsessive subject in the years that followed were made from an insight that was extraordinary just as much for its reticence as for its acuteness.

In these heads – for the obsession still continues – the attention is often focused on the face, and especially on the eyes which mirror all emotion and mood, from angst to arrogance, wariness to wisdom. They vary in scale from less than life-size to very large indeed. Yet monumental, the first word that comes to mind, is by no means an apt term to describe a quality that is strangely fluid and expansive. It is almost as though, on such occasions, this painter conceives each face in terms of landscape. He strokes, scumbles and scrapes his pigments over, under and through one another, into a wealth of colour as rich as nature’s own tapestry of sun and shadow on earth and water, rock and sky. This is a painter who is never afraid the part played by trial and error, the exciting process of creation. In almost all of his work there is a quality which has to beCordelia Oliver called primitive, not in sense of crudeness, but something that defies facility, like the marvelously simple expressiveness found in figures from the Tang dynasty, for example. In Thomson’s paintings, a similarly simple gesture, an arm laid across a chest or the inclination of a head suggestive of listening (this, in a recent two-figure composition entitled “Conversation”, in which the second, female, figure is quietly but decisively giving voice) will be enough to endow a stark composition with unmistakable inner life.

The Stranger, 1989, 180 x 180cms

Douglas Thomson has always understood and exploited the significance of asymmetry in the human face and the importance of eyes as the focus of his composition, often encapsulating expression within ovals of dark or pale pigments. More recently compositional complexity has begun to offer relationships between two or even three figures, half-length and nude more often than not; relationships that can range from tense (or so it seems) in “Three Angles” to relCordelia Oliveraxed, loving and gentle as in the obviously satisfied “Lovers”. And whereas, in the past, Thomson’s figures were seldom, if ever, localised, but placed in anonymous space suggestive of landscape, more recent works contain intimations of interiors – a female nude stands against a red screen, for example, with suggestions, in the sombre background, of familiar still life elements. But the concern with the human head still continues. often now in more concentrated fields of colour. One of the largest, “Volte-Face” is a truly monumental, slanting image, god or demon, lambent red with pale, narrow, inward-looking eyes. Yet some of the best of these single heads are small, deeply sombre, yet with luminous intensity.

Douglas Thomson was born in Greenock, and the years he spent at Glasgow School of Art from 1974-78, came just before the upward surge of the art market which marked the monetarist years of Thatcherism. His was the time when maybe 90% of art students in Scotland would go on to teacher training colleges. Now a far greater percentage than before is prepared to opt out, find studio space and hope to survive as a full-time working artists. That was the path Douglas Thomson followed, even in the lean and difficult years between the late ‘seventies and mid’eighties, Glasgow Print Studio provided him with part-time work as a technician as well as a working space (he found in the monoprint an effective medium for small scale work). That, plus a scholarship to Scotland’s post graduate art school, Hospitalfield House near Arbroath, kept him going until he and some of his fellows took over the top floor of a disused factory in Glasgow’s east end and turned it into a thriving cluster of generous studio spaces. Acceptance came slowly, however: in the absence of strong promotion or of some media-attracting element in a young artist’s work, Scotland is a hard nut to crack. For Thomson confidence came with travel. In 1985 exchange exhibitions were organised between the twin cities, Glasgow and Nuremburg: he entered his work successfully and travelled to Germany for the firsCordelia Olivert time. Since then he has made several visits and held one-man shows in Munich, Dusseldorf and Nuremberg.

Living and working for months at a time in Germany has undoubtedly broadened his vision, no less importantly, strengthened his self-esteem.

Cordelia Oliver