Interview with Thomas Lisle: On 'Colour of Feelings'

Interview with Thomas Lisle: On 'Colour of Feelings'

Sedition has just released the second collection The Colour of Feeling by Thomas Lisle, following his first collection Landscapes of the Mind, which was released in 2020 on Sedition. Landscapes of the Mind was a collection of 5 digital animations that were inspired by Lisle's reading and research into Jungian psychology merged with research into the symbols.

Coinciding with his new launch, we made an interview with Thomas Lisle the London-based artist who has been making video and moving image art since 1983. We talked about the making of his latest series The Colour of Feeling, his work references from psychology, science fiction and the environment, his cinematic inspirations and his views on the future of video art.

Thoughtscapes from Lanscapes of the Mind, Thomas Lisle

Swirl from The Colour of Feeling, Thomas Lisle

Could you please tell us a bit about the process of making the new collection The Colour of Feeling that you have recently launched on Sedition. What were the inspirations behind the series? 

Thomas Lisle: I started making some animations for this collection about ten months ago, with the idea of making a longer version from the shorter clips, which was going to be called Night on Saturn. But all the pieces didn't seem to add up to a cohesive narrative, and I concentrated on each shorter piece instead. The gas or cloud simulations are the most complex; it's really difficult to program gas to behave as you want. It's like painting with clouds, they go where they like. I think it's all been worth the effort, and I'm really happy with the end result. 

I see the autographic, the hand-making marks and drawing as central to my work. So, each piece starts with a 3D paint stroke. And what's extraordinary about digital 3D painting is that it opens up the boundaries of what a paint stroke is capable of. If you think of 'loading' a brush with paint, then this paint flows out of the brush onto the paper and, depending on your point of view, makes something beautiful, interesting, or not. The brush is an emitter, the paint, carbon, ink, whatever flows out. This is all replicated in a liquid simulation. But with a digital paintbrush, every aspect of the paint stroke, form and motion can be programmed. If you use a tablet, then the pressure, direction, and speed data all get collected, and that data can be then fed in to control how thick your brush is, how hairy, how anything you like, almost. 

The process of making these new works has been a long experimentation with 3D paint strokes and a wide range of other 3d techniques. I use the variation in pressure, speed, and direction of a 2D brush stroke to become the starting point for most of my artwork. Often the 3D brush stroke gets abstracted beyond the point of recognition as a brush stroke very quickly. This is intentional, and it's not that I don't like brush strokes, but that the initial motion and intent, is recorded and the data from it is used to drive other data, such as the density of a cloud or velocity of a liquid, it's a kind of transformation of one thing into another, a kind of painting form of alchemy. I see it as a metaphor for internal, psychological, or collective change, sometimes depending on the context. Sometimes we need some chaos, some randomisation in an artwork, and some craziness, to find something new or something we were looking for beyond the initial idea. 

All the new pieces gas and liquid simulations are built upon procedural blocks of code that I have developed over the year. Working procedurally is starting to become very exciting; many years of research into a wide variety of 3D systems, simulations and technology mean that I have a large palette of techniques to work with. And rather than just mixing things like paint colours, I can mix simulators like liquids with objects to make new forms or use the data from a drawing to drive the animation of the deformation of an object; the permutations are mind-boggling.

In simple terms, procedural means that one program an effect/distortion that affects a 3D model or some element in 3D or 2D, and it abstracts it in a very specific way. Because it's procedural, you can apply that effect to another different model by swapping over the input model. Procedural means all the elements that make up the abstraction effect can be tweaked, revised, animated, and manipulated in more depth. I use these techniques a great deal and build on complex programming sequences that I have worked on previously, changing, modifying, and improving the initial way the distortion or simulation works. Sometimes I take the whole abstraction code and make it part of a subset of another larger, more complex distortion/simulation. Once you start playing around with the fundamental building blocks, the DNA of form as it where you can start to build new and personalised visual abstractions that are, in effect, similar to painting styles. This is particularly relevant to 3D artwork, where the scope for new forms and new and novel ways of abstraction is vastly wider than in 2D. This is because 3D encapsulates the whole object, whereas 2D only gives you the bit you can see. Leonardo only painted the front of the Mona Lisa, so if we manipulate her in 2D, we are never going to have access to the back of her, only the bit we can see in 2D. 

Equilibrium by Thomas Lisle

The idea behind Equilibrium was that of holding a gas in a spherical volume and applying forces and movements to the gas and asking it to find a balance so that you could see the sphere again. I think balance is a fascinating concept; it's needed everywhere, from economics to psychology. Swirl is more about creativity and ideas; both start as animated 3D paint strokes, which are converted into emitters of coloured smoke, and then all sorts of forces are applied to them. Swirl is about letting go of restrictions; it's all programmed in zero gravity. 

Order out of chaos utilises a 3-dimensional time-based noise field which is programmed to drive the motion of the lines and combined with a third force to bring the two clusters of lines together; order is not the same as Balance. I like a bit of disorder and chaos, but it needs some order to give it meaning and to use its ingenuity and invention. 

Night on Saturn relates to my interest in abstract figurative art since I was a student. I wanted to make a piece that was abstract and yet semi-realistic. I wanted to make paint strokes that related back to the character, and without a recognisable character, that's hard. One of my all-time favourite films is Alphaville by Jean Luc Goddard, and there's a scene where Lemmy Caution lights a cigarette in the dark; it's just a great cinematic moment. There's an element of Goddard's approach to narrative in the longer version called Love's Journey. It's a kind of abstract narrative that somehow makes sense when it's all put together. Something deeper emerges that's hard to put into words at the beginning of the process, which is working away to become clearer at the end, not in the sense of love's individual journey that's unknowable, but in the narrative of the animation. 

It can happen From The Colour of Feelings by Thomas Lisle

It can happen is the closest to a painting of all the pieces. I have consciously tried to make moving compositions, compositions by nature are fairly static, so this is a kind of moving composition that never gels into a set one. It has ended up a little bit more frenetic than intended, but that's ok, if we are looking for change, often to make change happen, there needs to be urgency and energy to facilitate it. 

So, I started to think of each piece as a representation of a psychological complex; there are lots of theories and variations around complexes, and the easiest way to describe them is a 'structure of the psyche that gathers together similar feeling-toned elements'. 

So, when I had finished the shorter pieces, I tried to think how all the sections I had made originally for the longer version and the shorter pieces might fit together, and in a moment of inspiration, I wrote the poem and sequence order in 5 minutes. After struggling to work it out for weeks

Your work since the late '80s has often been about environmental degradation. With the rapid changes in the emerging new technologies, what have you been inspired by conceptually over recent years?  

Thomas Lisle: What have I been inspired by, not a lot, really, I am inspired by a number of companies that try to do something with clean energy, removing plastics, sustainability, and environmental protection, but they seem to be up against governments and big oil, climate deniers and vested interests that make life as difficult as possible. I would be inspired if the UK had a national energy and environmental agency that was independent of politicians, but I don't see it happening soon.

The environment, global warming, extinction, and the destruction of ecosystems, we live in a natural world that took billions of years to arrive at the Equilibrium we have inherited, and the dangers of destroying it- are only just starting to be felt. I studied biology and geography at school, and even way back in the late 1970's it was pretty clear that there was a catastrophe unfolding. Over the last 40 years, attitudes have changed, but not enough; things that don't seem urgent today tend to be put on the to-do list by governments. It seems to me that there is a significant psychological factor in the world's inaction; not doing something to save the place that keeps you alive is a kind of self-defeating, destructive mindset, and of course, it can change, but it needs collective action, and it needs changes in attitudes to come about. It's great to see the world slowly turning towards and starting to think about greener technology, and so many interesting new technologies are coming along. But many governments do not have a coordinated approach; even if they say they do, it's obvious that they don't. 

Looking back over the last 40 years of your practice, what stands out for you personally? Is there a recurring theme or a question in your practice that you often return to? 

Thomas Lisle: What stands out? Well, I suppose it's just been a journey of discovery, reflection, and progress. I'm so glad I went off to learn digital technologies in the late 1980s. It felt like a radical move at the time, no other artists were very interested that I knew of, and the art market, in general, wasn't really interested either. But I could see that it was the route for me.

The two main themes I return to are figurative abstraction, and I don't really think I have found the ideal solution to this; figurative art is so important. I feel that figurative abstraction needs to be pretty sophisticated to compete with the past and adding time to the equation makes it harder still.

And abstract painting, I think I have made real progress over the last few years; it's hard to make abstraction that has a deeper visual structure and meaning. And I suppose with some of my more recent work, I have been combining the two together - which is a new development, well, I have been doing this for a few years, but it’s starting to merge into a more complete and richer form. Hopefully, I'm getting a bit better slowly.

It's also been interesting to see the changes in emphasis in the art world; when I was studying on my foundation course, artists like Rauschenberg, Warhol, Terry Frost, and Gillian Ayres seemed to be some of the most important visual artists of the time. 

The idea of a kind of technology-based painting and time-based painting started in the 1980s with my glitch art, I don't have the patience to make hand-drawn or painted animations, I always have thought that art needs to progress with the times and use the most sophisticated technology available, and at the moment that's high-end 3D software.

Your works have been presented in numerous exhibitions and museum collections. Are there any memorable project(s)/exhibitions or residencies that you regard as a milestone in your artistic journey?

Thomas Lisle: Fish out of Water was a large glitch art kinetic projection installation which toured around the UK, which was great fun to work on. 

A Domestic Opera was a very large installation that came after Fish out of Water which was a much stronger piece. The Arts Council funded it. I hoped it would tour the UK and internationally, but the curator didn't support it, and it only had one show. However, this led me to go off and learn about computers, so it all worked out for the best. Later in about 2016, I made a video called Transformher about the female aspect in men (there's a male aspect in women, too). This was the first major animation piece I did using 3D paint systems and based on psychology, and it started me on a path to where I am today

When creating new works, do you revisit your past works in painting? 

Thomas Lisle: Basically, no, I can see some progression in visual ideas and concepts from past digital paintings. I think all my paintings of the last 15 years have been developed in 3D first as a starting point for a physical painting. I see a physical painting and digital painting as very different mediums with shared visual languages, shared symbols, and psychological responses; it's just a continuation of modern painting practice in a new medium. Digitally I can do a lot more in terms of form, abstraction, deformation, and composition a lot quicker. I don't really work things out on paper with a pencil I tend to paint straight onto the screen, my pencil never needs sharpening and I never run out of paint!

I do sometimes take a procedural element of a figure or idea that I worked on and, after a few years, see how where I went wrong and how all the new techniques I have learned since can take it to another level and become a new piece.

When creating a new, longer narrative video, I try and get a grasp of the central idea, though I never do, and it changes as I progress, and I mostly find some larger theme working away in the background, which is more related to the whole piece, as with Loves Journey which started out as Night on Saturn, maybe there is a relationship? When making shorter pieces, I tend to start by looking at a certain type of technology with a certain kind of concept and central idea. It doesn't always come out as expected. My paintings all start as digital 3D images but as stills, and I am now trying to make a longer animated version from a still starting point, but I don't usually. I did have this idea that I would be able to make new paintings from stills from these animations, and in fact, my next works will be short animations that have a static camera and will be 'moving paintings' like "It can happen", if the viewpoint moves it becomes less like a painting.

Are there any works which you see as reference points aesthetically or conceptually? Who are the influential figures that made the most impact in your practice?

Thomas Lisle: 20th-century abstraction, like Picasso, and the inventiveness of artists like Rauschenberg, have had an influence on me. As well as the Fauves and the German expressionist have been lifelong influences. Artists like Helen Chadwick, Richard Wilson, Marc Chaimowicz all had an influence on me when I was at Art school. Today some of the artists I find the most interesting are Albert Oehlen and Gerhard Richter, their visual experience and ideas make their work very interesting and important. 

How do you envisage the future of video art/digital art in the crypto world? 

Thomas Lisle: It's hard to predict the future, but I think digital technologies will become ever more important on many levels. Computers just let you do quicker, at a lower cost, which is always a winner. But it opens a whole range of possibilities for new forms and new animations that just didn't exist before. I do see a huge potential in 3D time-based art, it's a new medium with a long learning curve, and it's going to take time to be mainstream. I remember being a video artist in the 1980's there were not that many of us move on 20 years and that's all changed. There are so many possibilities with digital 3D to create anything, it's the medium of the future.

What are you working on lately? And what makes you excited about the future? 

Thomas Lisle: I'm working on some new animations that have a close relationship with painting, painting in the sense of a dynamic visual experience that combines figures with abstract forms. I'm excited that I'm drawing more of the techniques, technology, and programming that I have been developing over the last few years into a space where I can merge them all together to make some really new and creative artwork. 

I have been trying to make time-based paintings since I was 19. Yes, there is hand drawn/painted animation, but it takes so long, it's not procedural, and on the whole, it hasn't been the medium of many contemporary artists, and I would say that's because it takes a very long time to do, there has been no market for it, and I would say it's difficult too, but NFT's might change that.

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