Wolfgang Suttner speaks with Paul McCartney   Paul McCartney book cover
This text is based on eight interviews with Paul McCartney that took place between September 1994 and December 1995.
Paul McCartney: Yes, one of the things I realized with a lot of painters many years before I started painting seriously was that they often didn't know what to paint and they did a lot of soul-searching about what to paint, so I tried to find a few tricks to get over this because I knew that if I just felt like painting, I did not want to stand in front of a canvas for three hours worrying about what it was going to be. If painting is to be fun for me, and for me it was necessary for it to be fun, then I had to get some tricks. So I heard things like de Kooning used to write his friend's name in charcoal and then he would make a big abstract over that, but at least he had made a mark, he'd started, and I met de Kooning quite often through the years. But he would always give me little clues with his naive disregard for the worry in painting. I don't think he wanted to worry, either. He wanted to get into "exploring the accident." One of them was if I couldn't think of what to paint, I would sometimes just go for a walk and find some objects that I liked. So, depending on where I am, on a beach somewhere.
When did you start working in a regular way?
When I was forty, somebody said, "life begins at forty," so I took them literally and instead of taking it as just a symbolic idea of a time to start something, I really wanted something start, so I took up a couple of things, and the main one was painting. I thought I would love to paint, I thought it would be very liberating for me, I had got a lot of visual ideas. Through the years you would work on album covers, you would work on films, and you would be asked to have visual ideas, and even in sound, in music, we would often talk in visual terms, about a sound being a little too dark or a sound being too light, or we would talk about a sound of monks on a hill in the distance.
It is like when artists talk in terms of music, the sound of colors, rhythm.
Yes there is a big crossover between the two things, one the visual and one the sound, so I just thought, OK, if I am going to paint, what am I going to do? First of all, I just didn't know anything. I didn't know what kind of canvas I would want, what kind of medium I would want or whatever, so I just set about buying a few canvases. Until then, I had this silly idea that only people who went to art college bought canvases and that people like me who didn't go to art college, they painted on towels and bits of wood and toilet seats. No, I Just had a feeling, an irrational feeling, like some people would, for instance, think, People like me don't ride horses, or People like me don't swim. For me it was that people like me don't paint. And I thought, Well, why have I got this idea? And I realized that it was just conditioning through society that if I didn't go to art school, I somehow thought it was not right for me to paint. I decided that that would be a good idea to get rid of. So I went into a shop and bought some canvases, started to get some good linen canvases occasionally, and then started to look at things like charcoal, and watch what other painters did painters I admired. I would visit de Kooning's studio, and I would see him playing with the charcoal and stuff.
But let's come to your paintings. We saw some really outstandingly good pictures you did in Arizona. I think that for your work, the place has something to do with it.
Yes, I think so. Yes, it does because I am painting spontaneously; my mood has much to do with it If you are somewhere where the light is very bright and the vegetation is very different -cactus, and the soil is desert sand-it is quite exciting. I find it exciting.
Does it depend an your mood, for instance, having holidays. Or do you also paint while you are working?
Yes, I did actually. A lot of pictures you are looking at were done on tour, if we had a few days off from working on tour. I just wouldn't have the time if I was actually working on the tour. But we would often have three or four days off, and I found myself painting. I paint in my special West Coast place. Then I paint on Long Island, on the east coast of America, which is again another special place where I have paints and canvases, and then I paint here at home... In my studio and sometimes at the house, but normally here now.
But your working process is that you come here for two or three hours and you paint?
Yes, that is normally what it is. Normally I will just select a day when I have time to paint, and it would normally be in the afternoon. I would nearly always do something recreational first, but I don't just come to work - it's not that kind of thing. If it is a beautiful day and I notice, say, that the horizon is very little and there is this massive sky, I might want to make this great big blue painting with a tiny little thing at the bottom. I would come normally in the afternoons until the light starts to go, so that would be normally about five or six hours, and I would just paint straight and I would say that this was "alla prima." If I go back the next day to a picture, which I sometimes do if there is something I don't like about it or if I think there is something I can fix, then I might paint over it and do something else to it to try and fix it. But quite often it is just "there," it just appears, and I like it or I don't. And if I like it, I just stop. Then the final act is to sign it. Once I have signed it, then I think that is it, I am just signing off.
I always liked that word play: it is an interesting word because in English when you make music, you call it playing music; when you make a painting it is a "work." People don't say an "art-play."
The actor and musician play onstage. . .
We "play," which is frivolous, but "works" of art. So for me I think I bring the play from my music back into the art. This is playful, the freedom of playing....
One of my great beliefs in the world is "less is more" and the more I read and find out about other artists like de Kooning "exploring the accident," things like that, the kind of theory, the paradox . . . You know, you would think that if you studied for millions and millions of years at music, you would therefore be the finest musician in the world.
But I don't actually believe that. My most known song is called "Yesterday," and I woke up having dreamed that song. I didn't sit down and think about it, and it is the one out of all my songs that people have played. More than three thousand people have covered that song, so l must start to think that there is a paradox here. You know, I should have sat down for three weeks and slaved over something that successful, but I just woke up one morning and had dreamed it. So this is where I talk about freedom in art. If that little piece of string gets caught in the paint as I do it, I just think, oh, that is OK. I certainly didn't think to do that. You know, if I had thought to do that, it may be it wouldn't be good, but because it was an accident, it finds its way in there organically.
But what you say about your music, and it's the same with pictures, it isn't that you are dreaming this, it's that you are doing a lot of music, doing a lot of painting, and sometimes it comes together, like a bang, a lot of influences.
Yes, and I value that, I really value that moment when a little organic accident happens. I value it more because I didn't actually mean to do it. It is like Shakespeare says, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And it's true. There is just more in that little finger than I am ever going to know about: there are bones, nerves, capillaries, blood cells: there is a nail growing out of it. I could spend a lifetime studying how that happens. I am a great believer in that; I believe that there is so much magic around that it may be it isn't necessary to study, study, study. I think sometimes you lose the magic that way. You study so much that there is no room for magic.
This relates to the couple of other pictures where I use musical things There is one called C minor and one called Key of F, and it was an idea I had to take something I knew very well in music, a chord, and try and paint the feeling it gave me So C minor might be a rather lonely-looking picture because it can be a bit of a sad chord. This came on from those ideas, but this was then to try and paint a whole symphony. The whole thing rather than one chord; a musical explosion; an orchestra playing something. Abstract rather than specific. So for that I just applied a lot of paint and smudged it around and had a lot of fun with it.
This picture has so many different greens and different structure. It is like you had a lot of chaotic things and then you have parts that are calm, like a little concept.
Well, you know, one of my big inspirations is nature. I love nature and I love what it does. If you go down on the seashore and watch the water, see what it does to the sand, it bubbles up and goes back-what you could call chaos And yet it's so beautiful, it leaves beautiful marks on the sand I kind of trust to that, and that is a large part of painting abstracts-to try and think of myself as nature itself, without a mind, a sophisticated mind that knows how to play a piano or drive a car. . .
It is very spontaneous, I don't think there was a lot of thinking about that. But, you know, my composition generally is spontaneous. Some people I talk to will ask, "Do you do sketches beforehand?" And I will say, "No, it is alla prima." You know, I just love to play around with the paint and let the paint show me the way, and I sense they are not as impressed if they think I did it spontaneously so I had thought Once or twice of making sketches after I had done the painting. Do little sketches, show shapes, rub them out and change them, and say, "Oh yes these are preparatory sketches."
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