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Keith Tyson: Isolation Art School

In recent weeks Turner Prize winning artist Keith Tyson (born 1969) has been putting a lot of energy into his ‘Isolation Art School’ on Instagram. This initiative has encouraged practitioners to offer tips and tutorials about making and to then post them on Instagram with the hashtag #isolationartschool.

Tyson’s team picks through the posts and reposts some on Isolation Art School’s own instagram account ( As I write this blogpost the account has reposted 200 short films and the hashtag has been used thousands of times. The 200 or so posts include a short series by Tyson himself which he calls ‘Painting for Absolute Beginners’. There are links to these posts at the foot of this blogpost.

Seeing this initiative grow piqued my curiosity. Tyson comes across in his short videos as affable and wise and I wanted to know more about him. I was aware of him but not particularly familiar with his work. I found an interview he gave to Veronica Simpson about year ago, now published on the Studio International website which I think offers some insight into his thinking and that I think would be useful to OCA students. You can find the interview here:

The key points that are worth taking from the interview for me are:

  • While his interests are myriad (the interview’s introduction mentions him being interested in ‘philosophy, astronomy, mathematical patterns, computers, algorithms and physics’), he talks in an unpretentious manner but always thoughtful and ambitious for the work.
  • He has allowed his work experience (in the Nuclear Submarine shipyard art Barrow-in-Furness) feed into his work. For mature students who are often returning to education, it’s a salutary lesson: your pre-art school life can inform your work.
  • Tyson is not wedded to a single style of work, but to what might be called an ‘ethos of making’. He has made installations, sculptures and is currently making, of all things, flower paintings. He researches, makes, and then gets restless. By never quite repeating himself, but by working hard to make and understand Tyson can exhaust a particular method, but the enquiry goes on.
  • He allows the technicalities of painting to be a driver in the work he makes, but his work is never about how ‘good’ a painter he is. He speaks about his the flower paintings evolved out of other work:

I started doing them when I started doing scrape paintings. I’d find an old painting in a junk shop and then I’d repair it and then scrape over it, like (Gerhard) Richter draws over his pictures with a squeegee. Then, where the ground is, I’d paint into that ground, and get some interference going in the surface. I’d started painting flowers into them because they didn’t have any other signification other than that they’re flowers. I mean, obviously they’re symbolic and they’ve got all this weight behind them, but generally they’re like, get a brush, get in there and get some sort of juice, and it sort of evolved from there.

  • In the final part of the ‘painting for absolute beginners’ films he says that we should ‘listen; to paintings we are making, which is a great way of thinking about the ‘give and take’ involved in making. By attending closely to this process he has crafted a body of work that’s as complex as it is beautiful. From painting flowers he has researched related areas and brought that to bear on the work. The paintings are a locus around which a whole enquiry swirls.
  • Different paintings in the series seem concerned with different aspects of the artist and his interests. Some have more conceptual titles. Light, Mass and Acceleration includes a set of lines that seem to delineate a black hole. while another is called My Ever Changing Moods. Tyson says of the latter: 

it’s just me working with the physicality, with the paint itself, what emerges, and what reminds me of a flower. It’s literally putting paint on, re-scraping it, putting stuff on like an abstract painting. And these flowers have emerged literally from that process. Even the ones that look quite realistic, it’s just because a splat of paint reminded me of a lily or a rose or something. And then I’ve gone and found a picture of a lily and converted it. It’s like you’ve read this bouquet out of a process that’s a bit like reading tea leaves. It’s a completely emergent thing.

  • In short, no single work has to carry the weight of all his ideas. That seems like an important lesson to learn. Over time and over many, many works we might present a balanced reflection of ourselves, but why should one piece do all? If you want to make painting about last night’s tea, then why not?
  • Tyson works hard to make interesting and varied images, even within the confines of a genre like ‘flower painting’ and its’ afraid to use those images in a metaphorical way. There’s a palpable sense of him working through ideas as he makes these paintings.

That sense of ‘working through’ is important. As artists we are the first audience for the work we make and we should be using the making process as a voyage of enquiry and discovery, rather than simply displaying a skill. The irony is, of course, that if one is fascinated by one’s own practice – in the way that Tyson is obviously fascinated by many aspects of his – then the quality of the work will improve because we are engaged in a purposeful task.

Painting for Absolute Beginners:

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Posted by author: Bryan
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One thought on “Keith Tyson: Isolation Art School

  • This is a very interesting article I often get joy out of a painting I’m working on simply because I can get involved with listening to where it wants to go. This can sometimes lead me down strange paths but exciting paths. It’s usually at that point I say to myself actually you have a task to do an exercise to complete so stay focused. Good to have some justification for just wandering where you feel the painting is telling you to go.

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