Marcus Coates: Answer Painting exhibition and Artisan Oil Colour

The pin board of questions
The pin board of questions at the Barbican Centre
The pin board of questions at the Barbican Centre

Artist Marcus Coates is inquisitive by nature. “I’m interested in the act of painting as a non-rational form of intelligence,” he says. “Thinking itself can answer questions, so why would painting be any different?”

Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Arts in 1993, Coates has worked as an artist in almost every medium – except paint. In each of his pieces, he has been concerned with the role of the imagination and the unconscious in solving problems. In 2015, Coates returned to painting for the first time in 25 years, using an ambitious public project as his platform.

Featured as part of the Barbican Centre’s Station to Station exhibition in London, Coates’ venture was entitled Answer Painting. Visitors were invited to ask him questions, which they left on cards pinned to the walls, and Coates painted answers to their enquiries. Those who asked a question returned a week later to discuss the painting, and together the artist and viewer derived mutual insights from painting and query alike.

The pin board of questions
The pin board of questions at the Barbican Centre


Spending a month painting in a public gallery meant every detail of the installation was meaningful – not least of all the materials Coates chose, which included a selection of Winsor & Newton Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour.

We spoke to Coates about the inventive exhibition, the paint he used, and his experience engaging in public dialogue via painting.

Answer Painting fascinated us. What role does your relationship with the viewer play in your art overall?

In much of my work, the viewer/public/audience is often more of a collaborator. Their input is the starting point or purpose of the artwork. In this case, the public created the very reasons to make the paintings.

Which questions and answers stood out to you during this project? Why?

There were so many questions to choose from, but the ones that stood out were the very personal and honest questions. Often the children’s questions were great to work with. One seven-year-old asked: “How do you get it perfect?” This seemed to be a question about painting itself, so the painting became a diagram of different ideas and perceptions of perfection.

How do you get it perfect
How do you get it perfect? a work created using Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour


Other questions, like: “How does society create a consensus?”; “Does time heal?” or “Will I be remembered?” were all fascinating to work with. I gravitated towards questions I had no idea how to answer. The point was that the paint would create an answer itself. I was a conduit to allow this to happen. The hardest part was to not get in the way of the painting making itself.

You used Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour exclusively for the whole project. Why did you choose it for Answer Painting?

I wanted lustre and vividness, but I also needed to be able to rework the paintings over a period of time. The slow drying time was crucial, and Artisan gives me that.

In the Barbican, hundreds of people came through my studio every day, so it was imperative that they weren’t exposed to anything toxic, like solvent fumes. Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour paints are known for their non-hazardous nature, so they were perfect for this project. I also find they’re particularly easy to clean up. Being water-mixable, all I needed was soap and water.

How has versatile oil colour influenced your artistic output?

Making these paintings has made me realise how much I missed using oil paints. Firstly, the Artisan range has a wonderful spectrum of colours. At first I restricted my palette, then opened it up to include most of the range. I found the colours inspiring in themselves.

Because I wanted to approach each painting in a different way, and not to have a particular style, it was important for me to use the paint in its full spectrum of consistencies, from straight out of the tube to thin washes. I found the paint to be very versatile in this way and it held up well to the extreme ways I was pushing it.

Will I be remembered
Will I be remembered? a work created using Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour


Clearly, Artisan is a favourite for you. What personal tips can you share for using it?

I still have a lot of experimenting and testing I want to do, but I would say using the mediums opens up the potential and possibilities of the paint. Throughout all the various ways I used the paint, I found a 50/50 mix of Artists’ Painting Medium and water created a flow and consistency that I loved working with.

I think the main reaction I had when using these paints was one of fun. Something about using water with the paints took me back to being a child again, which released me from being inhibited by the medium. This is when the magic started to happen for me.

Read more about using mediums with Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour.