Francis Bacon on How to Be an Artist
Francis Bacon had a rare knack for harnessing our deepest, darkest emotions. His torrid paintings of wailing mouths and writhing figures embody primal human urges, like desire and release, and timeless sensations, such as heartbreak and horror. “I’ve always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can,” he told critic David Sylver in 1966. “And perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that that is horrific.”
Over the course of his career, from the 1930s until his death in 1992, the Irish-British artist became renowned not only for his spellbinding canvases, but also his sharp mind, stormy personality, and ravenous appetite for decadence. (He was known to booze and gamble across London into the wee hours, and paint in a chaotic studio strewn with paints, source materials, and empty champagne bottles.)
All of these characteristics are on full, candid view in a series of interviews that Bacon gave over the course of his life, with Sylvester and other critics. In them, he unearths the inspirations, rituals, and emotions that fueled his arresting paintings. Below, we highlight several of the tempestuous artist’s words of wisdom.
Bacon often credited the power of his paintings to accidents. “I want a very ordered image, but I want it to have come about by chance,” he told Sylvester in the same 1966 interview. He believed that through embracing spontaneity—and accepting “accidents” as integral aspects of the composition—he’d achieve true emotional candor. Spontaneous marks and images, for the artist, resembled the unexpected welling up of passionate, unbridled feelings.
In another interview with Sylvester, Bacon described the unexpected imagery that emerged while creating one of his butcher shop paintings, a series depicting dripping cuts of meat. “I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field,” he said of his initial idea for the composition, “but suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture.” Instead of forcing his original idea, he accepted the new form that had pushed through. He recalled that not only was it a powerful image, but it “suggested an opening-up into another area of feeling altogether.”
Bacon encouraged these productive accidents by beginning a work with a preliminary drawing, then leaving the direction it took up to chance. As Michael Kimmelman observed in a 1989 profile of the artist, he worked directly on unprimed canvases, “where a wayward brush stroke cannot easily be disguised.” Bacon favored large brushes, which moved the paint in ways he couldn’t predict. “I don’t, in fact, know very often what the paint will do,” he once told Sylvester, “and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do.”
Let abstraction convey sensation
Above all else, Bacon strove to capture raw feelings and sensations. “I want to create images that are a shorthand of sensation,” he said to Kimmelman. Spontaneity was one tool he used to achieve this, and the marriage of figuration and abstraction was another. In his most celebrated works, his figures of popes and naked lovers drip and contort, their forms manipulated to suggest pain and passion.
Bacon described this dichotomy in his work as a “kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction.” He believed that distortion of legible figures and images revealed emotions in ways that straightforward representation could not. “One wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive—or deeply unlocking of areas of sensation—other than simple illustration of the object that you set out to do,” he told Sylvester. In another interview, he said to the critic: “It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.”
Give yourself time alone to connect with your emotions
While Bacon thrived in social environments and routinely hosted wild parties in his tornado of a studio, he also valued alone time. During these quiet moments, he found that he could sit with his emotions, letting them percolate and strengthen before channeling them through paint. “I find that if I am on my own, I can allow the paint to dictate to me,” he told Sylvester. “That is the reason I like being alone—left with my own despair of being able to do anything at all on the canvas.”
It was during periods of solitude that he fused his favorite reference materials with the feelings that churned in his own mind. The pain of the subjects in Nicolas Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (ca. 1625–32), and of the screaming, bloodied woman in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, mingled with and calcified Bacon’s own agonies (including the deaths of ill-fated lovers and rejection by his own family). It was this potent mix that he expressed on canvas, especially in his harrowing paintings of screaming popes.
“I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by his passions and his despairs,” Bacon told art critic John Gruen, for the 1991 book The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews With Contemporary Artists. “The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.”
Tear down the veils of “fact”
Bacon often equated the process of conveying profound emotion to the pursuit of truth. For him, this meant not only exploring the deep-seated pains and passions of individuals, but also those of the era in which lived. Bacon was a child as World War I came to a close, and began painting in earnest as World War II ramped up; he came of age and matured in a society forced to reconcile with the horrors of both conflicts. He channeled these experiences into his work, as well.
“Bacon has admitted…that one of his goals is to meet the challenge of a violent age by reviving in a meaningful modern form the primal human cry, and to restore to the community a sense of purgation and emotional release,” wrote critic Sam Hunter in the 1952 article “Francis Bacon: The Anatomy of Horror.”
His work was fueled by a desire to lay bare the difficult emotions and experiences that we have a tendency to bury, in favor of presenting more positive versions of ourselves and our society. As writer Robert Penn Warren put it in his book The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections, Bacon insisted that “the end of art is to provide us with the fact, the truth of who we are.”
In his own words, Bacon explained this intent to writer Hugh Davies, in 1986: “Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence—a reconcentration…tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time,” he said. “Really good artists tear down those veils.”