'I thought of drawing a square': British art's biggest names reveal the work that set them on the road to fame

From Grayson Perry's first piece of pottery to Antony Gormley's breakthrough body cast... the biggest names in British art reveal the work that set them on the road to fame while, below, Michael Glover looks at the earliest efforts of some of the world's greatest artists
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The beginning. The middle. The end. It is always fascinating and instructive to observe the trajectory of an artist, any artist. Beginnings can be particularly instructive. Is he or she to the manor born? Or is this foray into art a sudden flight into unknown and uncharted territory, at which the family now raises its collective eyebrows in a mingling of horror and consternation?

There must have been nothing unusual when Pablo Ruiz Picasso began to demonstrate his extraordinarily precocious talents in the 1890s. To be a painter in the academic-realist manner – which is what he was at first – was nothing unusual at all. His father was such a painter.

What was unusual in the case of Picasso was the sudden rupture that took place at about the turn of the 20th century, when he moved to Paris. It was as if the new century remade him, top to toe, causing him to spend a good part of his life experimenting, perpetually reinventing himself. It was as if he was emulating the violent convulsions of the century itself.

Picasso, like Bridget Riley, tended to work intuitively, pushing ahead by experimenting, ceaselessly. It was when he had made a thing that he was able to reflect upon it, and to recognise, as with Riley, that what he had done gave him pointers towards the future.

And then, at the tail-end of that extraordinarily productive life – a curator at the Picasso museum in Malaga once told me that Picasso made 10,000 paintings during his lifetime – it was as if he returned to his roots by making images that were often childishly simple, almost crude, revisitings of works by some of the Old Masters he had always so much admired, and whose example he would have wished to emulate back in the 1890s.

Francis Bacon, like so many other painters, was self-taught. He worked as a furniture designer and interior decorator at first. It was, in part, Picasso's paintings of the early 1930s, those weird organic forms in which man seems part human and part animal, which caused Bacon to invent a language for himself as a painter. Picasso revealed to Bacon a particularly repulsive, bestial vision of humanity, and Bacon recognised it to be his own inner truth. He stuck to it, from first to last, never seriously deviating.

This question of truthfulness to some wholly compelling inner vision would have been quite alien to the great majority of the painters of the Renaissance and the pre-Renaissance. Painting was a skill to be acquired. Painters were artisans, not wilful visionaries. It was a question of emulation, of learning in the environment of the workshop, the gradual acquisition of essential skills. And then it would be a matter of pleasing the patron, which would, more often than not, have been the Church, and, if the patron were displeased, then doing something radically different.

Curiously enough, Grayson Perry tells us his breakthrough as a ceramicist came about in a similar way. It was as he mastered the making of traditional ceramic forms that he began to find his way through to what would be wholly distinctive in his work, a kind of approach that would bring together traditional forms with violently non-traditional decoration.

This is not to say that individual painters, such as the members of the Bellini family in 16th-century Venice, would not, finally, if they were sufficiently talented (as at least one of them, Giovanni, proved) be distinguishable from all the rest in sheer quality, but that the question of quirky youthful productions would have been laughably irrelevant. It is the Romantic movement which has caused us to cherish the impulses, whether in the painterly direction or not, of the child.

According to Giorgio Vasari, Sandro Botticelli's first efforts as a painter required him to do one of a series of images of Virtue for the Mercatanzia in Florence. He then went on to paint a panel, containing, as Vasari puts it, "some olives and palms, produced with a wholehearted delight". Such was the nature of vassalage. Not a particularly oppressive species of vassalage though. He never ceased to paint fruits and flowers with wholehearted delight.

Vincent van Gogh would have been a preacher like his father before him had painting not seized him by the scruff of the neck in the 1870s. Some of his first productions were landscapes of Brabant; dark, dour samples of realism, cloddy as the earth itself. Van Gogh was born to be a realist, but the realism was of such a heightened and singular kind. Some of those late paintings of views seen from the windows of the asylum of St Rémy seem to have caught up into themselves all the terrible, twisty anxieties of van Gogh's own inner nature. When you look from his earliest works to his latest it is as if, in the late paintings, nature has come horribly alive. So there is a way of recognising that the first works relate to the last, but it is only possible to see that through the lens of his tortured life.

This kind of connectedness, the way in which works hang together, flow into each other, one giving birth to the other, links van Gogh with Keith Tyson, and the way he describes the evolution of his own thinking about his art. At first, works seem to be alone in the world, seeking out meanings, casting around for connections that give them relevance to other works. Then, little by little, a meaning emerges, and a good part of that meaning is to do with the discovery that the mind that has made them is the unifier-in-chief.

Antony Gormley

Bed, 1981

Bed is the culmination of a number of works made out of bread at the end of the 1970s. It is the first work that deals with the body, not as a thing, but as a place of transformation.

It's made from 600 loaves of Mothers Pride from which, over a three-and-a-half-month period, I ate my own volume.

I made it in the house that my wife Vicken and I lived in, in Peckham, for 10 years with our growing family. I remember the smell of mould that slowly took over the house, with racks of chewed, drying bread on every floor. I bought it from the distribution point where Mothers Pride was returned after its sell-by date. In the end we fixed the work by dipping each piece in boiling wax.

It is the first time that the image of the body appears in my work as a void left by the marks of my teeth as I ate my way through the bread. It is a response to process and Minimal art from America, but trying to use serial, industrial production to evoke survival in an urban age.

I showed Bed at my first exhibition, which took place at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1981. It is now in the collection of the Tate. I presented the work to the gallery in 1995.

It is my first step in refiguring the body... less to do with Rodin and more to do with registering a lived moment.

Bridget Riley

Movement in Squares, 1961

Perhaps the time I'd spent drawing allowed me to trust the eye at the end of my pencil. Movement in Squares began in this way. It came at the end of a time of great difficulty. I'd nearly lost the studio, and even when I managed to secure it I had no real sense of what to do there.

Although I had taken a few steps in the direction of abstract painting, I had not yet arrived at a point where I could establish a dialogue. One evening, I thought of drawing a square. Everyone knows what a square looks like and how to make one. It is a monumental, highly conceptualised form: stable and symmetrical, equal angles, equal sides. I drew the first few squares. No discoveries there. Was there anything to be found in a square?

But as I drew, things began to change. Quite suddenly something was happening down there on the paper that I had not anticipated. I continued, I went on drawing; I pushed ahead, both intuitively and consciously. The squares began to lose their original form. They were taking on a new pictorial identity. I drew the whole of Movement in Squares without a pause and then, to see more clearly what was there, I painted each alternate space black. When I stepped back, I was surprised and elated.

The painting Movement in Squares came directly out of [my] study. My experience of working with the square was to prove crucial. Having been lately becalmed, now a strong wind filled my sails.

Rachel Whiteread

Closet, 1988

My first sculpture was Closet – the cast of the inside of a wardrobe covered in black. This led on from the Spoon, an object I used as a sketch, which was in my degree show at Brighton Polytechnic, and was my "eureka" moment. I pushed a spoon into sand, cast the spoon in lead, and made a spoon that had lost its "spoon-ness", when the curve filled up with lead.

It made me think about filling things up. It was a knowing accident but came from experimenting. It takes time to develop your artistic language.

I've worked for more than 20 years using very similar ideas and techniques, and have developed incredibly complicated techniques. But, essentially, it is the same idea of working with filling something.

Keith Tyson

Studio Wall Drawing: An Impromptu Lecture about Astrophysics with Glenn Brown, 1999

Initially I didn't really have a signature style: I was working with a computer program. The first works I did with my own hand that conveyed an intellectual idea were the Studio Wall Drawings, probably. An Impromptu Lecture about Astrophysics with Glenn Brown is probably one of the first examples.

It was the first work that was really just a manifestation of a process of a scribbly drawings, and it was also the first in which there was an interaction with me talking to somebody else. It was the first work you could see as a kind of diary work – I realised everything is preparing for something else.

Over the years I began to see patterns in the wall drawings, a huge diversity, so now they have developed from just scribble drawings into quite a strong channel for me. They reflect a more Buddhist idea about the interdependence of things and how out of control most of your practice is.

Grayson Perry

Kinky Sex, 1983

It was the plate Kinky Sex, depicting a crude crucifixion scene, that I made at evening classes in 1983. It wasn't a great moment of revelation, but looking back it was a breakthrough. I went to evening classes to keep my hand in because, at that time, I was really intent on being a film-maker. It was a cheap way of making little pottery sculptures of animals and figures. The nature of ceramics is you wait around for things to dry; people around me were learning basic pottery skills. I was listening in and thought, "I'll have a go at making a plate in a mould". Little did I know that making traditional forms was going to become my signature style. It wasn't any kind of advance in the history of art. It was just me making a brown earthenware plate, probably in an hour or two. I put bits of melted glass and a coin on it and I'd written the words "kinky sex" in big letters.

I enjoyed making plates because I could do them quite quickly. I realised that anything could be art, except for traditional craftwork, which seemed to be exempt, which was interesting to me.

I've made lots of plates and vases since then. I've developed my signature style as I've got a lot better at ceramics. People thought that the reason my early works were badly made was ironic, but it wasn't. I was quite happy to go along with it, especially when it sounds so sophisticated, and I'm still making plates 25 years later.

Martin Creed

Work No 3: Yellow Painting, 1986

The more I work the more I think I don't know what I am doing or what I have done. I don't know what my first work was. I have been doing things and making things since I was born. Everything is work. It's hard work to get through the day.

Who am I to say what my work is, let alone what my first work was? It is perhaps more for other people to say than for me.

The things you make are just like stains of sweat. You choose what to wear and perhaps put on deodorant, but you cannot control the shape and size of the sweat stains on your clothes. You make your marks without really knowing what you're doing, or as a by-product of what you are doing. This has been worrying me a lot because I have been working on a book of all my work, coming out next year.

The first work featured is a yellow painting made in 1986, when I was at art school. It is Work No 3, because it felt wrong to have a Work No 1 and 2. It is a single swirly brushmark made with a big brush on a small canvas. I was trying to simplify things: I wanted to make a painting with just one brushmark, one wave of the arm. I would like to make work that is direct and not thought-out, like a convulsion or a natural event. That painting was a bit like that. I didn't know what I was doing when I did it.

I was sitting on an aeroplane writing something recently when suddenly the man in front turned around and slapped my leg, swatting it like a fly. Without realising it I had been shaking my leg against the back of his chair. I didn't know I was doing it. I thought I was writing something, but to him I was shaking my leg.

Gillian Wearing

Sign Work, 1992-1993: I Really Love Regents Park

In 1991 I started asking people I knew to write down their thoughts on a piece of paper. It didn't work because there wasn't that moment of revelation of nervousness from both me and them. I was going to abandon the project but then decided to ask strangers. The first person was a woman in her sixties, who wrote, "I really love Regents Park". The way she stood, the smile on her face and the sign were just magical and that was the moment that I realised it worked.

My signs work from 1992-93 (people holding up self-written signs) was my signature work. I was all over London; the first sign was in Regent's Park. I remember one guy wanting to talk for hours about his sex life to me. I remember being nervous about approaching strangers, I felt like an idiot most of the time standing with a clipboard on corners of streets and occasionally being moved on.

I eventually approached The Face magazine in autumn 1992 to print some of the images. I just walked in and I can't believe I left my originals with them. They did a double-page spread. Luckily none of the negatives were damaged.

It is still representative of my work because I enjoy working with the raw and real in new invented structures. The signs became incredibly popular and my other work didn't get a such a big look-in at the time.

It is my most mediated piece of work next to my lip-syncing films, one that has been used many times both in the advertising world and by lots of people on the internet (these I really enjoy looking at).

Gavin Turk

Title, 1989

I made a piece in 1989 when I was I was still at the Royal College of Art, called Title – a three-panelled painting with my signature across the middle. The stretcher was recycled wood and I planted a tree to replace the wood I'd used. There was no metal fixing and the canvas was recycled. The signature was made with soot mixed with tree sap. In the corner of the painting where the signature would be, I hand-sewed a little information panel. It took me about a year to realise that my own signature was something I could use in my work.