When I began painting in my mid-thirties I knew very little about art and had hardly visited an art gallery. I knew that I wanted to paint ideas and imaginative art; to me it seemed amazing that people would want to paint ordinary images of things in a realistic way, in competition with a camera. A camera is the ideal medium for the lazy or talentless artist, so there are elements of flair and romantic élan that painting or hand crafted art will always have over that medium, but exact realism is not the objective in paintings of this sort.
My first painting was a copy of a van Gogh painting using a starter set of oil paints with a few simple colours. A van Gogh was my challenge, so I chose a painting that had been destroyed and was only known as a black and white photograph, because it didn't exist, and because the poor photograph meant that I could make some changes quite legitimately. My second painting, Iraq War, was a panpoly of symbols and ideas in one image. This might be considered surrealist, but to me at the time it was a representation of an idea using symbols, considered like Frida Kahlo might have considered hers. I wasn't aware, from what I remember, of surrealism, its theories of the unconscious or anything like that.
Perhaps my first surrealist painting, with an 'unconscious' root, was Now That's What I Call Blue, as the image appeared to me in a dream-like way. The image, complete with rushing water sound, just appeared in my head. I have no doubt that such thoughts are the imposition of inspiration, help supplied by the creative mind. I don't particularly believe in an unconscious or attribute any special powers to postulated hidden areas of the mind. There were always two definitions of surrealism: a hyper-reality, and a dream-like reality. I'm firmly in the former camp, using any imaginitive tool to acheive this hyper-representation of truth.
From the outset my art was called surrealist by other people and I've stuck with it because it's a convenient label; people generally know what surrealist paintings look like. I don't consider automatism, or any particular idea of André Breton or his favoured surrealists any more valid than any other use of the imagination. In 2018 I wrote a book, 21st Century Surrealism, which examines the concepts behind surrealism, including theories of the unconscious mind in the early 20th century, and in time since I proposed my own.
In some ways, the publication of the book represented a rejection of surrealist ideas, but only some of them. Perhaps labels annoy me as much as they annoy any artist. Whatever we think of surrealism now, the semi-conscious states are creative, and have always been and will always be, useful to artists.