We’re four weeks into ‘lockdown’, and one of the activities that I’ve been doing is to go painting. I’m fortunate to live in the country, the Machars of Galloway, South West Scotland. The river Bladnoch flows past the old factory where I stay, and enters the sea half a mile down river. The hills of Galloway fringe the horizon, and the wee town of Wigtown is about the same distance up the hill.
I have a small business making stoves in part of the old factory, and one of my other ‘occupations’ during this time is to experiment with a couple of ideas for improving the efficiency of said stoves … one of the two attempts is showing promise, and I’m looking to get it tested and certified; might be something to develop for the future of the business, especially since orders are quiet and the lads are on furlough.
The fact that the pub is temporarily closed is to my financial benefit, since an amble over the bridge for a pint or two has been my only vice, and one which I miss, though the relief to my wallet is considerable. That the weather this Easter is also exceptionally sunny is the icing on the cake.
But to return to thoughts on painting: I’ve been doing this for over 50 years now, and really should have got better than I am. A friend has told me that someone else is doing the same, from a camper-van down the lane … apparently very good. So this is partly to excuse my rough and ready results. There are lots of trees bordering the river, and spring is a fine time to have a go, with the new leaves adding colour to the scenery, without shrouding it all in dense green, as it will be shortly. I find the trees a fine thing to paint, whereas I struggle with the longer views, such as the hills and the bay afford.
I have found that my first attempt at a painting is generally rather dull. The pallet itself can be at least as interesting. Why is this?? I usually have to scrape everything off and go again, before the painting comes to some sort of life … sometime 2, 3 or even 4 times. 50 years plus and I’m still trying to find a method, to breathe life – and meaning – into the canvas
As I sit here at the computer, the back door is open .. a balmy sunday morning and the wee birds are calling me out, so I’ll be off shortly. The first thought that I want to share before I head off though , is to resist the temptation of the view itself. That which we look at for inspiration can, before we even realise it, become a tyrant … Does the painting look like the subject? There was a skilful painter on the telly the other night, sharing his tips on painting a scene: how to load and roll the brush to suggest bushes for example, or to lightly rim the edges of a lake to give a feel of distance. A purely abstract artist might say he is a slave to likeness, and the pleasure in both the artist and viewer is to see the application of paint itself, unaffected by any subject. But black or dark colours, suggest the night, and a sombre reaction; light colours suggest sunshine and happiness. It is not possible to escape our most basic human prejudices, and futile to try. But we can escape our self-imposed tyrannies, such as verisimilitude. This might have caused Giotto to paint shadows on a face, or trees on an actual hill, and thereby discover new tools of expression; 500 years later Constable and the Impressionists freed us from the constraints of Academia, and at the turn of the 20th century Matisse and then Kandinsky helped free us from the subject itself. The whole history of art looks at this process, from cave paintings to Picasso … he spent the first 14 years of his life learning to draw as he saw, and the rest of his life trying to forget what he’d learned, finding inspiration in the ‘primitive’. The heads of Benin, of Mayan and eastern art … how the Chinese painters of the Sung school used calligraphy to paint the mountains or a waterfall… all a subtle mix of likeness and our struggle to find the essence behind what we see. So I’m off out to try and find the same energy on a canvas as emerges on a well-used pallet, my own particular attempt to discover the magic link, to break my own rules … I’m doing this for all of us, so wish me luck!
6 hours later … no better! … ran out of light; maybe go again tomorrow