Staithes

Staithes. My favourite place to draw. Little Morandi clusters meet drunken cubists with the sea thrown in as a bonus.

Its probably one of the most over-painted places in the country, but I’ve not come across any painters I’m particularly interested in that have painted it how I see it, so there’s plenty of room. In fact it seems to attract the exact type of painter that I don’t like. I go with my family once a year but could do with spending a lot more time there to allow things to develop. So far I’ve been feeding off of scraps. I draw a lot when I’m there and then paint from those drawings when I get home, although I find that the contact is lost after 6 months or so – then I’m just making pictures, and I stop. Photographs are no use as I just don’t get excited by them. They work for some people but they don’t link me to the experience of being there, looking, in the way a drawing does, and so I’d, again, just end up making pictures, and I don’t need any more of those. What’s the difference? The kind of image I’m trying to make is unpredictable but completely tied to the place I’m painting. I want it specific but not topographical. I want an imaginative contact but not one that’s fanciful. If its all too open and up for grabs it won’t have that impact of special subject on nervous system. If I rely too much on analysis, on what I’ve learned, on what worked last time, it won’t surprise me and it won’t have a reason for being. If it’s all too open and too much about paint it won’t contain that impulse that made me attempt the painting in the first place; it will only say something banal like “I like painting.” How do you avoid it getting arty or merely fashionably abstract? Cezanne said “being direct” is the best thing, but in a Post Modern world there are so many different things to paint about and an infinite number of ways a painting can go in that the question arises; what is one to be direct about? It’s the love of a subject I suppose that I’m trying to paint which perhaps suggests “fidelity,” but which aspect of the subject? Which aspect of paint? What about the original love – the love of painting in itself? It appears to be yet another spectrum for us to find our places on. Focus on the atmosphere, you lose the solidity of the forms. Too solid forms – you lose the sense of picture surface which you want to somehow echo your visual field, how your gaze moves around the space. Other painter’s, living or dead, poke their noses in when they really should be minding their own business (occasionally one helps). Occasionally the painting’s development tells you how to look at the subject in a more focussed and useful way; this is when a painting can really get going, but its also the point at which many other possibilities will be left behind. There’s no such thing as painting the truth, only a truthful idea that’s based on it. Each painting (if its not to be just another picture) is an experiment in barely controlled conditions in which all these balances are played against one another. Balancing them how you want them is what makes one artist’s painting of Staithes different from another’s, regardless of how hard each tried to be faithful. We probably all see it more or less the same; (although there are aspects of how we see it that can depend on how much art we have absorbed – this can be both a good thing and a bad thing) but its the decisions the painter makes that lead to a painting we’re either interested in or not.

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I’m enjoying these long formats at the moment. The drawing is one of a few I used for the painting, a new subject I’ve been planning for a few years but only got round to these past months. I’m always taken by the relationship between the top line of the trees and horizon just above them. There’s a whole valley behind those trees, the top line of a small sloping wood, but you wouldn’t know from this position. The painting is triple square, following two previous double square pictures that preceeded it. It felt far too long and cramped before I found the right scale for things.

Holly, Holly, Holly….

I’ve been at this one a while now and it changed a lot today after this morning’s drawing. I’ve been doing a few of these large holly trees on the meadows above Hebden Bridge this past month. The paint’s got so thick on this one now, it either stays like this or goes in the skip.

Double Square

It went through many changes, and I enjoyed the ride, but its stopping here. I’ve been interested in the late (ie. last two months) double square pictures of Van Gogh for some time. This picture is the same dimensions – 50cm by 100cm. Its a line of sycammores overlooking the town. I’ll probably paint it again as it keeps catching my eye. There’s some beautiful juxtapositions happening that I’ve not realised yet. Something that makes it feel significant.

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Top of Joan Wood, September

Painting from Drawings

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A little piece I wrote about the process of painting from drawings for the above exhibition:

 

I first began visiting the Hebrides in 2006. My wife and I spent our honeymoon on Mull and began thereafter to visit the area regularly with trips to Eigg, Rum and Colonsay. It was an association with Winifred Nicholson’s paintings that provided the first impulse to go. She painted in many locations throughout the Hebrides and I have often found her slightly misunderstood and undervalued. She is of chief relevance as a colourist, one of the most vibrant and original in this country’s recent history, and her colour theories, more the poetic side of them than the scientific, have long been of curiosity to me. And it is no wonder she loved painting this area of the world, one can feel the divisions of the rainbow even on the greyest of days when light becomes pearlescent. However the collections of paintings I made over the subsequent five years from that first trip to Mull are not so concerned with colour. Firstly this was because I was pushing quite hard at this time, expanding the role of thick paint and its structural possibilities. Paint applied in a certain way (and for me the handling of paint is just another function of drawing) becomes a method of pictorial structuring, in the abstract or compositional sense, in its own right. The second reason is that, while almost all my paintings up to this point had been made directly from observation, the Scotland paintings were all done back home in the studio from drawings made on site. I find that, while the drawings can contain much information and many memories, they are not so useful as a way of recording very specific colour sensations.

 

Painting from drawings has both its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, the act of drawing condenses the experience of looking down to its essentials. There is less information to paint about and, so long as the drawing has successfully distilled the elements necessary to make the painting, one can hopefully paint more directly about the specific idea rather than being distracted by all the details which might be interesting and beautiful in themselves, but will only cloud and obscure what you want to say in the painting. It avoids, as my former teacher Trevor Felcey once put it, simply “chatting about appearances.” It is also practical. There is no need to carry a big canvas out onto the hills and guyrope it down against the wind. The downside is that you do not necessarily know what information you will need in the drawing to successfully complete the painting. Also, simply speaking, the drawing is a closed experience. There are less questions one can ask of it. It is a finite thing. But the biggest pitfall is that, instead of using the drawing as a mine of information, one is drawn into copying the marks in the drawing one is particularly happy with. This more often leads to a less intense, coloured copy of the drawing which somehow fails to have any of the atmosphere and excitement you felt about the place you were painting. Its only really when the painting begins to have an identity apart from the drawing that the painting can begin to develop. The drawing is there as a compositional reference, a carrier of the light as seen at the time, and a conduit to the remembered experience of looking and making the drawing, and the excitement of trying.

 

Despite these drawbacks I still find painting from drawings far more useful than painting from photographs. Cameras do not see how people see, particularly people who draw, and I find that the way the world appears in a photograph is not at all related to how I saw it. Painting from one for me is just to make another picture, whereas the making of a drawing from life involves an imaginative digestion of the subject, and an act of empathising with it.

 

The best thing painting from drawings did for me was to allow the painting to develop a greater structural freedom. The danger of painting from life is that, if not fully focused, one can fall into the trap of merely copying or describing what one sees. I was pushing quite hard towards abstraction at this time and the act of painting from drawings allowed me to pursue this in a more experiential way, rather than just making it up, which I find makes committing to the painting as a specific idea much more difficult. Things become too open. I have always believed that a painting should be about something (even completely abstract paintings) otherwise one ends up with just another picture, and the world already has too many pictures.

 

Above all, however they are made, my paintings are about visual celebration. I fell in love with The Hebrides and they are all I wanted to paint for about five years. It’s not just the sea, the mountains and the white sandy beaches with nobody on them. Its also the sheer amount of life there; birds, flowers, otters. Its an area yet to lose its wildlife, unlike the rest of Britain, and for me, its in our wildlife and countryside (and art) that our true and common heritage lies, not in Kings, Queens and wars. The area has a rough beauty, despite its more tender, peaceful moments, a quality I like in paintings, and I find it beautiful in any weather. I am not a painter who deals much in philosophy (painters aren’t generally qualified, although we like to talk the talk), and not at all in politics in any deliberate way. I celebrate beauty where I find it, and that has always been the main attraction in painting for me, and provides the initial impulse to draw or make a mixture. It’s a huge regret to me that our materialist culture has degraded the word beauty so much, to the extent that one feels embarrassed to talk about it, or even believe in it. If there is anything political going into my work then it’s a response to this.