The following essay was written whilst on a residency in North West Scotland. It will feature in my forthcoming book.
The Mysterious Hunt.
As I turn off the A835 sign posted Achiltibuie, I feel I have crossed an invisible safety line and started a long journey down into a perilous valley, from which only the lucky few will return. Allusions to Lord of the Rings perhaps. However the lure of the distant shrouded hills and the threatening snow clouds is too strong to give in to. Yet I am warned. It is January, the longest month for many. I haven’t seen a soul so far. It is Sunday and the weather is foul. As I wind my way in and through the Assynt peninsula I imagine I won’t see anyone all day.
The absence of presence doesn’t bother me: I have many a voice in me and like to dwell in possibility. Being alone with the landscape is enough to let my imagination roam. This landscape has a personality very much of its own; it alerts me to its fury andits power as the sleet lashes on my windscreen. I pull over with quiet panic, wondering if I should have checked the forecast. Usually I would pay no attention to forecasts (they tell you what the weather it is going to be like, but not how it feels). If they attributed adjectives and said the weather was friendly, mischievous, tireless or unwelcoming perhaps it would paint a better picture.
Onwards from my musings: I am here to soak in these wonderful characteristics. I set off again to find a place to draw. Getting to know the landscape is a mysterious hunt and will perhaps always remain elusive. Yet it is as perplexing and as intangible as any other relationship. The dark hills forbid yet entice. The thin light on the water is fragile and uplifting. Softening light at the end of the day unifies landscapes to a single texture and quilts its harder edges. It is a fascination for these transient beauties of the landscape and the weather it wears that will forever inspire me.
The drive is stilted, with stopping and starting, pulling over at the passing places to look, but there is no one to pass. As I draw, the filmy hillsides in front of me unfold and re-fold with the changing light. The shifting clouds reveal enticing textures and colours. The glistening edge of the black road ahead becomes excitingly more mine. I carry on.
To romanticise the landscape would be an injustice, but asI get older I realise it is not about the sublime. I like to journey through and experience the invisible treasures just as I like to translate what I discover in paint. My work suggests, echoes and distils the ideas I take from experiencing things; the feeling of being small and the human ability to see the bigger picture; the vastness, the possibilities and the micro detail that contain human histories and memories. It is a balancing act of memory and emotion, the form of the land and the cloaks it wears at that moment.
Planning on coming to Assynt, I thought it appropriate to bring as my travel companion a rather large book of poetry by Norman MacCaig, as well as a smaller book by a devoted fan of his, Andrew Greig. Norman’s poetry, now that I am back here, has come alive, and the novel At the Loch of the Green Corrieis a wonderful account of the times spent enjoying the land in the footsteps of Mr MacCaig. In the latter I came across a passage that at first I couldn’t quite grasp, but which over time has come to mean more to me by way of helping make sense of my own ideas in paint.
‘The natural world is not like something else nor a metaphor for anything, to name it is to lose it. And yet this is what we do. The figurative language restores the world to us. The rose bush is not a pirate and Quinag across the way is not a huddle of anvils but my God we smile inwardly and picture them anew’. Andrew Greig
I trundle on, smiling at the angry river and the lonely hilltops, and wonder how to paint them. Perhaps like the weather I can postpone making up my mind until I am home.
Year Marker Series
Love, Death and The Change of Seasons.
Robert Graves’s famous statement ‘All true poetry is about love, death or the changing of the seasons’ comes to mind as I tip toe my way through early spring and new ideas. A fresh body of work, like a poem or painting, allows the artist to shed old thoughts and theories and explore and see new things in a new way.
This process requires time, as the thoughts themselves need space to sink in and seep through. Hopes and expectations have a strong influence too as these can both shape and hinder my focus simultaneously. It is a liberating, frustrating and experimental process; I find that it is often the surprises and the fresh discoveries that end up being the catalysts for new paintings. Drawings and notes are made in my sketchbooks, photographs are taken for documentation, and tentative exciting beginnings on canvas.
I have been engrossed with the relationship we have with nature and how happenings within each year can shape our idea of time, place and sense of self. ‘Happenings’ I use as a loose term for the things we see and experience in our time spent being in the outdoors within our allotted 365 days. We associate March with winds and April with showers for instance. I find it interesting that once I notice nature is testing my rain dodging skills in the fourth month, in cements me in time for a moment or two but also in a bigger picture within nature’s almanac.
The first echo of a cuckoo on a clear, warm afternoon in the hills will always be told to another and may make for a story, creating a time frame and a relationship which goes back and forth. The first time a woodpecker visits your garden. Perhaps not the first, who knows, but spotting such beauty makes the moment even more special: it is your moment, to be cherished and then be shared with others. The first sight of the returning swallows, your swallows (because of course they return to you), which you have come to know so well over the years, or think you know. Black buds of the Ash growing blacker against the brightening sky and the brave sense that dusk is a time to be enjoyed and not tutted at.
Realising the beauty in the old familiar and seeing it again as if for the first time happens mostly at the changing of the seasons. It makes us stop and count our blessings once more.
Spring is the season of renewal, the dark time of the day quickly retreating. It’s as if we have slept all winter and we open our eyes for the first time for months, and start seeing, sensing, smelling, hearing and feeling again. We come up for air and we desperately try and grasp a tight hold and try to imprint these moments on our psyche and our being, as if we may never experience them again, as if in fact all is dying and we really do need to remember. The irony.
Spring rolls into Summer with blurred edges and green delight and Summer into Autumn with the note of the first chill, exhilaration of the shifts of light and fiery leaves, yet I have observed that Winter arrives with force and a frown despite the beauty of the rain sweeping and clouds building. The air has less scent in winter, apart from the frozen days when the exhaust fumes catch your throat or when the wild sea spray smells of salt. The light can be shallow and fragile creating a riot of worrying greys as the fallow fields sleep.
Year Marker Series has come about as a result of needing to notice the details as a way of slowing down time. Marking, remembering with paint the firsts of the year seems to have become my muse for now; as the light tries, the air yellows, the rivers darken and sparkle and the greens lift and sing. There will be more firsts as the days and months, clouds and sun move on. Perhaps it is all about love, death and the change of the seasons. But for me I like the challenge of expressing it through paint.
Echoes have a habit of repeating
Days do the same
Listen first; change your sound
A new ribbon weaves its way
As artists we all strive to find our voices, our mark. It is what makes us who we are and gives us our identity. Over years of practice there has been a constant self perpetuated drive mainly because of the need and want to improve and find the perfect way of expressing what I want to say in paint, which I hasten to add is often in flux and changing which makes the process even more difficult. If it was easy I often wonder if I would paint. When I finally find my language that feels right for that moment it feel like nothing else matters. It perhaps can be thought of as a kind of mediation, the mark making and paint flow, the colours mix with ease. It’s perfect.
Keeping the work fresh and free is vital to the essence of my paintings but also to my spirit. I find myself imagining the places I have been and how I reacted to them at the time, and when clear in the mind it seems a natural instinct to be able to paint but once the memory starts to fade it seems so easy to repeat and echo. So I look for inspiration again, which comes in many forms listening to music, reading, writing and music but the core to it all is the landscape the rivers, mountains, moors, field and coastlines which seem to conjure something within me and makes my blood run freely once more. I have always needed the sky and the fresh air. Having spent many hours in the Lake District hills growing up, the outdoors especially the mountains feel like home to me. It never fails to amaze me what the human body can do and where it can take us, how we can walk for mile upon mile exploring wild hillside and tops and in so doing see the most amazing cloud formations and experience awesome weather in the real sense of the word. Landscape will forever inspire and energise me.
The idea of journey is foremost in my mind just now as I start a new body of work and wonder where it will take me. Having visited two major exhibitions recently by artists Joan Eardley and James Morrison whom I have always turned to as my guilty pleasure it has reminded me once more to find my own language. It is a delight to see such wonderful works and it’s great to enjoy and be spurred on but it makes me realise that you have to look forward and find what is real to you.
Whilst this is easy to say I feel strongly that there are definitely forces against me in this process, our fast lives, the bombardment of news and the frenzy of social media interruptions, and the diversions of business can all put your mind set off course and make you question what it is you are doing and why you are doing it. I imagine it is the same for most artists but I know myself that this is the part that makes me, me. If it weren’t for the struggles and uncertainties I wouldn’t have to try and push and work through and strive to make the next painting fresh. And so it goes.
It is often the pieces that are then made soon after or during this process that are the most poignant. As with the change of the seasons the moments most noted are the ‘in between’ paintings. These are the pieces I feel hold the most tension and meaning, the green shoots of late winter waiting, the nostalgic last leaf on the tree. Paintings poised to become more and to take on a life of their own.
I grow shy...
...when I am painting; it feels self-indulgent, a diary of fleeting personal experiences that solidify on the flux of the easel. My practice of painting is as fickle as the wind that blows between the mountains I portray, as arrogant as the imposing rock faces and as immersing as the play of light on water, it is addictive. I am the thief, the arboreal mistletoe; I take from nature in a gentle way. Stealing that moment of artistic creation gives me my freedom, it stirs and mixes the senses inside me like paint on a palette. Therefore Landscape is too small a word for what inspires my painting, because, it is less about the strict visual observation and much more about my individual exposure to the environment, in which I find myself immersed, and the memories that the exposure elicits.
So I attempt to translate the personal, spiritual vision of this distilled essence into a fabric of form and colour. From my belief that each of us perceives and interprets nature in a unique way comes the liberty not to need the approval of others to validate my art. Yet somehow, I yearn to know that others understand the way I experience the world. It is that lust for the harmony of experience that drives my love for art and my compulsion to paint.
Of course there is always a story to tell about each of my canvasses but this tale is ill served by extended prose. Words merely distract from the instinctive perception of the mind and therefore sap the strength of the work. The energy of my work arises not from the vibrancy of colour but from the very instant in time, the now of the moment, I reflect not the harsh single emotions of hate, lust, fear, but more the blended emotions of daily life peppered (veiled) with utopian ideals of romanticism. The natural hues of greys and greens have an intrinsic honest beauty for me, and there is a euphoric feel to bright yellows and blues. Often I find there is beauty enough in a single moment to fill a whole day. Wordsworth wrote about the daffodils as though he had never seen them before. He wrote in the joy of that moment but with a nod to the imprints on the soul of previous experiences. For me it is a similar experience, each instant is a unique thing but somehow it takes its reference from the past and yet gives insight to the future. Everything is transient and yet it is impossible for anything to leave no trace or impression behind it.
My work is that lasting trace of those passing emotions, it is about a lack of fear and a confidence of feeling. It is an acceptance of the now and an acknowledgement of the transient beauty, of our emotional brain.