While I was at Life House (see earlier post), I attempted a little drawing and painting in the reading room. I am using this minor activity at the House to exemplify an answer to one of the commonest questions people ask me and doubtless all other artists: ‘Do you know what you are going to paint when you start?’ I don’t know what other painters say but my answer is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. I often don’t know and am happy to see where the pencil/charcoal/paintbrush takes me; but even when I think I know, the painting usually turns out to be quite different from what I initially had in mind. This is an example of that.
I sat down at a work bench in the reading room of Life House and looked out of the window. The view was, to be frank, not very inspiring on a dank and damp November afternoon; but here, in ink and charcoal, is what I then saw, with the chair (centre, without me in it) in which I sat and looked out:
At that stage, the trees along a bedraggled hedgerow about 70m from the window were, artistically-speaking, the main outside interest, captured in a drawing which was itself an interim summary of three previous sketches (see first four drawings in top line of composite illustration below). They show how I toyed with the idea of making it more interesting by bringing in some of the architectural detail of the house and garden in the foreground; though the significant detail for what eventually happened is that, in all three of the first sketches, I peered, as it were, through the near-barren trees at the hill in the distance with its distinctive, angular shape and, a key point as it transpired, an elongated tree plantation on and just below its crest.
Although I concentrated on the three or four nearby trees which I thought were the the subject I was studying and ignored this plantation in the fourth image, above, it is always there, top right, in the subsequent seven sketches as I started playing around with colour and charcoal, trying to make the mid-view trees more interesting. So too is what began as a small red oblong and a tiny red dot, left centre, representing a red telephone-box and a letter-box only just visible about 800m away. These became two red marks in five further successive studies before being reduced to one relatively large and prominent blob in the final painting.
What was going on here? – well, I think I can rationalise it now. All eleven images illustrated occupied only about 3 hours of making marks but this was over – and this was significant – two days. It was clear by the time that I finished sketch 7 that I was going nowhere with the trees – but they were undeniably there. But was their presence the significant aspect of the view, I asked myself. ‘No’, was the answer I arrived at over night; what mattered was the verticality they inserted into a big, rolling landscape. That, in my own tiny way, was the conceptual break-through, for everything else then fell into place. I could now answer the questions, not only ‘What are you going to paint?’ but ‘How are you going to paint it?’. ‘A landscape’, not just a few trees, was the first answer; ‘Simply, but intensely’ was the second.
‘Verticality’ could be expressed with one line, not three or four, never mind about fiddling around trying to draw actual trees. The ‘rollingness’ of the landscape could be expressed by using that vertical line to join two curving, contra-puntal lines, a thicker one to the fore and a thinner, upper one to suggest distance to which the eye is drawn by a green mark, inspired by the plantation, punctuating an imaginary skyline if one wants to be figurative. And the telephone-box and post-box on the nearer slope, left mid-ground, have become one red blob because what matters is their combined redness in a very green landscape, not their function, shape or number.
It was, then, only when I started the eleventh and final version of ‘my view’ that I knew exactly what I was going to paint – a painting of a landscape in five marks, three charcoal and two ink: