Who knows what really goes into our paintings? I’m not sure we do ourselves, completely.
I’ve been struggling to work through some ideas for a little while and have produced quite a few paintings recently that moved me closer towards what I was looking for but didn’t come off.
All the ideas seemed to coalesce in a way that worked, finally, in this little one.
Recently I posted about warm and cool colours in relation to picture design, and how my thoughts are shifting on that. The result of that is here. The underpainting was deliberately very warm.
The deepest shadows in the background are actually green-blue, but translucent, with the red-orange showing through.
The main subject, the water dropper, and its little friend the vase are cool foils to the warm background. I originally tried a green blue of the same value as the lighter side in the background, thinking to create a vibration, but it didn’t work as I imagined it. So I made it up.
At the same time, I was reading a book on the history of Chinese painting and a painting from the Tang dynasty, 4th or 5th century, had caught my eye. The muted oranges and yellows became the background for this piece.
Obviously, it bears no relation at all to the background in the set up. I don’t usually invent anywhere like this much, but I wanted a coherent atmosphere that would harmonise thematically with the water dropper.
The grass from the garden arrived right at the end. I think it echoes historical Chinese painting too. In fact, all the flowers came from the garden, which is full of little wild flowers I don’t know the names of. They’re secondary, really, but their fragility supports the theme.
Before I get onto that there’s one other technical point worth mentioning, though.
I’ve been preoccupied with texture lately, of the paint surface. That too was something I’ve been experimenting with unsuccessfully lately but seemed to come together in a way that worked for me in this one. Some of the surface is deliberately distressed, to let the underpainting show through.
I used quite a bit of built up paint in the lights with subtle glazing over it. And the background has two or three layers too in some places.
As much I wish I could, I couldn’t do a painting like this in a single sitting. I love alla prima and have always worked that way, but I think I’m probably moving away from it now, because I love the depth of these effects and they can’t be done without the paint underneath drying a little first.
What it’s about
I’ve been hinting at the subject. It’s not an allegory, or explicitly metaphorical, but there are associations which are deliberate.
On the day I finished this one, my wife had news that a close friend of hers from school had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was 50.
For us, news of that kind is always set against the background of the struggles I’ve had with my own illness, against the possibility that I might not have been here now; against continuing uncertainty.
This friend was killed, it seems, by his corporate job – as I was almost killed by mine.
That experience left me with a very palpable impression of the fragility and finite nature of my own existence. It had a lot to do with me committing to being a full time painter. If I only get this one life, and it can be taken away without notice, I’d better be spending the time I have on something meaningful.
Every time I hear about someone being made redundant from a “safe” job (common) or someone dying young or becoming very ill because they’ve worked themselves to exhaustion in a job they hate (also increasingly common) it saddens me. But it also validates my decision.
I used to work long hours. I really cared about how good a job I did. But behind it all was a kind of void, a deep well of meaninglessness. Nothing I did there really mattered, to me or to anybody else. Psychologists might call it an existential vacuum. I tried very hard at a job I hated and it made me ill. It seems incredible to me now. A life out of balance.
We sold our house and we really did escape to the country. We’re attempting to make a new life. One that is slower, that leaves time to stop, listen, feel the air (William Stafford). To have a slow breakfast every day with the kids. To watch the sun go down from the garden.
Time moves more slowly, yet somehow there is more of it.
That’s what interests me about this water dropper. It holds a finite amount of water. It comes out slowly, one drop at a time. Slow drops allow time for experiencing and appreciating the moment more fully.
I was forgetting how to do that but slowly, it’s coming back to me.
This little painting is up for auction.
Best wishes, and thanks for your time,
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