16th April 2006
This little painting is special to me.
I know it’s not finished, and it’s not that good, but it has a place in my heart all the same.
I had a problem finding something to paint today. I didn’t have anything ready and when I went down the highstreet all the shops were shut so I couldn’t buy any fruit to paint. Ah yes, it’s Easter.
On the way back home I passed a cherry blossom tree in the town centre. I’ve always liked cherry blossom trees, in fact they’re my favourite tree. Apart from them being so pretty, they’ve always been a sign for me that spring is in full swing and summer is coming soon. Painting a sprig of cherry blossom on a fine spring morning seemed like a good idea, so I snapped off this small twig and came home.
It didn’t cross my mind when I started that over the course of five or six hours the flowers would wilt. They were nice and lively to start with, full of the joys of spring as they say, but by the time I’d roughed in the background and the surface of the wood, and come to paint the flowers, they were already drooping badly and I could see that they were no where near in the same position as they were when I’d drawn them out at the start.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Firstly, a small change to the method. Everything was the same today, except that I toned the canvas first. I did this last night, by covering it with a wash of burnt sienna and ultramarine alkyd, mixed with a bit of titanium white and turps, then wiping it back with a soft rag until I had a nice smooth, medium brownish grey. I decided to do this to stop freaking myself out when I put a colour down and it looks so dark to me next to the bright white canvas. It should also help me judge colours on the canvas better, so it’s going to become a standard part of the routine now.
Here’s the painting right at the start, with the charcoal drawing laid out on the toned ground. Hopefully you can see the difference in the flowers here, standing up in a springy-flower type fashion. Compare this drawing to final painting, with them mostly face-down and forlorn.
I’m just using cutup sheets from a canvas pad for these paintings, I’ve been thinking I should be using something a bit more up to the job though, a bit more permanent. Maybe I should glue the canvas to pieces of board first. What I don’t like about that idea is that at the moment I mess with my view finder till I’ve got a composition I’m happy with, then I cut some canvas off the sheet to fit the proportions, usually slightly bigger. If I use prepared boards with canvas stuck on, I’m fixing the proportions of the pictures. I don’t like that idea at all. I want the size and proportion of the painting to be dictated at the last minute by the subject.
Here it is at the first fag break, I think I was about an hour in here. Working on a toned ground is nice. I don’t feel compelled to fill the entire picture immediately with paint.
This was just straight colour checker work like usual. Taking time, matching the colours, adjusting, mixing again. It has to be said, this way of matching colours with the colour checker is not a quick way of working.
I’d started to realise at this point that the flowers were wilting, I had a good few hours’ work to do yet. There was no way this painting was going to work as what I’d set out to do. In the end I decided to keep going, and put my trust in painting what I saw. If the flowers were wilting, I’d correct the drawing and paint them wilted.
It was also becoming obvious that I wasn’t going to get finished today. It was just too complicated for the way I work at the moment to finish in a day. Now you could say that’s a weakness in my method, that I should paint faster, but I don’t see why.
I want to make sure I see this cherry blossom as it really is, slowly dying while I paint it. I’d rather get one or two flowers in and them be something like right, than rush and try to get them all in, screwing up the painting in the process. I deliberately work slowly, it’s to slow me down to seeing pace. I’d much rather get the coloursright first, speed can come later. If that means a few unfinished paintings in the meantime that’s fine with me.
The first flowers have gone in. I left these flowers as they were from this point, but as I got over to the flowers on the left, the whole bunch had wilted more. So the painting is like a series of snapshots of different stages of the flowers wilting. By the time I’d finished, these flowers that I did first were completely flat.
I’ve put in a little detail frame in the bottom right, so you can get more idea of what the flowers look like. Usually with my paintings, they’re so rough they look much better from a distance of at least five or six feet (remember, they’re only small) but this one looks better closer. If only the light had lasted a bit longer, if the flowers had wilted a bit more slowly, I could have got it finished.
A leaf has appeared! I think it took me about an hour to get that leaf in, in full colour checker mode again. There’s no way I’m going to get more than a bit of it done at this rate.
A nice thing about today is that I didn’t let the wilting flowers and the fading light rush me. I thought, well I’ll just have to change it as I go along if the light changes or the flowers move. I’ve been looking at the drawings a bit more from that point of view too. It’s all well and good doing these Bargue drawings, or drawing from casts, but out in the real world things move.
Speaking of the Bargue drawings, I’ve noticed a very definite benefit of the drawing practice in my painting technique – I can draw with a brush better now. I first noticed it the other day when I painted the red pepper. I wanted to get the curve of the topof the pepper, sharp against the dark background, and the only way to get that is to do it in one stroke. I had to deliberately relax my hand to do it, it must have got tense, but I did a few practice passes and had a strange sensation of deja vu. Somehow the memory of the stroke I’d used for all those slightly curved lines must begetting imprinted into my hand, or my brain. I noticed it again today. I was drawing with the paint. In fact, that’s all painting really is in a way, drawing with colour.
Here’s a detail of the (un)finished painting, wilting and all. You can still see the areas of untouched toned ground that I didn’t get to:
It’s kind of sad, this painting. I read somewhere that the Dutch still life masters painted subjects which were supposed to get the viewer thinking about the impermanence of life. That after this short spell on earth the after-life was coming. In this painting I caught the last few hours of life of a small sprig of cherry blossom. The tree is still in the town centre though, and I think I’ll look at it differently when I pass it now, having painted a small part of it.
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