It was six minutes off low tide when I got to Banff. I can be this precise because I checked the tide times before walking along the stretch of white sand that’s hidden at high tide.
First I had to resist some pebbles to get onto the sand.
The sand stretches almost all the way to the harbour, along with a robust wall that suggests the sea can get wild at times.
There’s a set of concrete stairs towards the other end of the sand, and a few precarious-looking vertical metal ladders up the wall further on.
A section of the harbour is being rebuilt, and the water pumped over the wall.
Parts of the harbour are the very old vertical block construction I first saw at Portsoy, which is a bit further north. It’s a pattern that so wants to be painted!
But then so do many other bits. This morning’s walk was just about looking, enjoying, absorbing. I did meet one of the two people I knew in Aberdeenshire before we moved here, walking his dog on the beach, so there was some chatting too.
Back along the road, sandy beach, over the pebbles, and home.
How to put all those pieces together. Something that resembles what we feel and need to express.
This part takes some doing.
We chip away at this part while we endure the naysayers and the criticisms. The “that’s not for you” crowd. The “you can’t sing and you have no talent” crowd. The “that’s for other people to do” crowd.
And still at our core we are desperate to make music. Unarmed and desperate. No turning back.
After year upon year of slow, arduous growth, something emerges that finally appears to appeal to some other people, even as we ourselves begin to feel like we’re “getting there”.
Fortunately, of course, the naysayers are never far away. Nipping at our heels. Just letting us know we’re one step away from complete failure.
This is more helpful than first imagined. It provides a certain “fuck them” springboard that propels us to the next phase. The “I’m good and they have no idea what they’re talking about” phase.
This euphoria is, of course, extremely short-lived and followed by the tempered phase of “maybe they’re right”. At this point alternative life paths are sometimes considered. This overly long period is usually crushed by our woeful inadequacy at other occupations.
Then one day we realize that none of this matters, and our need to make music outweighs all other concerns. This continues for a time we’ll call “The Forever”, which is visited often by self doubt and longing to do something else again. Anything else. Alas, this is not to be.
And we keep going until, one day, we start to believe in ourselves and realize that the creation is all that matters in the making of music. Or any artistic endeavour. As the songwriter Sam Phillips wryly observes in the song “Animals on Wheels”,
“Famous is fast You don’t have to be talented or do good work or be smart It’s perfect for me But every time I go after it, my ideals run off with my heart”
By the time these ideas appear to us as the truths that they are, we become aware that the whole notion of art-as-a-business was a total distraction. We should have realized this by the number of times the concerns about our age and looks popped up in daily conversation. Helpful, perhaps, yet somewhat distracting.
If reading this you begin to see the writer as a bit thick and naïve, well spotted!
Along the way we meet others on similar journeys of self discovery and doubt. Hopeful creatures with longing in their eyes and courageous, unstoppable spirits. We will see some of these people in other phases and in different states of elation or distress. Mostly moving along as naively as ourselves, believing in some sort of hidden, external purpose.
Anyway, this leads, in a neatly circular way, back to the beginning. After many years of struggle, pain, joy, love, madness, kindnesses, frustrations, disappointments and personal triumphs. We know.
Well that’s the studio cats, in-house art critic, and myself moved from Skye to the rolling wheat fields of Aberdeenshire near Turriff. To a village established in the 18th century with a name that is one letter off a favourite (printed) book typeface that has been used since the 17th century. It’s about nine miles from the sea at Gardentown, where I have painted several times in the past, which has rocks, white sand, red cliffs, big waves, quirky buildings, and a harbour.
When I get it all set up, my new studio will have space for painting with friends and doing workshops. Right now most of my stuff is still in storage, but my fingers couldn’t resist having a go at painting the flowers that unexpectedly arrived in the post, sent by a friend in Australia. (Thanks again, you-know-who-you-are, and to all my other fab friends who sent cards, books, messages, for very much helping with this big change.)
I pulled out the crate of art supplies I’ve got and set up on the floor in the sun in what is theoretically the dining room part of the kitchen but will be the afternoon-sun section of my studio. Studio cats Little Em, Freyja, and Misty participated. We all had fun.
“…I had ranged the reds from pink to orange, which rose into the yellows as far as lemon with light and dark greens.”
— Vincent van Gogh writing to Theo about painting a portrait of Roulin?s wife, 22 January 1889
What I take from this is to not think of a colour as limited to only tubes marked that colour, but to include analogous colours too (colours that sit alongside one another on the colour wheel). So, not thinking of red as reds alone, but including yellow and orange as well as purple and blue. For blue to include green and yellow. Yellow to include green and orange, and so on.
Or put another way, the ‘secret’ to Van Gogh’s beautiful reds is to use more than only red.
“An ordinary square inch in a Monet painting is a chaos, a scruffy mess of shapeless glints and tangles. His marks are so irregular, and so varied, and there are so many of them, that it is commonly impossible to tell how the surface was laid down. There is a zoo of marks in this detail that defy any simple description.
“… lay down strokes that are different from one another, and to keep overlapping and juxtaposing them until the entire surface begins to resonate with a bewildering complexity.iv The marks must not be simple dabs, or shaped dashes, or any other namable form, but they must mutate continuously, changing texture, outline, smoothness, color, viscosity, brilliance, and intensity in each moment.
“…The best [brush] motions, the ones Monet must have made habitually, were violent attacks followed by impulsive twists and turns as the brush moved off.
First the brush would scrape wildly, epileptically, against the canvas, jittering across its own trail, breaking it up, laying down thick paint alongside dry paint, and then it would abruptly lift and swivel, turning the jagged edges into little eddies.
The gestures are a mixture of timidity and violence, of perfect control in the preparation and perfect abdication of control in the execution.”
As the sun moves north again I find myself wondering why I’ve never made a note of the date when it gets past the tip of the Waternish Peninsula of Skye and creates sunsets that not only fill the sky with colour but also the Minch (the stretch of sea between the Inner and Outer Hebrides).
Another thing I’ve added to my list for this month’s painting project is to have a go at painting from dark to light, rather than from light to dark as I usually do. It necessitates knowing which of your colours are opaque so they’ll show up on top of a dark colour, and presents the challenge of leaving bits of the shadow areas unpainted so the dark base layer shows through.
I was reminded of it when I noticed that “other than white” versions of the non-absorbent primer by Michael Harding are now available at Jackson’s (affiliate link). MH is a UK brand renowned for its quality of his oils paints and range of colours. Lots of traditional pigments in the range, some with prices in the “ouch” category.
I’ve been watching out for MH coloured primers because the range includes a clear primer, which will be less less grabby/rough than the one I have been using (Holbein, medium grain) on wood panel to let the grain of the wood be part of the painting.
I then saw the black and headed into “ooohhh” territory. The other colours don’t tempt me as they’re not colours on my palette and risk ending up with a ground that doesn’t fit well with the painting, and the neutral grey isn’t exciting. Some of the oil paintings I’ve done that I was happiest with I started with a Payne’s grey acrylic ink drawing. So a black gesso would do similar, albeit without gaps. I look forward to finding out.
One thing I do wish though is that the containers the Michael Harding ground comes in were narrower. The lid on the white one I’ve got is too big for me to get a grip across it to unscrew it easily. I wish it came with a narrower lid that had a flip/twist to squeeze some out nozzle and could be screwed off to access with a brush.
This project is about using different drawing and painting materials to depict a relatively straightforward subject in order to remind ourselves of materials we’ve forgotten, neglected, not yet tried, been too intimidated to attempt, and love the most. To do a series of drawings/paintings either as individual pieces or together on a large piece of paper.
My suggested subject is a piece of fruit, something that will last for a while. Work from observation not memory because looking at it closely, and repeatedly, will reveal how much we don’t typically notice. Position it the right way up, upside down, on its side, cut in half or peeled, with a bite taken out, as just a core or pip or peel.
Do at least seven drawings/paintings, as large or small as you wish, with or without backgrounds. Dig out all your different materials and give each a go. For instance:
pencil (line only, tone only, line and tone)
pen (permanent and water-soluble)
black only (ink or charcoal)
black+ (black dominates but using other colours, as in traditional Chinese ink paintings)
loose wet into wet with line added afterwards to suggest detail
At the end of the month, email me a photo of your results for inclusion in the photo gallery. If you’re unsure of how to use any material you’ve got, feel free to email me and ask. For feedback on your results, sign up to be a project subscriber on Patreon, where there’s also an option for me helping you one-to-one with any aspect of your art. Happy painting!
MY PROJECT PAINTING: I’ve chosen a green apple because none of the red ones had a stem, the green gets yellower as the apple ages, the shadow areas invite the use of reds and purples (as complementary to green/yellow) and it takes me away from orange/blue that have become such fundamental colours.
I’m doing it in a concertina sketchbook, with each on a new spread (pair of pages) so that the result will be a book you can flip through seeing them sequentially or open out to see them as a row. Painting over the fold of the paper isn’t ideal as the paint tends to gather there and get the paper too wet and it tears, but a single page felt too squashed.
A photo of a bunch of wood panels that I’ve gessoed may not seem like an image of hope that 2022 will be a better year than 2021, but that yesterday I found myself wanting to have some panels to hand ready for painting, and only a couple wouldn’t do so I gessoed the dozen in the photo, tells me that I am feeling better than I have for some time.
Add to this my obsession the past couple of weeks with painting the yellow lichen-covered seawall (see here and here), that I have been out painting on location with my oils again, set up some new Monday Motivator photos using the Rijksmuseum Playmobil figures the in-house art critic gave me for Christmas, and how much I am looking forward to my two workshops at Higham Hall in April, and I realize I have refound part of myself that’s been trampled by the pandemic and the in-house art critic’s neurocognitive issues.
My thanks to everyone for your support and understanding this past year, in all the different forms it’s been given, for your enthusiasm and encouragement, for paintings bought and commissioned, blog posts and newletters read, quick messages and long listening, and social media comments. A special thanks to my Patreon subscribers for keeping me in coffee and for the joys in helping others with their painting.
May your 2022 be a year filled with joyful moments and many hours of painting.