Monthly Archives: September 2014

Scary landscapes, mysterious orbs and small into large work

watercolour of Kentmere reservoir

Kentmere reservoir – watercolour sketch on paper, 5″x7″

When you have to walk quite a long way over rough terrain (steep slopes, bogs, rocks, long grass, bracken up past your middle and reeds) to reach your painting location of choice it is a lot easier to carry the means to make a small sketch or study than it is to drag a big easel and a couple of huge canvases with you (although I am working on that!) so, so far, I have tended to do a lot more work of around 6″x8″ and 9″x12″ when painting out of doors.

Working up smaller pieces into big paintings is quite a challenge and involves using the mind’s eye and thinking yourself back into the place where you made the original sketch. The sketch needs to contain enough hints to take you back there and you also need to remember what inspired you about the scene in the first place. Some locations just have something about them – an air of mystery and a feeling of anticipation, as if an event is about to happen. I like places that scare me a little. It helps if they are a bit remote and slightly threatening in atmosphere. I like it when nature seems so enormous and powerful in a place that I feel I am just there on sufferance – the hills could rear up at any moment and shrug me off, the clouds could envelop me and spirit me away, or the rocks could crack open and – who knows??

Earlier this year I made a visit to Kentmere Reservoir – a body of water at the end of a long, long valley which took some hours to reach on foot. Once there you are confronted by what seems like a natural theatre – the water makes the stage and mountains surround it on three sides like backdrop, stage scenery and wings. There is no continuing (unless you want to walk behind the reservoir and climb through the mountains) and it’s a long walk back to the nearest village. So, you are safe and not safe. Free in the middle of nature and trapped.

I sat in the middle of the dam and painted a quick watercolour sketch. The light was odd and the day was coming to an end. Golden patches of sun moved across the mountains as if they were carrying out an evening performance and the shadows loomed very dark. The play of light on the water made it look very deep and extremely still. The atmosphere was magical and if something had risen from the lake it wouldn’t have been at all surprising.

Back in the studio, the watercolour had enough in it to allow me to attempt a larger oil version. It has had polarised reactions from those who’ve seen it, who seem to either get it or not, but it speaks to me and has convinced me that converting watercolours into oils is a worthwhile experiment.

oil painting of Kentmere reservoir

Kentmere reservoir, oil on canvas, A2

Another large painting I’ve been working on (still unfinished) from a series of small studies, all 6″x8″ oils, is shown on the easel below. I’m hoping to finish it soon – but I’m beginning to realise that paintings have their own built-in deadlines and they can’t be hurried, or delayed for that matter because they then end up overworked.

Mysteriously, as I took the photograph the dog ran out of the room in fright (I’d already taken three previous pictures without causing a disturbance) and a spooky orb has appeared on the picture hovering over the painting of Kentmere!

easel with two oil paintings

easel with Kentmere painting at the top and work in progress below


Keld photo, 1980s

Keld, 1980s

Lately I’ve been getting random attacks of nostalgia – a strange feeling which seems part mental and part physical, with a bit of an achey quality to it. It made me wonder exactly what nostalgia is and how it relates to painting.

A lot of my reasons to paint something from real life seem to come from a strong feeling of nostalgia, a feeling for a particular place at a certain time. Even painting out of doors means putting moments on the canvas just after they have flitted by.

Old, golden-faded photos from the ’80s show I visited some of the landscapes round here a long time ago. Memory brought me back here to recreate them in paint, translated out of time and into something else (perhaps so I could save them?).

Kingsdale photo, 1980s

Kingsdale, 1980s

Is trying to immerse yourself in a painted scene an attempt to cure nostalgia? To me, a painting offers immunity from nostalgia because you can step inside it at any time.

Although looking at a photograph can feel as if you’re peering into a mirror reflecting another time, the landscape of the mind seen in a painting feels, to me, much more immediate and intense than anything frozen by a machine. Paintings have a structure and emotions that the artist provides because they were “there” and transferred everything they experienced into paint. The translation process, if successful, adds many extra notes or layers so that viewing the painting is like entering the space the painter occupied and being “there” yourself.

photo of Ingleton to Hawes road

the road from Ingleton to Hawes, 1980s

One of the most dramatic experiences I had of being “there” was looking at a painting by David Bomberg in an exhibition at Abbot Hall in Kendal, in 2006. It was a painting of the view at dusk from a Cornish cliff – and I felt like I was standing inside the scene. It may have helped that I had been to that same or a similar spot in the past, also at dusk, but it was odd the way the scene became “real”.

In a reversal of this there was one Bomberg picture of a Cornish scene, a valley rolling at fast pace towards the sea, which I used to be particularly fond of when I lived in Manchester, often visiting the City Art Gallery to bask in front of it. A camping trip to Cornwall resulted in a walk which passed along the same section of sparsely inhabited coastline. We became lost and began to run out of daylight and started to rush away from the sea and head up the nearest valley towards civilisation.

It was a steep climb and the sea was behind us. Suddenly a helicopter buzzed over our heads and made us turn and, as it disappeared from view, I recognised that we were scrambling up the valley from the painting. I was inside the picture I knew so well, with its tumbling painted slopes and twisting course racing down towards the waves, although I was moving against the paint, heading up towards the fields.

Recent visits to the City Art Gallery in Manchester, since its renovation and extension, have revealed that painting never seems to be on display any more.

Fleet Moss photo, 1980s

Fleet Moss, 1980s