Sometimes you have to leave the sunny meadows and breezy hillsides and head into the woods. It can be terrifying in there because of the shadows and you are never quite sure whether or not someone else is around. When you are younger it is easier and you are always curious about what you might find around that next bend in the track.
At the age of 15 or so I thought nothing of heading into the woods and went there regularly, often climbing up to a sinister black tower that loomed on the horizon. Once up there, above the trees, you felt almost as if you were in a strange version of heaven, or on some kind of woodland shelf above the world, closer to the sky and clouds than to the trees below.
The woods spoke to me strongly at that age, with their pleasing slight scariness and their ability to encompass the unknown, and I painted a picture of them, with myself in the foreground striding off towards the tower. Maybe the power of the woods infiltrated the painting because, when entered in a national competition, it won the prize for my age group. Perhaps fittingly it was later destroyed in a house fire, becoming truly mysterious for ever.
Now it seems that going into the woods is a midlife thing. Some Jungian analysts see the woods as a symbolic place where people go to learn about themselves in middle age. It is difficult to go into that dark unknown but well worth the risk, they say. The alternative, to stay on the surface of life, in the easy meadow, is actually more dangerous in the long run as you could miss out on everything that matters.
When painting I find myself drawn to compositions that lead towards a place you can’t quite see. It’s like going into the woods. You’re entering a landscape and heading for the hidden part. Something momentous will be there. Your courage will be rewarded.
Even urban places have their ‘woods’. From my kitchen window in Salford I could see the way that led into town, into the centre of Manchester where the unexpected, the glamour and the grime were waiting to be encountered. I tried to paint that route, which disappeared into the shadows between tall buildings.
Back in Lancashire, there was a small wood where a wooden circle once stood. I visited it a few times and wondered why it felt magical there. Was it because I expected it should be or was there really something extraordinary there?
In the Lancashire hills I used to cycle through I sometimes saw lonely valleys running off into the heathery distance, with no footpaths in sight. I painted one such scene, with a house that is cut off from the world and some trees which, settling themselves here and there, seem to have positioned themselves on purpose to obscure the view of a distant valley. I think the house that ended up in my painting is derelict. I will probably never visit it and it still haunts my mind, symbolising unexplored territory and inaccessible places.