Yearly Archives: 2016

Shadow, sun, moon

photo of Arant Haw in the evening

high on the hill, looking up to Arant Haw summit in evening light and shadow

At last the weather warmed itself enough to trek up the hill carrying outdoor painting gear. As well as paints and canvas you need a bag full of scarves, woolly hats and gloves to prevent the cold from seeping in as you sit still while the sun lowers itself. Huge shadows unfold themselves, draping down the hillsides like giant black backdrops. They make the foreground look even more unbelievably golden in the slanted sunbeams before sunset. Wearing their shadows the steep slopes become massive dark forms, quite terrifying in their glowering vastness. They seem to lean towards you as you fiddle about with boxes, a puny being attempting to set up a painting site clinging to a slippery grass perch on the hillside. One shrug of their shoulders and you’d be off.

hills in evening light, bright sun

evening sun bounces off the lens, looking down Crosdale

plein air painting spot in evening sun

dark shadow looming above my painting spot

After a winter break plein air painting skills are always rusty but there’s nothing like the elation of being the last person out on the fells on a brilliantly lit evening. There’s always excitement with every brush stroke even if the finished picture isn’t quite what you had hoped. Eventually, after the furious attempt to daub the view into its new life on the canvas has gone on for half an hour or more, you realise just how cold you are, sitting on your scrap of mat as the air around you chills. I’ve found the best way to stay alive, with blood flowing to all the relevant parts, is to have something hot to drink. So I crack open the flask of steaming cocoa I lugged all the way up and feel warmth returning to my fingers.

plein air painting tea break

a hot drink helps to stave off hypothermia as the sun goes down

Once the sun really starts to drop it gets much colder very quickly. You have to rush to pack up and keep moving to avoid numbness.

plein air painter setup

as the sun disappears it’s time to pack up and depart

While the sun was saying goodbye in the west I felt an eery ‘you are being watched’ prickle on the back of my neck and whipped round to see an old white face. Fire and warmth were ebbing away on one side as bright paleness entered the sky on the other, gleaming and peering at my activities.

moon over my shoulder

a white face …

moon rising

… peers over my shoulder

One last look towards the Lake District mountains and the invisible sea beyond, underneath a red strip of sky, and I was on my way down.

fading sunset over the hills

last glowing embers in the west

In the east the colours were gentler and the moon was already halfway up the sky. Not a breath of wind stirred as I made my way slowly and happily down the Gill towards home.

moon at dusk

misty pink clouds gather over the hills as the moon takes off

Into the woods and out again

photo of figure striding into trees

heading into the heart of the woods on the path to the black tower

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.

photo of a figure looking out across a wooded landscape

looking out over the woods from the black tower

photo of the artist when young

the artist as a youngster

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.

watercolour painting of a lonely tree

the lonely tree, small plein air watercolour sketch on paper,

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.

photo of leafy lane

road through the trees

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.

painting of manchester view, oil on card

a view of central Manchester painted from my top floor kitchen window, oil on card with driftwood frame, approx 12 inches square

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?

photo of Bleasdale circle

where the wooden circle at Bleasdale once stood, with Fairsnape (was there ever a lovelier name for a hill?) fell in the background

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.

oil painting of hills and valley in oils on hardboard

The Hidden Valley, painting in oils on hardboard, approx. 40cm x 60cm

large painting in oils of trees in mother's garden

trees close to my mother’s house, large oil painting on canvas

oil on hardboard, painting of trees in a southern garden

trees lurking in a southern garden, oil on hardboard, approx. A4

woodland study, charcoal on paper

sketchbook charcoal study of light in a wood