Category Archives: darkness

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

Red sky, black trees and water flowing in the dark

oil painting of evening in the valley of Crosdale, painted en plein air

gentle evening light in Crosdale, oil on canvas, plein air sketch, 6×8 inches

Off to paint the last light on the hill I carried my paints up to the ridge where you can see mountains in the distant west. Plunging down the side of a steep valley I emerged from an enormous shadow into what was left of the sunlight. It lit up the lower slopes of the valley, open to the west. I perched on a ledge at the blind end, facing the sun.

The vast hill slope on the right side of the valley was black and looming while, to my left, orange warmth still lingered on the white grass that slid down to the stream far below. A bright yellow strip of light curved along the side of the water, travelling from the open end of the valley to its closing wall. I knew that all of the values in my painting would probably float rapidly away from anything resembling reality as the light quickly dipped and the sun glowered lower.

plein air sketch in oils on canvas, sun setting over Crosdale

sunset lighting up Crosdale, 6×8 inches plein air oil painting

An unreal scene stretched out below me and around me, with electric purples and blues and deep viridian in the distance and in the shadows, glowing whites and ochres in the highlights. The sky was packed with odd-shaped clouds which appeared indigo against the sun, floating in bright yellow air. I painted quickly, and terribly, until the light went leaving a threatening red horizon underneath a bank of dark cloud.

Walking down towards the town I lingered for a long time watching the red sky and, passing a natural grotto cut into the hill, where water poured out of the earth into a rocky cave, I wondered why I had never noticed it before. Did it only appear at night? Remembering I had forgotten to bring a torch I hurried on, down the path with stones still bright in the remaining sky light.

plein air oil painting, setting sun last light over the valley

one last blast of light over Crosdale, plein air oil sketch on canvas, 6×8 inches

Turning the corner and facing east instead of west I could see the town’s lights spread out, dazzlingly, below. It was unnerving because I could no longer see where I was going so clearly. The farm gate reached, I dithered, not wanting to clatter through the yard and wake the occupants, so I carried on along the fell wall through the bracken, heading for a path down through a small wood which would also take me home. The fell-wall walk was time-consuming with no light and huge pools of mud leapt out of the bracken, splattering my feet and legs, while the odd rock did its best to throw me off balance.

Reaching a wooden bench near the gate leading to the wood I paused, sat and drank hot cocoa from my flask, ignoring the gaping opening behind me where another deep valley cut into the hills above, allowing a deafening stream to roar off into the darkness of the trees below.

Next the stoney, slippery path down to the trees had to be negotiated, with bright rocks and dark earth patches concealing holes into which I sometimes dropped without warning. In the trees it was suddenly pitch black and I found myself holding out my hands to the sides, as if expecting a helpful bannister or wall to appear. The way lunged steeply on and, abruptly, two black lines, even darker than the rest of the shadows, showed up, jutting across the path. I remembered them as tree roots before a sudden drop and launched myself past them, thanking the trees as I landed safely. Ahead, the darkness ended in an archway of paler dimness. The edge of the canopy of trees was near. A stone suddenly moved behind me and I felt myself scare. The edge of the wood seemed both extremely near and terribly far away. The urge to get out of the blackness to where I could see again was strong but not so strong that I would risk falling on the stones of the slope by hurrying too much.

Back in town, everything smelt oddly human after spending so long straining my senses in the dark. Cars and houses seemed to have plastic perfumes. Everything synthetic seemed to smell strong. I wondered if this was an inkling of how my dog might perceive the world of scent. When I reached home I could smell that people had been visiting, but slices of pizza soon put paid to any more meandering thoughts.

Where is the painting of the red sky and the black trees I hear you cry? Alas, it’s still in my mind and has yet to be committed to canvas. So this, rather less sinister, afternoon painting from an earlier plein air session will have to do instead.

oil on canvas, 6x8, down Settlebeck Gill, plein air

looking down Settlebeck Gill, an afternoon painting in hazy light, plein air sketch, 6×8 inches, oil on canvas