It was a science fiction novel become real. We had nowhere to live and were forced to flee just when danger was rising and the official voices were telling us to stay put. It seems strange to say this now but it was terrifying. Most of my paintings got left behind. I didn’t even have any paints when I arrived, at last, at my mother’s house having endured frightening journeys and a two-week decontamination stay in a freezing and damp house on a mountain plateau.
My mother’s house is at the edge of things, looking out at remote islands from a remote island. Even so, the virus was here. We were spending too much money as well – money that was supposed to be held for us to buy our own house. I had to buy paint though. For the first time in my life I bought the best stuff available but could only afford four tubes. I also ordered ten pieces of hardboard and some gesso, plus two knives. This became my lockdown painting kit. I have never painted with knives before, other than to do the odd final touch to a plein air painting when I’d used up all my brushes and was in a hurry. It turns out that painting with knives is very interesting and that top quality paint has better, stronger tubes and goes a lot further than the cheaper stuff. It might be hard to go back, to the old ways and the old places.
The lockdown knife paintings. Apologies for the photo quality – I don’t have my usual equipment here with me.
Knives make different marks on the painting surface and they don’t hold on to paint like brushes do. I seem to be able to make a greater variety of strokes with them and the paint is applied much more thickly. Because of the thick paint the pictures are taking forever to dry. The expensive paint smells different from the colours I usually use. There is a strong scent of linseed oil and another solvent that is sharper and more chemical in nature. A tiny blob on the palette holds much more pigment than I’m used to and I’ve had to cut back on the amount of paint I measure out initially to avoid waste. This holds true even though I’m applying paint more generously than before.
For ages I’ve been attracted to paintings with plenty of paint on them but it was something I couldn’t seem to achieve in my own work. It seems to be the knives that make the difference as they don’t meanly grab on to the colour but spread it all freely across the surface. They are also a lot quicker to clean, needing only a wipe with a cloth. I was intrigued to find that paint colours don’t always blend fully after being mixed with a knife and sometimes appear as a jumbled hue on the surface, which gives an extra way of working, an additional type of mark to increase the range of expressions.
Even though they came out of all the things that have gone wrong during this virus time, these painting discoveries have been a joy. And it’s almost time to order more of the boards, which, in the absence of my usual plein air kit, I have to balance precariously on my knee down by the sea. The seals often come to see what I’m doing and the sea plays all kinds of sounds to me as I sit on the furthest rock sticking out into the waves. High tide is the best time to paint, with waves slapping at the rock just below my feet.
Once the waves were a bit too lively and, carried away by the wind, they leaped on to the place where my feet and paints were resting, forcing me to scramble higher up. Maybe the sea just wanted to have a look at what I was doing. It backed off after that. I think we have an agreement now although, as one who was born near the sea, I know you always have to treat it with respect. There is also the lure of the deep to attend to as, the longer you commune with the waves, the stronger the impulse to throw yourself into the water becomes. At least, if the worst happens, I can swim, although the purple-circled jellyfish are waiting below. Maybe the seals will save me. One of them, a particularly curious and pointy snouted being, reminds me of Tilly, my lovely dog now lost. Once you give your heart to the wild you are never the same again.