It’s bank holiday Monday and having spent some of the morning chiseling off the render from our chimney breast, somewhat inappropriately shod in a pair of slippers I might add, in order to explore an ongoing damp problem, I finally have some time to sit down in peace and quiet. listen to Radio3 and write.
Both the last work “Joe” and this latest piece “Luke” have taught me something. I think nearly everything I paint teaches me something, which is great because I figure if I’m learning, I’m growing and growth is good, especially if you’re not where, or who, you want to be! By both of those I mean in an artistic sense of course. I like “where” I am geographically and I have no desire to be anyone else… unless Superman’s on offer of course, I’d be Superman.
Anyway, one of the issues that both these pieces have highlighted is contrast. Contrast is essential to the full appreciation of so many things in life and art. Love is most deeply appreciated when contrasted with unlove/hate. Plenty appreciated most when contrasted with a period of want, peace when surrounded by war and so on. We often don’t appreciate fully what we have, because we aren’t surrounded by the alternatives.
Light against light is unnoticeable, dark against another dark, likewise. Blue against blue, orange against orange and so on (orange against blue however..). If you want your lights to stand out they have to be contrasted with darkness. In art I think the simplest way to explain this is that you need white, grey and black, or highlights, mid tones and shadows/darks. My past pictures may well have lacked depth because I’ve been intimidated by the two extremes, light and dark. Plenty of safe mid tones though! Learning to differentiate between the highlights, the mid tones and the darks and representing them on canvas has been, and still is, a challenging task, especially when you’re trying to avoid using that troublesome pigment… black! Black is such an unwieldy and troublesome pigment and rarely the best choice for really giving depth to shadows. “But black is the darkest you can go surely” you might say. Well it may have the properties of a pigment-type vampire sucking in light and not letting it go, but it also has a nasty habit of sucking the life out of shadows too!
I’ve been amazed at how often pure pigment unsullied by white or black gives the most vibrant shadows and lowlights. White, particularly Titanium white, has a pastel-ising effect on colour and black has a deadening effect, but mixing dark colours (especially the transparent ones) together can produce some really deep vibrant darks. I used Burnt Umber and Cadmium Orange Hue for the lowlights on Luke’s forearm and in the shadow under the arm and was amazed at the depth it gave me.
Light is a weird phenomena. It behaves like a wave, but also acts like particles and the way it bounces around your subject picking up colour and reflecting it here and there is a revelation. Edges of shadows can have hints and halos of pure colour, oranges, blues, greens etc and if we fail to notice them and represent them then we impoverish our work of these wonderful additives. After all, all that we see is a result of the interaction of light on the surfaces of the things visible to us.
Painting however works in reverse to the way light works. Light is additive. Add coloured light together and it gets brighter with each successive colour until you get pure white. Paint is subtractive, add pigments together and they get darker with each successive colour until you get black. However as mortals this isn’t too big a problem as we don’t paint in light, we learn to represent light by using pigment and so know no different. God’s paintbox must be really quite something in comparison!
If I’ve learnt, or am learning anything, about art and representing things through it, it is that observation is everything. They say that the three keys to french cooking are butter, butter and butter! Well in art the three keys are observation, observation and observation! We grow up being taught, trees are green, sky is blue, roses are red etc. and then as artists we spend the rest of our lives discovering that this is often not so at all and for me at least it is a constant battle to fight against the preconceptions of representation that I’ve probably learnt as a child.
In these two last pictures observation has taught me the value of contrast. Observation is my best and most valued tutor. Talking to other artists, reading books, magazines and online articles are also extremely helpful, but nothing yet has beaten observation as a teacher. Looking and asking myself “what are you really seeing here?”. Not “what do you think you see”, but “what are you really observing”, because they are often two completely different things. One contains truth, the other contains a counterfeit of reality, a fake preconception of the real. When you really represent what you see as an artist your work has a compelling and reassuring truth to it and that only comes from looking and learning how your subject works and solving the puzzle that you are trying to represent.
Here’s Luke. He was a great sport sitting for the reference photo’s. He was however an even more obliging sitter after I loaded the water pistol. Apparently it’s no good asking a small boy to imagine he’s squirting someone with a water pistol, he has to actually be shooting someone with a water pistol!
Luke – Oil on linen
Joe – oil on linen