Spring is here and it is time to venture out more frequently to paint outdoors. Working directly from the landscape is an aspect of my work I would like to develop further and after a long, cold winter in the studio, it feels essential. My first destination is the limestone hill just to the north-east of my home on Morecambe Bay, where I often walk with my sketchbooks and camera.
After some thoughtful planning, I am carrying the bare minimum, but my backpack pack is still heavy. I need extra clothing and a flask of hot coffee as temperatures are still well below 10C, which is unusually cold for this time of year. I am heading for a group of large limestone boulders that lie at the edge of the hill, where I often stop to draw on my way to the summit. Thankfully they are only half a mile from the road where I park my car and the going is easy, but later on when the days are longer, I will be walking further across some troublesome terrain. Ten minutes pass and I can see the boulders up ahead. A sudden moment of full sunshine between the clouds transforms their rugged surface, and I stop to take in this familiar yet breathtaking sight. This odd grouping of pitted limestone rocks holds a long-lasting fascination for me and I have come to think of them as a giant still life within the landscape.
I’ve been trying not to think too hard about how I might approach the painting, for fear of stalling, so I just quickly begin to outline the edges of the shadows, the rocks and the spaces between them, making corrections as I go. This is a completely different experience to working in the studio. The landscape doesn’t have edges like drawings or photographs and the depth, breadth and detail of it is mind-boggling. I get up, walk to the boulders, touch them and walk in between them. They are large and heavy, solid and reliable. I wonder why they draw me back time and time again, and it occurs to me that the repetition of revisiting the boulders and making work about them is a means via which I might measure myself – my progress. To see how my perception and rendering of the boulders and their surroundings has developed over time. There is more to it than this, but I like the idea that the work and I are in a constant state of flux, like the clouds above, while the boulders remain as fixed objects in this changing world.
As I begin to build up the surface of the painting the light shifts constantly, and shadows cast by clouds stalk across the landscape. Two blades of light suddenly appear on the distant hills, so I quickly draw them as they disappear again, holding their memory in my mind. The following four hours pass by like moments in a state of deep concentration, but the cold has got into my bones so I have to stop. Stepping back from the painting I can see how tentative and uncertain it seems, but there is a playfulness about it that makes me smile. Before leaving I walk up the slope behind me to look down on the boulders from above. The surrounding landscape is far more visible up here and its presence fills my eyes. There is more work to do here yet.
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