Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Madam, Box Hill

oil on canvas 51x51cm

This comes out of the trip to Box Hill we made last November with my brother, and is, loosely, a companion piece of Valley, Box Hill.

Its working title was ‘3 Colbys’, as it was originally composed with three figures. There was going to be another, younger, figure - dressed in red and black – at the foot of the path going away up the down, but eventually I decided against that. To compensate for this empty space, I worked very hard to emphasise, and beautify, the form of the receding slope. I could have placed the main tree more centrally but I wanted some instability in the composition to unsettle the viewer. I think I’ve achieved that, but I’m not entirely convinced that this particular left/right balance of foreground (mass, figures, high contrast, focus) and distance (space, low contrast, blurring) works well over a long time.

The figure in the tree appeared accidentally. Nowadays I usually arrange and test compositions with photoshop; I’m referencing from photos anyway, and shifting and introducing new elements is quicker and more accurate than scouring away at sketches with pencil on paper. Anyway, for some reason I was pasting in another cut-out of the figure, and photoshop placed it in mid-air next to the tree. I flipped it and stood it in the branches. It was a little upsetting, but I could see that something potent was going on. I worked in a third figure and had a life/death progression going on, if a rather heavy-handed one. I prefer being a bit more subtle, so I went ahead with just two figures, adapting an image of Madam with her red scarf. Inserting the third figure was always an option, eventually unused.

For me this is an intensely moving image of Madam, which initially felt very difficult and scary to paint, and at one point I had to put it aside. I found some resonance of the process in Strange Glue, which touches briefly on the subject of creative demons. Years – decades – ago, I found a lot of creativity in ‘angst’ but I now find it difficult, and unhealthy, to work in that state for long. I can accept the genesis and development of an emotive idea, but it’s wiser for me now to do the actual work in a more collected state of mind. More space to think and solve the painting problems - Erik Satie: Ogives. Painting is an exhausting enough process without harrowing yourself as well.

Finally, a short anecdote. Madam was brought up in central Boston, Massachusetts, and she spent a lot of time playing in the Boston Public Gardens. On our visit there a few years ago, she found her favourite tree and (yes, she was still able to) climbed up into it. Just then a Park Policeman materialised, all mirrored shades and sidearm.

- ‘Get out of the tree Ma’am’.

I pointed out amicably that this was her favourite tree when she was a little girl. He remained unmoved.

- ‘Get out of the tree Ma’am’.

So, as she was able to, she did.