Friday, October 25, 2013


oil on canvas 90x60 cm

A while ago I did a whole load of landscape composition exercises. I cut a little card window with which I drew 2-inch rectangles in the sketchbook, and then viewed the computer screen through it while browsing through google streetview. I did loads of quick little watercolours, just sitting down listening to music, finding compositions and working them out. It’s actually quite a good exercise on a dark rainy day.

As it happens, as I was doing this particular view, near Cherbourg, I became aware that this track was playing. It worked well with the road winding away and the rather melancholy dark trees. I left the idea alone for a while, and waited for something to gel for this setting.

Some time later I was searching for pictures of destroyed tanks, and found myself on a Ukrainian militaria site. I was going through all this ghastly stuff, when I came across a post with three or four pictures of some very well-to-do 1940’s people standing in a road, then some lying down face–down beside it in an orderly row. My Russian isn’t that good, but I knew enough. They were Sudeten German civilians, rounded up in Prague a couple of days after the war’s end by the local Czech resistance, marched to a suburb called Borislavka, and just shot.

It didn’t take much to put the two ideas together – the horrific within the beautiful. The figures were worked out in last month’s pencil drawing, and the landscape tweaked. It had to have quite a lot of foreground reworking, juggling of trees, and a completely new sky (at least twice on the canvas). 

I wanted the eye to move from the distance to foreground – along the road the figures had walked - and be stopped at the trees. I tried flipping it so that the trees were on the left, but then it read, to me, as though the figures were the starting point, and that the image was about the absence of the perpetrators, who had walked away down the road. I think this may be something to do with the Western writing system – we naturally read from left to right, and that implies a sequence of events. I’m not sure if this is a strict visual rule, but it works for me in this case.

Technically I’m quite pleased with how this has gone. I am aware of how dark (physically) my paintings are getting, so I set quite a light - for me - ‘darkest tone’, which has been quite successful. I kept the forms fairly broad and resisted the temptation to use smaller brushes until absolutely necessary. It was very difficult doing the figures, as they are very small indeed. They still have to read as figures without the tiny delicate marks catching the eye and dragging it in too quickly.

It works though, and has definitely been worth the effort to get it right.

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