Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Down to the River

oil on canvas 90x70cm

Again, it’s that clear, birch tundra landscape. The masses and light are very strong, and colour-wise it’s all about the oranges and blues. The river recedes into the distance, and the two ridges – one lit, one shadowed – are nicely set in opposition by the flat crossing light. Very early on I chose a mood-setting track - The Haunted Ocean I, from ‘Waltz with Bashir’. The music was a useful constant when looking at the painting and making decisions about where to take it, especially when re-starting after a gap.

Following a small ‘dry run’ on card, I dropped some of the central birches. The right bank and the foreground were re-worked from sources along the road, and this allowed more water to be visible, and gave a better idea of space across the valley. The further reduction of the central trees opened up the area where the river bends into view, and enabled the hard-edged rhyme between the two staggered headlands. It’s a very satisfying space for the eye to rest.

I knew that the very subtle colour and tone shifts of the empty sky - nearly two thirds of the painting - would be difficult, and to be honest I found it quite intimidating. The dabber technique didn’t seem to work so well over such a large area, so I resorted to very mobile thin veils of oily (walnut) paint stroked with large flat brushes. While not exactly perfect, the transitions are smooth enough, though they took ages to dry.

Some of the paintwork of the trees and land is pleasantly loose. I ground away at similar birches in ‘Runner’, and I think all that work really paid off here, especially in the backlit areas towards the right edge. I’m also quite pleased with the efficient, glazy paintwork of the river and the shadowy reflections.

As I worked away, I started to pick up un-planned resonances in the landscape. What started as simply a beautiful setting began to trigger ideas of both transition and division. The title, shared with a spiritual hymn, has baptismal, cleansing references, but there is also the idea that rivers are boundaries to be crossed. There’s the Rubicon of course, but what kept coming to my mind were the Underworld rivers – the Lethe, Styx etc. That thought gave extra weight to the way the shadow of the dark bank encroaches on the passive sunlit left, and chills it.

There were always going to be figures somewhere, but they didn’t crystallise until quite late on. Watching the telly one evening, there was a scene in which two men were hauling a bound figure along between them. It struck me as soon as I saw it, so I replayed the scene through the computer and took a screen grab. I turned them round, tilted them slightly, and there they were. I find the contrast between their violence and the peaceful stillness of the landscape very effective, and it somehow follows up the Underworld reference.

Two, small, passing, things. First, there are no clouds. I could’ve put some in, low, just left of the central horizon. They’re in the source, but I just chose not to. 

Second, the close runner-up for the painting’s title was ‘Into the Valley’. It’s good, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it. For me, this has other, more glorious associations from another era…

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