Thursday, June 25, 2015


oil on canvas 51x51cm

This has been a long time in the making, and the flow has been constantly interrupted by events. As a result, it may be a little fractured and overworked, but here it is.

There’s no specific piece of music associated with this, though while it was being painted I re-discovered J.S. Bach’s 48 Preludes & Fugues - this is the one which accompanied the last three dabs of paint, so let’s have that.

If the landscape looks vaguely familiar it could be because it’s looking North from the same bridge where you look South at January’s ‘Down to the river’. That’s the starting point anyway; the far water and foreground riverbanks have been imported from elsewhere.

The water invited a wading figure, and I had the idea of a cleansing, or baptism. I was lucky enough to have seen the 2005 Caravaggio ‘Final Years’ exhibition, and had been very moved by his take on Salome and John the Baptist . It seemed to me that the most thoughtful figure was the executioner, and I thought that I might echo that idea here. The title (I hope) misdirects, and initially suggests the figure in the water. In fact, the Baptist is in the right corner. I’m asking what the central figure might be thinking while washing himself after his task. Offering the viewer a narrative to follow is always a bit risky, and may or may not work. That apart, though, this is about ghastly and tragic things happening in beautiful surroundings - which I still find very hard, but very stimulating.

On a technical note, I think it’s worth mentioning that this is my first ‘extended’ painting done without using Lead White. Instead of the bulky, fast-drying Flake White I’ve used since I began oil painting in the 1970’s, I’ve made do with mixes of Titanium and Zinc Whites throughout. I’m still very sad and angry that such a useful - once universal - painting material is no longer generally available, but it makes sense to adapt to the change. I’ll persevere with the new system, and, lest I become tedious, say no more about it here. 

I’m actually quite chuffed with some of the painting in this. I’ve tried to describe the distance across the water using changes in focus - the far trees are blurred and the nearer foliage and plants more sharply textured, especially the reeds and water grass. I think it works. This grassy texture is produced by applying the paint then streaking it, or scraping it off, with a curled edge of paper or tightly folded corner of paper towel, touched with oil. It’s by no means a New Way of Painting (there aren’t any), but it was a technique I tried out on those smaller, quicker landscapes I’ve been doing recently on card. I find it works best if the dry surface is first wiped with oil* (I use a Walnut Oil/Turpentine mix) - not too much it – before the new paint layer is applied (Walnut is a very thin and slidey drying oil, and doesn’t yellow). This ‘lubricates’ the dry surface, and makes the wet paint very responsive to light strokes and subsequent manipulations, whether you’re scraping paint, cutting back an edge, or just generally softening the marks. 

Lecture over. Enjoy the Bach** 

*This wet layer of oil or medium is known as a ‘couch’. I’m not sure why.
** Nice, but a bit on the long side. If it’s too much, don’t be down. Here’s something that’ll move you on