Landscapes Through Light & ShadowMay 11, 2020
Nature brings me into the present and really stops me, focusses me and centres me. It solves a lot of problems and is a vehicle to get me out of my head and then back into it. Wild landscapes are infinite; they’re always around us and people forget we are part of them. We often have blinders on and don’t always take heed. I want to remind myself and others to be part of nature. I want it to be in me. When people tell me they saw a landscape that reminded them of my work, it makes me smile. I’ve left an impression and they’re paying attention. A friend called it, “Penhallian”.
It’s the light that draws me to a setting. I always notice how it cuts across a scene and how it casts a shadow. I’m very attracted to contrasts. When I look at something, I immediately try to break it down into three or four tonal values. The colours I use don’t necessarily relate to nature or reality. I heighten and play with them to draw the eye and create a mood. I’m not interested in all the leaves on the tree, I’m interested in the tree itself and how I can simplify it. I move things around. A landscape should never get in the way of a good composition.
Nature starts me out but then I try to figure out what’s attracting me to an image. Although I am fascinated by mountains and rugged terrain, they don’t always inspire me. I’m looking for something I don’t normally see other artists do, or something I’ve never seen before. I like standing on top of things looking down, or standing at the bottom and looking up. Pure wilderness doesn’t galvanize me completely, but the outdoors certainly draws me in, as does the interface between nature and humans. For example, I’m drawn to the prairies. While the wide open spaces attract me, I’m more fascinated with the way people have moved fields and how rivers intersect and work around them – how nature leads the eye.
“Wild landscapes are infinite – they’re always around us, and people forget we are part of them.”
I get up early. I like the light when it’s at a lower angle. I find a subject matter, I photograph it, capture it, put it away and look at it later. Then I come back to the studio and spend time composing at a desk. I’m constantly cataloguing, collating and moving things around. The next stage is getting the canvas as close to the size I want and doing a tonal underpainting. I let that dry. I might spend a whole day doing four or five of these once I’ve got the drawings the way I want. When they’re ready, I lay the body colour on top – that’s the thicker paint, describing most of the tonal values. From there it’s adjustments – I’ll add heavier, opaque hues and will also glaze in transparent colour, deepening the shadows, adjusting the shade to warm it up, cool it off or change it completely. I use transparent glazes, painting on the dry surface, as well as scumbling in highlights.
When I’m outdoors, I’m much less precious. Plein-air is hard but there’s a lot you can learn from it. I do finish some paintings outside but I try not to be too fussy with them. When you go outdoor painting you can’t spend two hours looking for the perfect image. You just have time for a quick sketch, which is difficult because I spend a lot of time creating images in the studio! There’re some people who are really good at it but I’m not. I do like painting small though. I’ll paint 8×10 panels in the home studio and try to do them very quickly, working from photographs. That same kit comes with me outdoors, where I try to make decisions in all sorts of strange weather conditions. It’s tough, but I love it. You have to work quickly which is the fun bit. If it doesn’t work out, you just wipe it off and walk away or try another one, which can be a bit scary. I wrap a lot of my ego and self worth into my painting, but it’s amazing how plein-air astounds you and teaches you lessons in being humble. You just try to keep going and when it works out, it’s a fantastic feeling. Like a form of exercise, you come away feeling better; your endorphins are there.
The current guidelines around social distancing and isolation haven’t really affected me. I go from my house to my studio. I still venture into nature. I get my exercise walking through the forest and just stay away from people. I’m by myself. I have a huge back catalogue of references I can look on, plus ideas I can invent. I’m not opposed to making things up – putting together imagery from different sources and just sketching from my mind. I kinda do that anyway. I always start from an image but at some point it’s discarded. This is all in the technique. I follow photographs to begin with, change them and then eventually I have to not look at the photograph because my work is moving in another direction. I don’t want to get stuck.
I think Covid-19 has shown us that we are all very, very connected and that borders are kind of a crazy thing. Despite this, we need to be able to be alone, slow down, do less and focus more. We were obviously moving too much, as we’ve been spreading the disease all over the place! I think we need to consider what our motivations are – how much we really need in life. It’s time to focus on our families and travel less. I think people like to see creativity, and people should approach this creatively. We must speak up and change – things won’t go back to the way they were.