Years ago I used to dabble in water colours, we’d no children back then and I had the sort of job that gave me time off in the evening. It was a great relaxation to sit down at a piece of stretched paper and work on the discipline of painting. Some days I was OK, most times my efforts were more therapy than Tate gallery.
Then I got back into photography, started earning money from it, got myself a copy of Photoshop, hung around designers, did a few print things and without blinking it was ten years since I had lifted a brush.
Then my father died and a few years after my mother, so I had to clear out the old home , a tough job as anyone will tell you who has ever had to do anything like it. But I cracked on and the physical effort of doing the job took a bit of the edge off the grief.
Part of the effects from the home place was my Grandfather’s pine and mahogany box, it was always “Grand-Dad’s box”, although I’d never met him, he died before I was born, we’d always had the box in the family . It was just called the Black Box, and in a way it turned out to bea flight recorder. The outside of the box is really unremarkable, fading black gloss paint with lost of scratches in it, a few holes too, but lift the lid and inside it’s the richest reddest mahogany and what a smell.
It’s a painter’s box from around 1910 and it is scented with cedar wood to keep oput the moths , oil paints and linseed. The drawers are long enough for brushes, the bottom of the chest is wide enough for rolls of canvas, it must have been some pricey object in its day. You see my Grandfather was an artist. And I inherited a few sets of his sables,
His father died when he was about 6 and he was brought up in an extended Irish family in the North of England, his mother raised a few fine looking sons, three of the eldest didn’t get the best of deals in the Boer war, Galipoli and the Somme. Michael my grandfather missed out on military service too young for South Africa too old for Flanders. He showed an early talent for art, he won a few drawing prizes and eventually ended up at the Slade in London, his contemporaries would have been t
Gwen and Augustus John, Rodin taught there then, so my Granddad got this late Victorian art education and the box was I suppose a gift to start him on his career.
Well he went all over the place, there are postcards from Germany and Switzerland and letters from a life on the road. His first job on returning to the UK was as a set designer for a traveling theatre company. I don’t know where he went, but we have one tantalizing bit of evidence a blank set of scaled down screen panels from one of the theatres in Dublin. He had a penchant for theratricall dress too, wide hats, swanky suits, waistcoats and all the moustachioed paraphenalia of an Edwardian gentleman, although I suspect he never had a spare brass farthing to his name.
The point in all this was finding the box and discovering my grandfather for the first time from the artifacts he left behind . it gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start freeing up my own graphic work. You see that you only get one slug out of the dirty bottle of life. Taking shots at gigs and doing family portraits is grand, it brings a few Euro in to the family coffers, but now and again you just have to cut loose and make images the way you see the world.
Well last year when I finally said goodbye to the family home, I went off on a water colour course at the Burren Painting Centre in Lisdoonvarna County Clare Ireland, more expensive tnan a shrink , less intrusive than a priest and the wine was much better.
The weather was glorious, hot days and wonderful blue skies , Clare never looked finer. I got back into the painting quickly. I hadn’t forgotten any of the techniques and for a couple of days it did the trick, I chilled out. Then we went to Ennistymon to paint the Sheen Falls. On the face of it this should be a fun assignment. The Falls are a cascade of foaming peat stained water thundering down a small valley. There’s a five star hotel nearby so there’s no shortage of diversion when it inevitably rains , which in fact it didn’t in July 2006.Now painting the Falls left me high and dry, other folks were doing the simple photographic stuff , just hitting the scene button in their minds and trying to be as faithful to the view as their skill would allow. And some were exceptionally good.
I tried that a few times, it didn’t work for me, I could have that with photography and much more, I could lie on my belly and try an unusual angle. I knew I could push and pull the image in Photoshop and work on the color, hues and textures. Painting couldn’t give me any of that anymore. I sketched and sketched, made loads of notes and didn’t even attempt to make a picture from the view in front of me. I knew then that whatever I was going to make would hit me later,that it wouldn’t be a faithful reproduction of what I saw, that had no interest for me at all. So I went back to the studio and got to work on some images.
The first one was all angles , I tried to reduce the picture down to planes and shapes, to understand what I had captured in my mind. The more I worked on it the more I knew there was something wrong with the scene, more accurately with the place we were taken to capture the scene. There was no way out of the picture. We were visually trapped in the valley, a row of not very inspiring Victorian buildings, the grubby back of a pub and a hotel, formed the skyline, and they held everything in the composition in a visual vice. My reaction was to paint a picture that attempted to capture this feeling of enclosure.It must have driven my tutor mad , because from that day on I began seeing things as cartoon arrangements, we went to the seaside and the other folks painted boats at anchor and gulls over the receding tide, I found a pile of old fishing gear and using the wildest of colours made a flat image of fishing boxes and bits of old nets, more Disney than Degas. The more I worked on the course the more I knew that photography and it’s ability to get below the horizon, to change our normal upright viewpoint had become the way in which I see the world.
It was a wonderful learning experience. I came home, waited a week and got out the brushes again and from memory tried my hand at the Sheen Falls. This time the rush of the water came back to me, the noisy chaos of that little wooded valley, the salmon race strangely angular in what is an ancient weather worn natural landscape. And over it all that wall of houses above the Falls. I looked back at my photographs to get a good outline of the houses and then worked away from their formality to find something more abstract and energetic deep inside my memory of the place.
There are two pictures here from that series, not really made to be hung on the wall, their making was their major worth to me, having to face the challenge of building a picture from its remembered components is what you are seeing here.
Has it helped my other picture making? I think so. It’s given me the discipline to ask some big question when I make an image, things like is there a narrative here, is that more or less important than the arrangement of shape, lines, hue and tone ? Will reducing the picture to simple fundamentals bring out more of that story or will it simplify it to a mere one line cipher? If a picture doesn’t have a story how can I represent its character? How true do you hsve to be to the palce to convey a sense of place is another area I am exploring.
I’m currently writing an essay on place and music for the online magazine Folkworld.de, and those ideas of the social, personal and emotional space will be explored in some depth there.
Enough now back to the Photoshop.