This painting 'Early Winter Cloudscape' intends to capture a fleeting moment of experience. What is it about realist painting that that allows it to stimulate deep connections with our memory?
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the staggeringly beautiful detail in the things I see around me. I know I am not alone in appreciating this. I only have to look at some of the stunning photographs taken by friends, of exquisitely small details of tiny flowers, fungi, or insects, to see that others, too, delight in the intricate beauties of the tiny detail in the things around us.
I do often feel quite alone though, when trying to work out how to deal with such detail when I am painting. The trouble is that whilst the human eye is remarkably capable of taking in the most complex and tiny minutiae from amongst what we see in front of us, it seems on the face of it that we rarely bother doing so.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why a close up photograph revealing every little nuance of a moth’s wings, or the light on a rain drop, can be so striking. It forces us to pay attention to the astounding wealth of beauty in such small things that we would not normally have noticed.
Given that the preoccupations of my art are rarely focused on such tiny things, it is a wonder that they should cause any trouble to my painting. I am all too aware though, that every scene or event I paint was in reality filled with such detail, and the more attentively I try to paint it, as I experienced or imagined it, the more I am drawn into considering how to represent this detail. What should be included in full, what omitted, or merely suggested by a few gestural brushstrokes?
I seem to find this balance intuitively a lot of the time, but the logical part of my brain is vexed by its inability to understand the mental processes behind this intuition. It seems that if I could understand it better, such insight could only help to improve my work.
One theme which recurs throughout my art is the desire to record memory, and the immediate logical thought flowing from this is that such detail rarely seems to be present in the memory. The more I think about it though, I wonder if my art is not simply trying to record memory, but more specifically the memory of experience. That seems like a tautological distinction, as surely all memory is the memory of experience? But I think it is in drilling down and trying to understand this distinction that things get more interesting.
It is part of the human condition that the experience visiting the memory of a time or place is often so very different from the experience of the moment which the memory belongs to. The sense of emotion, of joy, wonder or sadness that belonged to the original moment remains in the memory often only in vestigial form, hauntingly elusive to our present minds. There is something forever lost about the original experience in our memory of it, yet that does not seem to stop us often seeking hard into our minds to try and recover just a little more of what made that moment important to us.
Could it be that better recollection of the detail we observed might help in this quest?
I think it would be fair to say that most of us, most of the time, aren’t committing to memory the exact pattern of light as it shone through the leaves on a tree, or the complex shapes of an animal’s body. In fact, when one pauses to contemplate the sheer complexity of geometry, form light and colour that make up any single, brief moment of our experience and consider how little of that detail is held in our minds even a few moments later, one is left wondering whether we really took in anything at all.
This unfinished sketch of a tree, which I ran out of time to complete, demonstrates how hard is is to capture the complex patterns in the things we take for granted around us.
Yet, in total contradiction to this, if one shut’s one’s eyes and casts the mind back, either a little or a long way, to a specific place and attempts to visualise it, it is remarkable how detailed this visualisation can be. I can still picture my mile long walk home from primary school in what seems like a remarkable amount of detail for an (admittedly repeated) experience from something like 40 years ago. The shady length of pavement under the line of oak trees, next to the chain link fence grown through with ivy, the concrete patterns on one of the roads I crossed.... How and why has my mind retained these things?
The mind is clearly having to trim the vast complexity of the world around us to shapes, forms and spacial relationships that we can understand. The pattern of light through leaves is perhaps only relevant to tell us that the sun is strong, and that here is pleasant reprieve from it in the shade; the complex shapes of an animal’s body might be deciphered only as far as we need to, to decide, for instance, whether it is a it a calm cow or a skittish horse in the field we have just entered. It is as if we quickly render the world around us in to something like the form in which an impressionist artist paints.
Given this, it would seem that an impressionist rendering of the world around us might be the best form to capture the ‘memory of experience’, being that much of what we can recall of a moment is the general sense of dappled light under a tree, or the form of a calm brown cow standing on the corner of the field. Maybe this does work too, a good impressionist painting really can evoke the sense of and feel of what something was like.
The way I build my paintings, usually laying out the composition loosely on the canvas, often gives me a sort of impressionist style version of the finished painting. Sometimes I really like how it looks at this point, it seems to like an evocative and dreamlike version of the place and moment I am trying to paint. Others comment on these part completed versions of the art too, their comments often implying that the work already seems like an attractive finished painting. It does occur to me sometimes as I look at paintings in this phase that I could just stop there with them. It would be easier, this phase of the painting usually takes about a day, the subsequent building of detail often weeks.
The 'impressionist' style evident in my painting 'Rick Thatching at Dusk' at an early stage in the work.
But there is something lacking in these for me. The thing about an impressionist painting is that it is about an impression. It is like those fleeting views of a memory that one occasionally has, for a brief moment the faint ghost of recall of an experience sweeps in and then out of your mind. Sometimes this evokes something lost, or barely recalled, which is a quite a sensation. But it remains frustratingly fragmentary. It leaves the mind seeking through its endless corridors for something to hold one in this glimpsed moment of recall for a little longer, or for a clearer illumination of it.
That is where such paintings often come up short for me, they feed the urge of quest into the memory, but supply no means to sustain it. I struggle to understand why this should be so. If our mind only records this impressionistic detail in each experience (the sense of dappled shade rather than the intricate pattern of light that makes this up), why should not an artwork that conveys the detail in this same impressionistic form be sufficient to evoke the fullest sense of recall of that experience that our mind is capable of? Is there more detail of these moments actually lodged in our minds from those memories than our first recalled glimpses of them would suggest? If so, why does its recall remain so frustratingly unattainable?
The finished version of the painting 'Rick Thatching at dusk' now shows a more realist style, offering the mind the opportunity to re-visit some of the original experience of the moment.
To try and answer these questions, I push hard into my memories. If I go back to a specific place or memory, something that I believe I can recall clearly, how much detail can I really see in my mind’s eye there? It seems like a lot. Pursuing this further though, I begin to wonder, are these memories or moments that I have a photos of, or places that I have returned to since, so I am actually re-constructing the mental image from these sources, rather than recalling the original moment or place.
Seeking for a way to rule this possibility out, it occurred to me to try and think of a memory of a place and time which I found striking at the time, yet have no photos of and have not returned to. One such recollection came to mind - working in a clearing, in a wood on my second farm, a little mixed organic one. I never took any photos there, and I know I haven’t been back to that clearing since. I remember the scene and the moment; I was loading a charcoal kiln and was struck by the beauty of the spot and how lucky I was to be working in such a beautiful place and paused for a moment to take it all in. So I try to rebuild the picture in my head now. It feels really quite vivid, the light through the trees, the rutted track, interspersed with mosses and primroses, the grey earth around the kiln and the russet tones of the kiln itself.
This memory is so vivid, and from that I conclude that I must have preserved much of the detailed imagery of the moment my brain. But is this true? The real test would be if I could I paint the scene from my memory. But, the more I think about doing so, the more I know for sure I could not. The further I try to push my mind to recall the detail of the moment, I find my mind casting around to other sources to achieve this. I find myself thinking of other paintings of clearings in woods, other rutted tracks I have studied on photos, the mosses on the ground seen only today outside the house here.
A few things seem clearer. I did see and take in all this detail, I crave the ability to recall it and yet it is absolutely not there in any easily accessible form, from what I witnessed 20 years ago. It does however, seem like I believe
I can recall the other details, only actually I am really re-populating the image, interpolating it, using other similar or related, less distant memories. So here is an insight for me into how my memory is working.
It seems that I am taking in more of the minutiae of my surroundings than I give my mind credit for, but it fades in varying degrees over time. Hardly a revelation I suppose.
I want to drill down further and understand what details do I remember and for how long. Could I draw or paint the dappled shade from an oak tree accurately (or perhaps I mean realistically and in detail) from having seen the sight a month ago, or a week, or even just now? How long is our memories’ retention of these beautiful little things that we do observe, but clearly forget? It seems like it might be a very short space of time.
I broke off from writing this to sit outside and try and answer this question. I invite the reader to try it for themselves. See how long you can retain the image of say just one cluster of leaves or one clump of grass.
The answer will be readily apparent to anyone who sketches or paints ‘plein-air’. The memory of all these details is so fleeting, that even with one’s mind focused squarely on recording it, it is hard, but just about possible, to retain it for the space of time it takes to look at and then set straight down on paper; even that requires focus and skill.
What is apparent from this, though, is that the mind can, and I think often does, actually notice and record, albeit incredibly fleetingly, so much of the particulars of the surroundings. In a fraction of a second, most of it is gone from the memory, apparently thrown out as being inessential to the activity of the moment. Perhaps in those moments where something beautiful or interesting strikes us, we record a little more and retain it for a little longer. Shortly afterwards though, it is rendered to something like the impressionist’s version of the image, which may be subsequently stored in a deep recess of the mind for much of a lifetime.
What really intrigues me, is that in that fleeting fragment of a second, our mind probably did take in just about every detail laid out before it, processed it, and retained it in a structured hierarchy, preserving different fragments of it in varying forms for varying lengths of time.
We may not remember the image in full, but part of the memory of experience
was this process, registering comprehensively everything in front of us and processing it, using the subconscious brain. I suspect this occurs with heightened sensitivity at moments which feel in some way special at the time.
As the detail inevitably fades in our memory, the moment begins to feel lost, yet one of the most essential parts of what made it special was the experience of creating it; a process itself so quick and so automatic that we were unaware that it ever even happened.
This detail from the 'Early Winter Cloudscape' painting shows how the varying detail in a painting can be used to accentuate the things that might have stood out for us in a transitory fragment of a second.
Perhaps it is this process that the realist painter is uniquely placed to recreate. He or she can recreate something of this momentary experience, of the mind processing the details of a place and or event.
The realist artist uses composition, varying light and levels of detail to accentuate the things that might have stood out for us in a transitory fragment of a second. He or she layers onto the canvas a finished realist painting that contains prompts and clues for our subconscious, seeking to recall the instant of a lost moment. That canvas is underlain with an impressionist composition, which represents the recall of long memory, but is overlain with varying complexities of detail that take us back to the moment of inception of the same memory.
In doing so, the artist allows us to use their art with the fragmentary impressions of our own memory to recreate briefly something of the elusive memory of experience.