'Context' - A Blog
The painting 'Hurricanes Low' after this first phase of work (see 'Hardest Day Hurricanes' gallery for finished painting)

The Childlike Joy in Painting

The start of a new painting is a brilliant thing...
... It is my favourite part. There is, at the beginning of the work, something of that childhood joy in the art. Young children are so uninhibited when they draw or paint, it is wonderful. Then as we get a bit older we become more conscious of whether what we are creating is ‘good’ or ‘correct’ and it becomes harder to connect with that innate desire to just commit the visual inside of one’s head to paper.

At the point I commit brush to canvas these days, I have normally done quite a number of sketches, sometimes loads of them, to establish the overall composition in my head and where the subject calls for it, there may be more drawings to clarify details in the work.

Usually there is a final(ish) sketched version of the composition that I like, and I’ll take a few marks or lines off of that and transfer them in pencil to the canvas, to help keep the proportions of the painting as this sketch. Where the painting calls for ‘technically’ accurate shapes, I usually sketch them in outline in pencil too.

After that is the good bit though. I then take a fairly sizeable brush and a fairly simple mix of paint that makes more or less one colour and reverting to a more or less childlike state of uninhibited joy, I start to paint.

It is not an unusual technique. The point is partly to eliminate fear of the blank canvas, but more importantly, working in more or less one ‘hue’ of colour (a yellowish brown for example) allows the establishment of tonal value (essentially the ‘lights’ and ‘darks’) in the painting and allows the broad shapes and proportions of the painting to emerge. The colour choice is not too important, it does have some play in setting out the overall feel of the art, whether the work feels ‘cool’ or ‘warm’. Rembrandt famously mixed up the pigments left on his pallet from the previous painting for this, so taking my cue from him I usually manage to rustle up a mix that suits from my previous ‘pallet’ (actually an old biscuit tin lid covered in foil!). Rembrandt was after all the master of use of light and dark, so I can always hope something rubs off by copying him!

There is freedom in this, the first phase of a painting. Changes are easily made, this bit too light, push some more dark into it, this line of tree edge is too intrusive, bring it down the page a bit. Eventually the composition emerges. There is nothing to fear ‘breaking’ here, no well painted detail that might be in the wrong place.

In some ways it is odd as the colours are ‘wrong’, most of those blue skies start off this way as yellow browns, or swathes of green grass as light violet, but it seems the brain is startlingly capable of just reading tone and disregarding colour, how otherwise could we make such sense of a black and white photo?

Usually this phase is over in a few hours and there is something with a strong resemblance to the finished composition on the canvas. Oh, but were the rest of it so easy, it belies the many tens of hours that lie ahead to bring the painting to its finish.

I reckon most people’s vision of what my daily work consists of looks like this. Gloriously happy swishing paint around in gay creative abandon around a canvas. I wish it were so. But I am lucky to get this moment of freedom at the start of every painting and I savour it, and the anticipation of it to come the next time round is always there to keep me going.