In my figurative pieces, I’ve used the imagery of folds of drapery as a vehicle to explore and give expression to an energy which I perceive as flowing beneath the surface of all things, ‘animating’ them, if you like.
The challenge, when formalising these subjects in a ‘still’ composition, has always been to give them a quality which will make them reverberate and not appear static, as I try to convey something of this energy or spirit, beneath the painted surfaces.
When I first came to the north-west Highlands and made my studio up here at the edge of the sea, I knew that I had to find a way of translating my experience of looking out over this northern water to a horizon that was in constant flux, into paint. I began a new series of watercolours, in my attempt to find an equivalent in paint for this.
For most of my painting life, I hadn’t been satisfied with the end result, when I’d forced myself to consciously “loosen up”. I hadn’t believed that the aim of working freely and fluidly, being more open to, but primarily conscious of the exciting qualities of paint, should be an end in itself. The work always had to say something – if not through a ‘narrative’, then at least by asking a question or challenging, inspiring a feeling in the viewer. The way it is painted, the artist’s manner of working, or style, is only relevant inasmuch as it helps the work retain a dynamic and clear voice. My voice was always calm and controlled, as I developed. That was what felt right for me.
Yet, when I came to this place, it became clear right away, that the fluidity and unpredictability of watercolour would make it better suited than any other medium, to expressing my experience of this new reality of sea and sky through my windows. I knew what my brushes needed to do.
It was scary, this new, unfamiliar voice, which was insisting I paint the feeling, distill the experience, hone the imagery without obligation to have a narrative, be literal or precise in any sense. But freedom can be frightening – and this was a new-found freedom, brought about by another: finally living my dream and putting down roots in my spiritual home of ‘the North’.
Each piece seemed to grow out of the previous one, to teach my eye and my hand something new and to give a renewed sense of adventure, boldness, surprise and vigour… to let the hand, the pigment, the paper and the water sing in unison, giving shape to my excitement at the drama unfolding beyond my window.
In some cases, the hand, paper, pigment and water grapple with each other; for me, it’s a thrilling process, the struggle to translate this onto a surface. Even as the paint dries in unexpected ways, making happy accidents and expressing energies, coaxed by my hand, almost invisibly, until the drying process is complete.
I concentrated solely on this new series of work for about a year, until the demands from galleries for my more time-honoured, representational oils became impossible to ignore (and there were, of course, the practicalities of bills to be paid!). But, inevitably, the reverberations of a new way of working and thinking about the picture plane began to be felt in this other strand of my work.
It couldn’t not be altered by this, naturally and it too, now reflected a more focused, pared down and less literal imagery. As opposed to a whole ‘figure’ of animated cloth, my attention zoomed inwards, to the movement within – the knots and whorls of line and volume, which gave these shapes their mysterious energy as the light passed through them.
Over time, I’d sensed something of a tug of war growing between these 2 strands of my work and then, magically, a window opened in my mind’s eye and I knew how I was meant to move forward. A dialogue had begun.
[N.B. – the watercolours range in size from the smallest square one of roughly 8″ x 8″ up to the largest 25″ x 38″ (image on paper size).]