I had a long battle on my hands to get the above painting to reach the impact it was leading me to. It took several sessions over a week and in the end I was happy with the outcome, but I think the canvas felt like the old man in Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea after he at long last landed the big fish he had been fighting so long.
Here is how it started: during a recent morning walk around “Lake D” near Hamilton, New Zealand, I took some promising photos.
I chose this one to base a painting on:
I was interested in the play between shadow and shade. I expected two challenges: first, how to make the large area of shade in the foreground interesting; and second: how to handle all that green without the painting being too cool and pretty.
Here is my first effort:
Initially, I was quite happy with this outcome – happy enough to sign it. However, the next morning when I saw it in the sober light of the morning I scraped most of it right off. I felt the picture plane was too flat – the eye was not really going anywhere. And all that yellow green was a bit horrible.
So I took some of the trees out at the right, warmed up the tree shadows and introduced a far vista with some cold clouds:
I felt much more satisfied with this version – it had an old world, gritty and deconstructed look that I strive for in most of my work. I had also put much more colour into the shadows. I felt I was done!
Not yet. Once again, the next morning I noted the similarity in the shapes and spacing between the four trees (above, top left) – it looked like something made in a factory. I know similar repeating shapes with equal distances between them are a big NO in painting composition.
So once the paint was tacky again, I repainted that portion and put in some finishing touches:
Now I felt there was an unspoken message, a mystery (will this path take me to those far hills and those clouds?) and much for the viewer’s eye to complete. I am quite happy with this effort.
Thinking about the long, tortuous path that a painting sometimes follow to its final resting place, I was reminded of the beautiful poem by Cavafy:
As you set out for Ithaka hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them: you’ll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians and Cyclops, wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you. ... ... Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you are old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you would not have set out. She has nothing left to give you now. And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean. (this copy from C.P. Cavafy poems, Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
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