I feel an inner calling — an impulse — to paint a picture. I have nothing in mind — a blank void of darkness. I stare into the darkness within me, as I often do when searching for inspiration. Images begin to form out of the darkness, relating to recent thoughts and experiences. We have been living through a pandemic, filled with anxiety, sheltering from social contact. I have been dwelling in profound self-doubt, craving affirmation of my worth, terrified of confirmation of my failure and loss of all I hold dear. There has already been much loss and I know that there’s more to come. But I yearn for some good to come out of it, nonetheless. I feel I have understood something deeply important, which escapes most human notice* I want to share this. I want to bloom and be seen to bloom. I want to feel rooted in the ground of my being, immersed in my love and knowledge of the natural world, the product of much hard work and learning. It being November, fireworks have recently lit up the night sky in colourful outbursts.
Images come and go, ebb and flow, but none sufficiently inspire me. I am also aware of my limitations as a self-taught artist to render imagery into paint — it doesn’t come easily and my technical skills aren’t great.
Then it comes to me, in sinuous, radiating form: a kind of hybrid of flowering plant, fungus (notably Starfish Fungus, Aseroe rubra) and 8-tentacled animal (Octopus/Starfish/Jellyfish), bursting with life, illuminating a night sky and rooted in dark ground. I can see its possibility. I feel it’s possible for me to paint. But before it’s possible for me to do so, I need to draw some guidelines for my shaky hand to relate its movements to, with some self-assurance of knowing what it’s doing and why.
So to practicalities. I find a rectangular canvas board, ready to receive my impressions. It’s 50 cm long and 40 cm wide. It bothers me rather that we generally paint pictures on rectangles, when Nature isn’t bounded that way, but I realize that there’s both a shallow (they’re more manageable) and a deep reason (to do with the underlying intangible geometry of space) for this.
I know that I want the ‘outburst’ to radiate in 8 directions from a central source. I also want it to be elevated by a perpendicular trunk or stalk from a rooted anchorage in unilluminated ground. I don’t want the stalk to be obscured by any of the 8 tentacles.
So I find a pencil, ruler, protractor and circle-stencil, and begin the construction work. First I divide the rectangle into an upper 40 x 40 cm square and a lower 10 x 40 cm rectangular portion. I then draw two diagonal lines across the square, to locate its central ‘zero-point’. I draw a 3.5 cm diameter circle around this point. Then I draw 8 straight lines through this point, set at 45 degrees to one another and the diagonals. Seeing me do this, my wife, Marion comments, ‘I thought you didn’t like geometrical structure’. I smile inwardly because I know what I’ve drawn isn’t a ‘hard-line structure’ imposed on space as a fixed reference frame, but rather a set of temporary ‘guidelines’ to act as ‘attractors’ for the movements of my free hand to focus around as it brings my imagined form dynamically into being. Watching, Marion expresses relief in seeing ‘something more organic’ coming to life, and I feel a strong sense of exhilaration. I finish the ‘pre-drawing’ and put it to rest overnight.
Next day, the painting work begins. I set up easel and gather together tubes of oil paint and a jar of linseed oil. I begin to paint one of the tentacles with alizarin crimson, one of my favourite pigments, which closely resembles the anthocyanin that occurs in many plants, sometimes masked by green chlorophyll. It’s too dark, so I lighten it with white, paint all the tentacles, then darken the central area with pure pigment and highlight with cadmium red. I can feel the tentacles coming to life. Next I paint the sinuous flowering and leafy shoots, alternating with the tentacles and stop for the day.
On day 3 I am only able to work on the painting for a couple of hours. I begin by adding sap green leaves to the flowering shoots, feeling a sense of refreshment and relief as I do so. Next I paint the white trunk/stem and rooting system — a slightly tricky process given my ‘colouring book’ and wet-in-wet approach without underpainting — painting white on white and needing to apply the paint quite thickly.
Next comes a significant development from my initial imaginings. I have decided not to paint a totally dark sky, but instead to bring a sense of ‘dawn-breaking’ and ‘awakening’, as I have sometimes experienced at the end of an overnight plane flight. I paint a stripe of cadmium orange and naples yellow blurring into each other. And as I do so, I feel my heart lift.
Now I move on to a high tension phase, painting the black receptive centre and associated ‘droplets’ of the nightburst. I have to do this very carefully and precisely, and the process is not helped by the fact that the paint is still wet, so I need to over-arch it without resting the heel of my hand on the board. I don’t do it quite perfectly, but I feel it is ‘good enough’ to a forgiving eye. I feel relieved when the process is over, and call it a day.
On days 4 and 5 I work on the night sky in the background. It is slow, painstaking work because I need to avoid smudging into what I have already painted in the foreground. Gradually a sense of how the finished painting is going to look begins to emerge. This way of painting brings out the reciprocal relationship between ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ in a way that painting ‘figure over ground’ doesn’t. It also sustains the transparency of the paint so that the light behind it shines through as in a stained glass window. I like the feeling this gives me, even though it tests my patience and shows up my mistakes and naive technique.
At last, on day 6, I finish the painting. I feel quite pleased with the result, because it quite closely resembles what I had imagined, along with all the emotions I felt at the time. There is something about the image that also gives me a feeling of a lighthouse or beacon, guiding and heralding some kind of homecoming.
* To put it plainly: a centre of gravity is a receptive focal point of space — a ‘zero-point’ — within mass as a local circulation of energy; not an isolated centre of mass surrounded by space. Space both naturally includes and is dynamically included in substance. Life is a flow of energy around and between receptive centres of space. Self-identity both naturally includes and is included in neighbourhood — a receptive and responsive expression of habitat. There is a radical difference between the fluid, open-ending ‘Hole Story’ of Nature and the definitive ‘Whole Story’ of objective human thought.