I am not averse to painting in other genres, but my preference is for landscapes, ideally completed plein air. However there are times when paintings cannot be made in front of the motif, and the example that I discuss here was made in the studio from an edited digital image. There were several reasons for this, in particular that I needed quite transient light conditions fairly early in the day, and the painting is relatively large and fine in detail.
Comparing with the original image, cropped and tweaked, I see that I have exaggerated the vertical scale, as so often happens. This is partly a subconscious tendency whenever painting anything remotely high, and partly the result of fitting my motif onto paper which does not quite have the right aspect ratio. I did not, though, rely on this image, as this is a view which I enjoy on most days: it is just over 30 minutes walk from our house. So I am very familiar with it, and could perhaps have made the painting from memory. (I have painted quite a complex view from the downs here entirely from memory, and excellent exercise which helps improve the artist’s visual memory.)
Given the fairly fine detail in my painting, you might assume that I have fallen foul of Reynolds’, Constable’s, and many other recommendations not to be too mimetic. In fact, this is composed of many marks which are quite abstract in their form. The ‘cattle’ which you see around the obelisk are composed of an almost random patchwork of earth colours, with a few shadows added. It is only when you step back and look at the painting that the randomness disappears, and you see a herd of brown-and-cream cattle. I have made marks which together create an illusion.
I know from frequent observation that aerial perspective usually operates quite strongly over this view, and the image confirms that it applied at the time. I would be lying to you if I did not depict it.
The corrugations down the hillside are terracettes formed by sheep and cattle walking along the contours of the slope, over many decades and probably centuries. I did not count the terracettes in the image, but I hope that the painting conveys the correct effect that they make. I am fairly sure that I have painted more of them than are shown in the image, but am not too bothered about that – it is the effect which is important.
So where is the narrative in this apparently static and depopulated scene?
For me, this painting is about the narratives that are behind our landscape, the forces that shaped the landscape, and their relative timescales. In the far distance you catch a glimpse of the Solent, in a stretch of water between Cowes and Southampton Water, one of the busiest yachting areas in the world. The Solent River originally ran down to feed the large river that has now been drowned to form the English Channel, but thousands of years ago it flooded, turning the Isle of Wight into an island. The chalk down dominating the painting rose from the sea far earlier, of course, forming the ridges of chalk downland which make up the interior of the island.
Geology, animals, humans, have all shaped the landmarks shown in the painting. The most recent, the Worsley Obelisk, is also the most fragile and transient, having been rebuilt from an earlier and higher obelisk which blew apart when it was struck by lightning. In the distance you can see the scars inflicted by humans by farming and quarrying activities.
I do not believe that I need to fill my landscapes with decorative figures, staffage, as there are so many stories and puzzles already there in nature as it is. Although it might appear painfully picturesque, there is far richer and more significant narrative than in many figurative paintings. But you do have to look.
Marks making the illusion, truth to nature, and rich narrative – these are the qualities that I try to find and build into my landscape paintings.