Inside Art: “The interior life of a painting”

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Winter trip

Taking a pencil or a brush was more of an attempt to capture a likeness. I think the urge to express a feeling or try to capture the essence of an object arose out of an increasing exploration of the materials I was using, aided by the wonderful lectures Paul Martin gave at the Leith School of Art which opened my mind to so many possibilities. My job wasn’t just telling a story or depicting the outward appearance of a landscape or the objects it contained, but trying to understand its essence and communicate how it made me feel.

Even though I know what I want to paint, the painting tends to go its own way. Sometimes a particular passage interests me and suggests ideas that were not there at the start. I often have the impression of having a dialogue with the emerging painting itself.

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I worked for many years with a meditation teacher where every exercise we did was somehow about stillness. Upon coming into contact with the “center” – an area somewhere in the solar plexus region, the constant noise and chatter of the mind calmed down to give way to a feeling of space. Sometimes when I am working I feel a similar shift in energy and these are often times when something totally unintentional happens in my painting that takes me by surprise.

My Winter Journey painting is one example. It started as a collage I was working on with a winter landscape. Looking at him, the outline of the trees at the top of the painting reminded me of the lines from TS Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi: “And three trees in the low sky”, and from that point on, three little figures emerged dressed in orange dresses crawling in the distance, she went from a painting of a snowy landscape to a story of a journey. There was no conscious reason for their appearance, but they do pop up from time to time in my work, these little figures wrapped in saffron robes going about their lives.

The experience of creating something that comes to life isn’t limited to painting. In an interview with John Wilson on Radio 4, composer Randy Newman said “You go where the music wants you to go”.

I think there is a close correlation between music and painting. My formal music education is only rudimentary, but when I listen to music, visual images appear. I recently listened to a harpist friend play one of Marcel Tournier’s ‘2e suite images’ which she describes as “like a painting in music”. Without knowing any details, he conjured up a pastoral night scene with a starry sky. I have learned, however, that it is a Christmas composition where children contemplate a church manger. The image in my head was different, but the feelings evoked in me by the music perfectly reflected the numinous quality at the heart of the piece.

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