Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Dark Pictures and Pretty Birdies

After the near debacle where I almost painted over a large oil painting of Gordale Scar which turned out to have been sold on the Saatchi site, I have decided I need to be far more organised about this arty stuff that I do. It is, after all, in part how I earn my living. So in the last couple of days I’ve been rummaging in my ‘studio’ (ie the small bedroom that’s been knee-deep in paintings, art materials and cardboard boxes since my daughter moved out) and finding what I have that’s in good nick and has not been painted over. The idea is to sort out saleable pictures and put them online, and then, more importantly, remember that they’re there so that I’m not taken by surprise when one sells out of the blue.

What I have discovered in my rummaging is a series of very sweet pictures. I had quite forgotten that I used to do detailed watercolours of birds. They’re pretty little things, but I don’t really do ‘pretty’ in my art these days. Art output reflects state of mind, so it makes me wonder what weird place I was in when I did them – I suspect they were straight escapism, and I must have been having problems to have painted in such a twee manner. Nowadays if I paint very dark it’s not because I’m depressed; it’s because I’m relishing facing my demons. I have had plenty. There’s the whole health thing, for starters. I’ve now had ME/CFS for more than sixteen years, so I’m used to it and I have recovered to a certain extent. The early years were grotesquely awful, and included a spell in hospital that was the stuff of nightmares – everyone on the ward apart from me was going down with one of those vomiting and diarrhoea bugs so the stench was appalling. They would rinse out their soiled knickers in the hand wash basins and then put them on radiators round the ward to dry. Then they’d come and sit on my bed as it was the nearest to the toilets. I was unable to get out of bed, being too sick – had to wait for a nurse to wheel me to the loo, where I’d get left, forgotten, for long periods of time. No wonder I wasn’t in the happiest of places in the years that immediately followed; no wonder I painted pretty little birds in watercolours.

I’ve probably grossed out everyone reading this by now, but I’ll continue anyway. No more vomiting, I promise.

So what was I saying? Oh yes. Apart from the ME/CFS, there was the fact that I’d gone through a long period of bringing up three children on my own, the eldest of whom was severely disabled, and that had been tough – it was when the eldest finally went into full time respite care because I could no longer cope that my whole system collapsed and I went down with ME. My worst spell coincided with my daughter doing her GCSEs, which can’t have been any fun for her.

There are some landscapes from that period too – even a little country cottage, as twee as twee can be.

Some of the little birds are now up on the Saatchi site. There are a few more to go, but I ran out of strength for looking at such loveliness. It made me feel weird to see them, but other people will probably like them, so it doesn’t feel right to leave them at the bottom of a box.

As the ME gradually eased off, and my eldest daughter settled well into her new home, and my younger daughter got super GCSE results – and my boyfriend was still managing to stick with me despite everything – things started to look up. That was when my paintings started getting darker, culminating in the fierce and ferocious painting of Gordale Scar, that was even too dark for me, which is why I was going to paint over at least part of it. The sky was simply too threatening – but someone saw it, liked it, and bought it. Maybe that someone found something exhilarating in the darkness and the brooding atmosphere. Any artist who goes there feels the same thing, though we all have different ways of expressing it. I was staying in Malhamdale last summer, which was why I was able to visit and do sketches and take loads of photos. My photos show blue skies, so I’m not sure why I felt moved to paint the sky in a shade of mud, but there’s something about the place; the way the dark brown rocks overhang, the way you feel as if you’re in a huge subterranean cavern even when you can see the sky, the unique flora, the mad rock climbers who actually think the sides are climbable, and regularly fall off and swing helplessly at the end of ropes. It’s one hell of a place. It’s also very close to Malham Cove, with its otherworldly limestone pavement, and its subterranean river, which last year, due to excessive amounts of rain, suddenly for a few brief days turned into a spectacular waterfall before creeping back underground, embarrassed.

It’s a place that is gloriously alive, and when you’ve had ME, still have it but are significantly better, you DO feel gloriously alive. I still can’t walk very far or very reliably, and am often in a lot of pain, but I was lucky that I was in sufficiently robust health for a few days to walk from the car park up to Gordale Scar and also to Malham Cove, because if you’re going to paint those places you need to be there; you have absolutely no way of doing it purely from photos, and if you’re going to use photos, you have to have taken them yourself (which obviously means you’ve been there). It is dramatic, it is life affirming. It is very, very dark, even when the sun is shining and the Malham Cove’s limestone pavement is gleaming white, it has a glorious darkness to it that cries out to be painted, and Gordale Scar itself, even in the brightest sunshine has deep, deep shadows.

So I painted what I felt, and I went darker and darker trying to get what I could see down on the canvas, trying to get underneath the surface of this place and paint what it was doing to me, its fantastic, dark energy – and I think either I overdid it, or I’m simply not skilled enough to be able to paint the way I want when I do landscapes. I’m more at home with portraits, and although a landscape is a portrait of sorts, the more obvious kind is easier for me. Having painted what to me was an unsatisfactory picture, I put it away, it got covered with other bits of detritus, but I knew it was there, and because materials to paint on are expensive, I knew I would paint over it one day and try to get closer to what I meant in the first place – but somebody bought it! Who knows what I might have painted, given the chance. I have another canvas that has undergone a major transformation. It started off on one of my exceedingly rare TV appearances – I was in the Glasgow heats of the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year competition, and had to paint actress Sophie Turner. I had a great time, enjoyed myself, but when I got the painting home I realised it really wasn’t very good, so I turned it on its side and painted a view of St Paul’s Cathedral over the top of it. I’m now tired of the view of St Paul’s, so will paint something else over that.

What it will be, I have no idea. Probably another portrait. I like doing those. Or perhaps I’ll have another go at Gordale Scar. Who knows.

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