WALKING AWAY INTO “LITTLE BIG LAND” – Israel painted through the romantic eyes of youth

My phase of painting large epic landscapes in oils happened to coincide with a period in my life when I spent most summers in Israel. From around 1978 until about 1986 I went there every year, partly out of idealism and partly because I just loved making paintings of the place.

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“Walking Away at Ein Kerem” (120 x 170cm∗) – In the Jerusalem Hills – southwest outskirts of the city…

Looking back on that time now I can see that the two motivations were part of the same “condition” and fed an inner yearning to find expression for my youthful optimism and romanticism.

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“Astrud at Tel Hai”  detail (150 x 100cm) – At the south-western entrance to the northern “pan-handle”…

As I think I’ve said before on these pages, Israel, although geographically a tiny country, can often feel vast to the naked eye. Among the hills and valleys of the “pan-handle” of the northern Galilee, and especially in the arid canyons of southern Judea and the Negev Desert, the landscape creates an illusion of almost infinite enormity.

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“Pickers at Rest” (153 x 213cm) – Hired Druze pickers enjoying ice-lollies during a break from apple picking on the northern border kibbutz of Yiftach…

My initial efforts were okay as paintings but they failed to transmit the epic quality of the scenes I was depicting. But then I remembered a device often used by my favourite painters of “sublime” landscape, such as Claude Lorraine, William Turner and John Martin, which was to offset the vista against a peopled foreground. This not only gave scale to the views beyond, but also created a feeling of depth and a sense of “moment” with the human figures caught in time.

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“The Banyas Falls” (180 x 120cm)  – The source of the River Jordan, at the north-western edge of the Golan Heights, and thought by the Macedonian conquerors of 332 BC  to be the birth place of the god Pan – hence: the Greek “Panias”, now “Banyas” in modern Hebrew via the previous “Banias…”

So, from about 1981 I began to inhabit my Israeli landscapes with people, normally young people like me, walking away, down a track or road toward some distant horizon. And for me, then, it did the trick, seeming to offer a message of future hope into the bargain.

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“The Coach Party”  detail (180 x 240cm) – On a roadside cliff edge overlooking the Hula Valley in the north western pan handle…

Sadly (or perhaps fortunately) I failed to record most of the “Walking Away” series (I think I did around ten of them over the course of that year) on camera. In fact, I have very little photographic record of any of my people-in-landscape pictures from that phase of my career.

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“On the Beach” detail (120 x 180 cm) – A group of my friends on Ashkelon beach on Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast…

However, I have managed to cobble together what you see here, including two from the Walking Away series (one complete and a detail from another) and the rest, mostly details and sections from other pictures.

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“Resting at Montfort” detail (120 x 180cm) – Our tour party taking a break on the ruins of the Crusader castle of Montfort just south of the Lebanon border. Hence the need for the M16…

Despite the incompleteness presented, I still think one can sense the romance, and the optimism of the mostly-unseen whole paintings.

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“The Wanderers” detail (130 x  190cm) – The first of the “Walking Away” themed  series, set on the road down from Tel Hai south, towards Lake Kinneret  (The Sea of Galilee).

(∗ All sizes refer to the full canvases)

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BEHIND THE SCENES – painting with oils on different surfaces…

When one thinks of an oil painting, one generally thinks of a picture painted on canvas, but across the centuries since artists first mixed coloured pigments with oil they have applied their oil-based paints to a large variety of surfaces, including things like metal and glass. These days, especially within typical art school settings, the most commonly used materials in addition to canvas are, cotton duck (a cheap-yet-similar cloth cousin of true canvas), board (usually either plywood or stiff backing board), and paper. When I started out as an art student in the autumn of 1976 at Harrow School of Art, I had never painted an oil painting – on any surface – in my life.

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Still Life with Bottles and Lemons – oil on paper – 1980.  Paper makes for a super slick surface, so that the brush or the palette knife has a tendency to “skid” across the surface – great for fast, energetic gestures.

Although I’d had in my possession a box of half-used oil-paints since I was a babe in arms (left behind by my father when he disappeared from my life) I’d never known what to do with them. Somehow, painting with anything but watercolours had always seemed mysterious and slightly scary. But all this changed in the second year of my foundation course when I realised that if my aspirations of a career in fine art were serious I’d have to learn how to paint in oils. However, my foundation student grant was only sufficient to fund the paints themselves and not the surface materials upon which I was to apply them. Fortunately though, Harrow had a junk room crammed full of backing board, So, my first experience of oil-painting was on board, primed with two or three coats of liquid PVA glue.

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Dido at Caesarea – oil on board – 1991  Board has some of the slickness of paper but conversely the brush tends to “stick” toward the end of the stroke. It’s rigidity makes it unresponsive to palette knife.

When I began my BA course at Saint Martins the following year my student grant was substantially improved and I was able to “progress” onto stretched cotton duck (or poor-man’s canvas as Sam, our school technician and unofficial canvas-stretching instructor used to refer to it). Nevertheless, large pieces of cotton duck (and I was already working on extremely large-scale pictures) cut a substantial swathe into my grant, leaving precious little for another essential “tool” of the young art student – that being copious amounts of ale every evening at one of the many wonderful local Soho pubs. This meant that I did much of my oil sketching on paper, which, when sufficiently sized, took the paint pretty well. In fact, I did not get to paint on actual “canvas, canvas” until around ten years after graduating from Saint Martins when I at last had enough dosh of my own to afford the real thing, ready-stretched, and ready-sized and primed.

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Restaurant Juanita – oil on cotton duck – 1992   Duck is a cruder weave than canvas so that it’s slightly rougher to work on. Fine for free, painterly brush work and palette knife but not so much for fine work. No use at all for the photo-realist.

The four paintings presented here are examples of each of the four surfaces I used. In the flesh it’s easy to tell the difference, even between the one painted on cotton duck and the one painted on canvas – but that’s a whole other story, perhaps for another time…

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Wild Flower and Almond Trees – oil on canvas – 2000   Top notch canvas is worth the extra cost for those artists striving for total control over the paint. When correctly stretched and sized with rabbit skin, its smooth-yet-holding surface allows for the complete range of “attack”. 

MASTERPIECE – or merely a collection of successful daubs?

Occasionally; very occasionally I miss painting huge canvases.

Not drawing – I really don’t miss drawing at all – nor watercolouring, or working with gouache or pen and ink, or even small and regular size oil painting. But once in a while I miss the thrill of that rarest of moments, when I almost felt like a genius, and for some reason this only happened to me when I was working on an epic scale.

I experienced the feeling just a handful of times in the thirty years of painting big canvases. It was normally sparked off by a single brushstroke when, just for a millisecond the brain achieved total control over the brush with the resulting daub a near-perfect expression of the thought behind the action.

Normally, these experiences and daubs occurred toward the completion of a painting, and were all the more satisfying for underlying the fact of conclusion – something rarely guaranteed when making any work of art.

I remember one such daub being a fleck of white light on the shoulder of a girl walking into a heat-hazed distance, and another being a splash of red, of a Coke can littering a pavement.

But of all the special daubs I ever applied to canvas, only one painting contained more than one, and this is that picture below, called Bormio 3000.

It’s particularly remarkable because unlike all the others which were “free works”, Bormio 3000 was a commission, and because of who it was for, and what they were paying me, it was painted under considerable pressure.

The patrons were a married couple who owned a successful commercial art gallery in London, and they wanted an extremely large skiing – themed oil painting to decorate the main room of their new chalet in Verbier. Moreover, they were paying me the largest sum of money I had ever been paid for my work – several thousands of pounds.

Somehow, and for whatever reason, the painting was a huge success, pleasing both the patrons and for once, the artist too.

Even more unusually, I like the painting as much now as I did then, when “special daub” after “special daub” seemed to flow from the brush as easily as breathing.

Bormio (unlike Swiss Alpine Verbier) is  in the Italian Alps, and “3000” refers to altitude (in meters) at the top of the run, pictured in the foreground. The painting was about 5 by 7 feet and when I look at it now, especially the portrayal of the far mountains and clouds I have not the faintest idea how I achieved it.

The term “masterpiece” is obviously a relative one and normally, highly subjective. However, based purely on Adam Green terms, so far as I am concerned, both in the summer of 1983 when I completed Bormio 3000, and now, 34 years later it remains the work of which I am most proud. It hits the mark in every department; tone and colour control; composition; light; drama; and near-perfect brush-work. All-in-all, not a bad conglomeration of “special daubs”…

(Bormio 3000 is available as a signed limited edition print – limited to 25 prints – about 32cm x 48cm / 13″ x 19″ size – at £150 each. See the purchasing and ordering artwork link above.)

Bormio 3000