SURFACE DEEP

expressive impressions

The “problem” of figures in landscape fascinated and challenged me in equal measure. After all, without the notion of a literal narrative theme to the picture, the human figure always seemed to be merely an additional element – actually part of the landscape that she/he inhabited. This was not to depersonalise the figure so much as to find a way to harmonise all the elements of the image, whether vegetation, rock, sky or/and living figures.

The Tiyul (Tour) Party – 1983 – oil on canvas – 102 x 153cm This was my first palette knife figures-in-landscape painting. It was on my-then-typical rose madder ground, and at the sketch stage when I decided to “attack” the canvas with the knife. It was applied in one session, lasting about 3 hours – I realised immediately, that speed, in combination with paint application was key. This remains my all-time favourite painting that I ever executed in oils.

From the time of the Impressionists onward, artists have found increasingly ingenious – even gimmicky – ways of resolving the problem. Artists like Renoir and Monet would blend their pictorial elements through a uniformity of paint daubs, and later, Seurat by “distilling” those daubs into dots. Then, Picasso and Braque contorted and warped their figures into the very space they inhabited, leading finally to Matisse, whose contrary method was to turn everything into a jigsaw of flat shapes.

The Swimmer – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 122cm I found water to be a natural “animated” environment for my new “animated” figures. By now I had moved to a deep black ground, setting off increased colour contrasts.

My earliest representational combinations of figures with landscape in oil paint were none of the above, but both romantic, and traditional, whereby the figures inhabit their environment rather like actors on an enormous stage. And, while this was great for creating a form of visual counterpoint and deeply spatial scenic drama, it ignored the potential of the paint itself for creating a vivid, “living” surface.

Waiting to Jump – 1983oil on canvas – 92 x 61cm My new way of painting coincided with one of my longer trips to Israel. The previous picture, this painting, and the one below are all in and around the pool at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar, in the Galilee.

I must have painted dozens of such “theatrical” images when one day, I was confronted by a sketched ground for yet another scene of young people in Israel, and made a change of plan. It was a simple thing really, but with exciting consequences for the evolution of my art. I simply put down my brushes and picked up my favourite, medium-sized, trowel-shaped palette knife, and made the whole finished painting with that instead. The resulting picture was a revelation to me, with the paint, and the surface of the canvas elevated from a means to a pictorial end, to the end itself. In the process, the figures were transformed from “actors on a stage” into animated, vibrant entities, at one with their landscape. Suddenly, my pictures, and the figures within, looked alive.

The Jump – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 105cm

Looking at these pictures now, with objectivity borne of time and distance, the significant influence of Impressionism is hard to dispute, yet my own, innate Expressionist instincts are equally evident, and even now, that still gives me a tingle of excitement and pride. Ultimately, they’re not half-bad, and that is all that really matters.

Family at Kineret – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 98cm Kineret (The Sea of Galilee) was a recurring theme / backdrop to my Israel-sourced images. It’s atmospherics (light, colour and water) are an artist’s dream.

UNEXPECTED TERPSICHORE…

…and how two ice cream ladies ended up being PORTRAYED on the wall of the chilean embassy in london…

During our 1991 visit to Chile we took a day-trip from Santiago to Valparaiso, to have a look at the National Congress building, but mainly to try and get a feel for one of the great ports of the Americas. In the event, the building was nothing to write home about – an unresolved confusion of brutalist classicism – and the port area was more plain sleaze than the Hemingway sleaze I’d been hoping for. Sadly, we lacked the time to explore more of what was once described as “the Jewel of the Pacific”.

Although blurry, this photo inspired not only the oil painting below, but later an entire series of my most abstract attempts at capturing human movement…

However, as often happens when travelling, memorable moments occur when least expected, and from surprising sources. In this case for example, it occurred buying ice creams in a gelateira by the bus station, when my wife Dido and our companion Lynne got into conversation with the two ladies running the shop, about Chile’s national folk dance; the Cueca.

This spontaneous display perfectly captured a trait of understated assuredness that we often encountered in Chile – a trait for which the Cueca is the perfect expression…

How or why what happened next, I can’t quite recall, as the two women, in the sweetest and most obliging of gestures suddenly broke into song and started performing the dance. Fortunately I had my camera to hand and was able to get a visual – if slightly unfocused – record of the impromptu outbreak of traditional Terpsichore. Happenstance often resulted in my camera being my sketchbook, and this turned out to be a prime example as I found the fuzzy photos more than adequate reference for a later work back in my studio.

…a trait I endeavoured to capture in this,* and at least two more versions of the painting, La Cueca. The version here was included in an exhibition I had the following year at the Embassy of Chile in London, and which was subsequently purchased for the embassy. I often wondered what the two ladies would have thought if they knew?

* This was one of the first times I used black ground on a canvas (I’d often used the technique in commercial work), and I found it a dramatic contrast to the broad, bright impasto gestures knifed on top. The painting was about five-foot (about 152 cm) square.