I decided that I needed to paint this view several days ago, whilst driving through the small fishing village ten minutes’ drive away from my house. I saw the magnificent fishing boat on its trailer in the car park of the local café, creating a striking composition with the mountains behind, and made a mental note to paint it, preferably in the early morning when I know that the mountains behind are a hazy pastel blue and would be pale behind the dark solidness of the boat, rather than competing with it.
So, I wake at 7:00am in the morning, and am in position by 7:30, cursing myself for not getting here even earlier because the sun is already up and will soon become intense in its heat. But I am here now so I decide to persevere. I have the preparation for outdoor painting down to a fine art, and within five minutes I have my easel up and my palette stocked with paint. No-one is directly watching me, as I am partially hidden from the café by a tree, which is a relief as I hate to work with the perceived weight of other people’s expectations behind me. I can hear the sounds of a Greek village awakening around me; the cafe slowly fills with early morning workers, drinking coffee before their jobs, and the noise level increases as they begin talking all at once, over each other, as Greeks do, like twenty people all having separate phone conversations simultaneously. I make my first marks on the canvas, establishing a horizon line with a piece of driftwood and some paint, as I’ve forgotten my ruler. A fisherman walks past, makes a throaty hacking noise and spits into the dirt. The village’s ‘three brothers’, grown men who are charming, sweet, and, as the locals say ‘a little touched by the sun,’ shout insults at each other across the harbour. The fisherman who owns the boat I am painting arrives and starts working on it with an electric sander.
I start to block in the sky, an improbable yellowy blue colour, and the mountains underneath but I see that the light is changing fast, and it would be better to make several paintings of the same scene in half hour sessions, to work on them every day in sequence until they are all finished, like Monet’s ‘Rouen Cathedral’ series. Grand visions of painting ten, no, twenty, canvasses of the same scene spring to mind, imagination running ahead of execution as always, and I feel slightly lightheaded with excitement…it’s been a while since I was this enthused about a subject.
Then a worrying thought intrudes – I wonder for how much longer the boat will be out of water? The project I was imagining would require several weeks of painting, with intervals to allow the work to dry. With a sense of foreboding, I approach the fisherman and learn that, yes, he is intending to finish work and ‘have her back in the water the following day’. So there goes my ‘Monet’ series. At first I am annoyed, having to mentally take down the paintings that where already hanging in my mind, but then I decide to see it as an opportunity. Sometimes the best artwork comes from situations where some of the infinite variables which present themselves to the artist at the beginning of a piece are fixed already. In this case, I have to make this painting now, so it isn’t going to be a very polished, drawn out painting about a very specific lighting situation anymore, but more about rendering the whole subject in one go, an act of spontaneity and capturing the feel of a whole morning. No painting made outdoors is ever the absolute truth – light changes, things move, we can only try to make it as close to the truth as we can in any given circumstance. So, as I paint, what emerges is a painting very specific to its constraints – it is less precise and detailed than my usual style, which involves layering paint from back to front in the pictorial space, over a number of sessions, to create the illusion of depth.
The light really is remarkable, seeming to change the very shapes of the mountains as it glides along them, illuminating them in different places, causing dips and ridges to appear and disappear in the time I look down, wash my brush, choose a different colour, and look up again. The colours of the furthest mountains evolve in the hour and a half that I am painting from light blue to purple to greeny-yellow, and I am trying to keep up with these changes and subsequent inconsistencies that arise and feeling pangs of indecision and regret, because now the sea doesn’t match the mountains because they’ve changed, and the highlights on the boat’s rigging have switched sides, and which side do I choose?
The fisherman continues to sand his boat. The sun slowly moves round, and I try and give the watercolour-ey first coat more substance by piling on more paint, adding details of trees and houses. When it seems solid enough, real enough, I stop.
The final image isn’t perfect, but it has a kind of freshness and honesty born of its circumstances that I find pleasing, and I pack up my things and sit at the café with the shouting men and the sunshine, above and intense now, and I decide to write a blog whilst all the feelings are still bubbling near the surface, on a piece of kitchen roll from the café and a pen borrowed from the supermarket.
A painting is more than the sum of its parts, more than a view, more than its colours and shapes. A painting is a story. It is sounds and movements…and in this case, it is a morning in the Greek sunshine, transformed into paint.