My return to England

April 16, 2014


Today is the concluding session on my first landscape painting in England in over five years and I’m unusually apprehensive. Whilst preparing my materials this morning I discovered, with a sinking feeling, that I’d left my palette in the woods on the previous trip, and when I arrive at the painting spot my fears are confirmed...it’s no longer here. I feel rather like a violinist deprived of her instrument just before a concert. She knows she can still play on a borrowed violin, but can’t shake the superstition that it isn’t the same somehow. That palette (custom made for my arm length, just the right weight, encrusted with seven years of dried up paint layers…), has been up mountains, submerged on sandy beaches, baked on the passenger seat of overheated cars , hung proudly up in a succession of studios, and complimented more often than I am (!)…: ‘That’s beautiful, you could sell that… ‘For which the response was always: ‘Not for a thousand pounds. I couldn’t be without it; it’s what I paint on…’ And yet here I am, ankle deep in a sea of beautiful bluebells in Hampshire on a sunny day, feeling woefully sorry for myself, with a cheap plastic replacement palette held awkwardly on my arm, feeling lost and insecure and frankly wondering if I can still paint at all. 

The shortness of the lifespan of the bluebells is what attracted me here, and I am not disappointed by the display. Having been in Greece for the past few years I have missed this event, and at first all I can do is make a series of unintelligible, overawed noises. The wood is a carpet of the most delicate purple, interspersed with a zingy, intense lime green of the grass. The effect is almost cartoony, striking but somehow simultaneously soft and English, and as I start painting in the pastel-ly shades of the trees in the background I muse about how different this feels from painting in Greece. Greece is stunning but it’s a harsh beauty. Colours are stark and unforgiving; outlandish, dizzying sky blues next to viridian seas, sharp outlines of light around Cyprus trees and everything overly bright, like someone turned up the colour gamut on a photoshop program. English light is more real somehow, softer, all pastel colours and gentle hints of colour half revealed. I’m not used to dealing in such subtleties and at first I struggle, painting in elements too strong and having to tone them down again. I am also unaccustomed to the rapidity of the changing light, which frequently leaves me flummoxed as I keep losing my ‘place’ in the painting, as clouds scuttle past, casting shadows which seem to snatch away whole sections of landscape before returning them in a dazzling golden glow - one of nature’s many magic tricks.

Also different here are people’s reactions to my painting...I have become accustomed to the bluntness of the Greeks; the sudden invasion of one’s personal space and the questions…:  ‘Why are you painting this view? How much are you going to get for it?’ so the reserved English bemuse me today. There are the families with small children who take elaborate and inconvenient detours around me whilst hissing in exaggerated whispers to their offspring:  ‘No, you cannot look at the lady’s work. The lady is BUSY!’… and the quite frankly terrifying dog walkers who scream at their poor animals when they come within ten feet of me ‘NOOO! GET BACK FLUFFY! GET BACK!!!!’ as if they were about to suffer nuclear contamination. ‘It’s all right…’ I try to reassure the owners as they come charging manically, arms flailing. ‘A dog pissed on my easel once, so this is really all right…’ But on the owners march, dragging their dogs and not looking back.  People are odd everywhere, in different ways, I muse, and turn back to the scene in front of me and my painting, which is progressing steadily, becoming vibrant, as I recreate the dark green grid of the main tree’s shadow that falls across the composition.  I am as happy as an artist can be in my sea of purple, as I work my way to the bottom right hand corner where I sign my name in mauve on the green grass and I think: I have arrived. Welcome to England.

I get home, unpack my painting and sit and look at it for a while, feeling pleased and contented with what I've done, and then I start laughing, because I realise what a waste my morning’s anguish over my assumed artistic crutch was...I haven’t thought of my missing palette once!

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