I had ordered it long before publication so I opened the book with relish and anticipation when it finally arrived. The old adage tells us that ‘Those who can’t, teach!’ I want to offer a variation: ‘Those who can’t, buy lot’s of how-to books instead’ and so spend their time reading about the activity rather than doing it and learning from their mistakes. Shelves full of books on how to pray compete with shelves of books on how to paint and draw!
Anyway, the book in question was Painting Light in Oils by Peter Wileman and Malcolm Allsop (Batsford 2011). Peter Wileman is currently president of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the book is stuffed full of his impressionistic, mainly landscape and people, paintings. He is a fine painter and has a lovely knack of using a narrow range of tones and colours to frame an area of bright light which sings (or zings) as a result.
In answer to the question ‘What shall I paint?’ he offers this observation:
Novice artists often feel that for a subject they must find something that is beautiful or dramatic in itself. The problem for many people is that they’re more experienced in taking a photograph than choosing a subject for painting. A photograph tends to be the classic ‘view’, whereas an interesting painting usually shows a much less obvious take on a location.
In fact, your subject may be completely mundane; it may just be a collection of interesting shapes, a certain light effect, or a pattern of colour and tones that has made you want to create a painting.
I write on the last day of my sabbatical study leave and I have been reviewing the last three months – both the long trip to Italy and the drawing, painting and reading I did both there and on my return. As I leaf through my sketch books, I seem to feel more satisfaction with the pen and ink studies than with the pen and watercolour paintings. This may of course have something to do with my relative (in)competence in each media. However, I think it’s more likely to do with subject matter.
The watercolours have tended to be less experimental and more concerned with grand views of well-known landmarks – like some of my photographs. The ink drawings tend to be on a smaller scale and capture some aspect of a street or building which has interested me. Pen, sketchpad and water-brush are, after all, more portable than the full watercolour kit and a drawing may only take ten or twenty minutes. As a result, the drawing is more responsive and less predictable. What oil painting I’ve managed since my return has also tended to be the grand view – and grand view in the middle of the day when I took the reference photographs rather than a well-known scene transformed by dramatic morning light or stormy weather.
Two things follow for me. First, a practical agenda. I must continue to paint from my travel sketches and photographs, but must look for those views which reflect my personal impressions and experiences rather than grand views – more chamber music than grand opera! I achieved this in some of my photographs, now I need to move to a stage of synthesis in my painting.
The second thing is more a line of reflection. Wileman’s comment, about the mundane and less obvious ‘take’, chimes with other thoughts and readings. Frederick Franck, in his The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation (Wildwood House 1973) presents drawing as a way of seeing which apprehends the reality of what is before us. He suggests that drawing is
a way of focusing attention until it turns into contemplation, and from there to the inexpressible fullness, where the split between the seer and what is seen is obliterated. Eye, heart, hand become one with what is seen and drawn, things are seen as they are – in their ‘isness’.
This was a road travelled by Thomas Merton who in the photography of his later years gave attention to very ordinary things but in a way which showed their extraordinary wonder. John Lane, in his The Spirit of Silence: Making Space for Creativity (Green Books 2006), writes,
The beginning of seeing lies with the rapt attention of unpretentious, everyday things; things ignored, mundane, unexceptional, commonplace; things lying about in rooms, things like the wrinkled sheets of an unmade bed, the refracted stems of a bunch of tulips in a glass pot, the rust on a sheet of corrugated iron, the pattern of porridge left at the bottom of an unwashed pan.
Giving attention is akin to prayer. It is relating to the world in such a way that the ‘I’ doesn’t get in the way of the ‘eye’. It is an openness to God’s world in its infinite richness and variety – not just the big picture, but the intricate detail – what we might call ‘the calligraphy of God’.