Friday, 8 May 2020

UNLOCKING THE LIGHT IN LOCKDOWN

UNLOCKING THE LIGHT IN LOCKDOWN
8thMay2020  
All the paintings shown are in oil, either on canvas or panel
On March 10th, thanks to the Covid 19 pandemic, a draconian lockdown was imposed on Italy. I realised that this presented a precious opportunity to slow down, assess values and focus.  
I would like to share some of my thoughts and observations, and present some of my paintings done in the last 7 weeks of lockdown. 
The radiation from the sun is the earth’s source of energy. It is in everyone’s lives and strongly affects our moods. Every day the sunlight is a little different from the day before as the seasons roll by. I have focused on studying the sun’s light and how it interacts with air, water and objects, rather than the objects themselves – in reality it’s a subject that has always fascinated me.
Italy is a country where there are many hours of sunshine, and I am fortunate to live in Pietrasanta, North of Pisa, Tuscany, about a third of the way down “the boot” of Italy and on the West coast facing towards the island of Corsica. The winters are mild and the summers hot and long. This North-South strip of fertile flatland between the mountains and the sea has a particularly special light - so I’ve heard marble carvers say. They should know, they’ve been carving the white Carrara marble from these mountains since Roman times. 
I live on the top 4th floor of a block of flats that is surrounded by low houses with gardens. Behind me rise the foothills of the Apuan Alps. In front, across the plain of houses, industry and fields, my view stretches westward to the Mediterranean Sea. The sun rises behind the mountains, casting a long shadow across the plain, which shortens as the sun moves overhead following its daily path to setting over the sea. ( See painting no.13, Moonset over Massa). 
As winter turns to Spring the sun appears to slide to a different setting point Northwards on the horizon marking the end of each day, and by mid summer it sets behind the Northen Italian coastal mountains. 

Drawing showing the position of the block of flats in relation to the mountains, sea and daily roation of the sun.
 The lockdown period allowed me a liberty to choose my working times so that I could study the effects of sunlight at specific moments of the day. Fortunately the weather was clear for many days in a row during the second half of March and into April. 
It is always a challenge to create the illusion of light using only oil pigments on canvas. Selecting the right time and managing it is an even greater challenge. Some painters like to paint around midday because the shadows change less at that time of day than at either end of the day. Others like to capture the very fleeting and beautiful sky colours at dawn or the end of the day when there is really only a 10 to 15 minute window of time before it all changes completely. 
Since the sun is always moving any drawing started including a cast shadow will not be accurate after half an hour. But not only the shadow shapes change, but also all the values of the colour and tone will be altered. A scene that had a certain attractive relationships of colours and reflected lights can just lose it’s visual buzz after 30 minutes. So it is important to know when the moment that you want to record happens and know how long it lasts.
A word here about photography. Of course the camera is a great tool to fix a moment in time, but the image is seen through a lens that strongly distorts the drawing and perspective. Further, the digitally-recording camera interprets the scene, inevitably distorting the intensity of colours and exaggerating the black and white balance. When these facts are taken into account the camera is a useful additional tool to help remember the conditions at the chosen time slot, but in no way does it replace observation by eye. 
Claude Monet, the French impressionist painter managed to paint many scenes that probably only lasted 20 mins, by having a canvas ready for each time slot he selected, often working on many different paintings over hours. He would repeat this for days, praying the weather did not change, and so managed to put in all the hours necessary to finish the canvas. This is the reason why northern painters like to come south to paint, benefitting from the more constant Mediterranean climate.
 
1. BALCONY  -  21 x 18cm

1. In the first week of lockdown, I think like everyone I felt a prisoner in my own home. This first painting represents the fears in that initial period. It is painted in the morning and shows the corner of my little balcony with the railings creating a barrier to the outside world beyond. The real challenge in this painting was to find the value and colour of the yellow wall in shadow, As anyone who has painted lemons knows, making yellow look dark without making a muddy mess is very tricky since the colour ( hue) of yellow is, by its nature lighter in tone than any other colour. As soon as other pigments are added yellow often no longer looks yellow!
When we all started to realise that the lockdown would continue for many weeks, I felt a different way of being had to be found. No longer would I endlessly clean and organise the safe little refuge of my flat and devote all my attention to following the latest tally of coronavirus deaths, instead I would value this gift of time. 
Setting a goal that was achievable and adopting a daily routine all helped reduce the level of anxiety I was feeling then. I set myself the task of painting the sunset every evening in order to understand how I could capture some of that beauty with my oil paints.
2. SUNSET WITH HAZE - 15 x 28cm

2. This was actually painted on the 12th day of the Italian Lockdown and there existed a considerable haze which the sun slid behind before actually reaching the horizon. Whether the haze was due to polluting particles that evening or extra moisture I could not judge, but the days that followed were remarkable for the clarity of the air.
3. TO THE RIGHT OF THE SUN -  29 x19cm  
  3. The sky is limpid in this rapid sketch (apart from some little clouds near the horizon), and the sun has set just to the left of the picture frame. The street lamps are turning on. At this time the sky colours start to darken and rapidly change their relationships going through the rainbow palette. The transition area between the warm light emanating from behind the horizon and the deep blue of the upper sky often presents a delicate green which I like to call “duck-egg green”.
4. TEN MINUTES BEFORE SUNSET - 21 X 21cm
 
4. Perhaps the duck-egg green is more easily seen in this painting of the sun about 10 minutes from sunset where I had to keep the values of the sky darker than they actually were so that I could paint in the ball of the sun. Due to the strength of the sunlight there was a halo of scattered light around the sun, a colour corona, and it is warm in colours since it is reflecting the light source.
5. FROM THE HILL - 18 x 25cm
 
5. Here the corona is visible again from a higher (imaginary) viewpoint in the hills behind my house. Probably about 40 minutes from sunset with an atmosphere exceptionally pollution-free and void of the usual plane vapour trails.

6. BONFIRE AT SUNSET - 18 x 27cm
  6. Here I chose to depict that precious moment when the last red orb of sun reduces to a pinpoint of light and is extinguished. Someone had lit an evening bonfire.
7. SUNSET OVER PORTO VENERE - 21 x 21cm
 7. Five days later the sun was setting over Porto Venere, and the bay of La Spezia, with a little cloud. Much duck-egg green here.
8. TWO HOURS BEFORE SUNDOWN - 30 x 20cm
8. The corona effect started to interest me not least because it is the virus’s namesake. I was seeing them everywhere. They are sometimes called lens flare. A corona appears wherever there is a strong source of light, and can be around reflected light too so long as it is strong. This sketch was made about 2 hours before sundown and the glare from the sunshine reflecting off the sea created a warm glow on the distant landscape.
 
9.  THE 7:30 TRAIN - 20 x 30
  9. At around 7:30 every evening a passenger train passed through my field of vision and the carriages reflected glints of sunlight. The corona glow was particularly strong at that hour and little glints of strong lights were everywhere, on the gutterings, the aerials and the shiny-leaved magnolia tree, the top of which I could just include in the near foreground.
10. FIRST SPRING GREENS STUDY - 12 x 25cm
10. In the third week of April the trees were growing their delicate spring foliage. Without the noise of traffic the bird song was so lovely to enjoy while I painted. A very quick sketch shows that the poplars in that moment seem to be the most transparent of all the trees .
11. SPRING GREENS - 21 x 21cm
 11. The first spring greens and glinting aerials.
12.  MOONSET STUDY - 13 x 18cm
 12. Around the 8th of April there was a supermoon, larger and brighter due to its nearness to the earth, and easily visible due to the particle-free skies and no rain clouds. I got up early to check it out and couldn’t resist trying to capture the layers of pearlescent colours in the dawn sky. As the moon set the sun rose, and the shadow of the mountains behind me shortened over the plain below. I used this shadow/light contrast and the previous day’s sketch to make a small painting the next day, where I took “artist’s licence” and replaced the moon above the town of Massa.
 
13. MOONSET OVER MASSA - 21 x 21cm
13. Moonset over Massa.

14.  SUN'S RAYS OVER PORTO VENERE - 9 x 29cm 
14. Sun’s rays over Porto Venere.

15. DOG WALK - 21 x 21cm
 15. During lockdown I could watch from above the activities of the owners of the surrounding gardens. Husbands were out trimming hedges and mowing lawns which had sprouted untidily with the warmer weather. By the end of seven weeks the garden hedges were casting tight geometrical shadows along with the architecture. Dogs could not believe their luck with so many walks because this was one of the few permitted ways to leave the home.  It was important  to accurately pin down the time of this morning painting (10:45am), since the cast shadows were moving all the time.
16.  PORTRAIT WITH SUN'S CORONA  - 17.5 Xx17.5cm
 16. My lockdown obsession with all things corona, was gratified on the 16th April by a real sun corona. The slight haze in the atmosphere caused this circular rainbow to be visible around the sun. It can happen around the moon too when the conditions are right. So by blocking the sun with my head I was able to take a photo of the corona, giving me a surely undeserved, but fun halo! 
On a deeper level, painting the portrait made me aware of my rumbling psychological uncertainty about what may lie ahead for the human species. 
In this period of intense focus and with the freedom to stick to a daily routine organised solely around my quirky working times, I have learnt much. Most of which has been about understanding the illusion of light and to experiment and apply ideas in pigments, all which has given me valuable feedback and stimulus for future work.
Although my beloved direct contact with wild nature was curtailed, my faith in the healing and nourishing quality of the appreciation of all things beautiful was once again confirmed.


 

3 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Your paintings remind me of all the photos I have taken over the years of sunrises and sunsets. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I missed seeing your paintings on the walls at choir practice so this is lovely! I am really impressed with the beautiful skies, the colours and the light, especially no 4 and 7. Your self portrait is amazing! It's so nice to read your words on each piece too, you open our eyes. Thank you xxx

    ReplyDelete
  3. What a mesmerizing trip you took me on Anne.

    ReplyDelete

Emily Williamson Sculpture Competition. I would very much like make this sculpture because it combines both my love of portraits and of bird...