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Magic & Art (unthreading the process)

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

With a plethora of digital streaming channels now vying for our recreational attention, it seems there is no shortage of Potteresque style fantasy movies aimed at transporting our adult minds to a landscape of pure escapism and magic. It temporarily returns us to the freedom of adolescent magical thinking, and surely to suspend reality for a few a hours and witness spell-casting alchemy explode across our screens, is to turn the mundanity of monochrome life into a maelstrom of sparkling colour. Briefly we are permitted to suspend logic, become children again and wonder at the wonder of magic. It asks nothing of us, and we willingly embark on a computer generated excursion into fantasyland.

I wonder how many of us still wish that sorcery was genuine and readily attainable to those willing to learn. How alluring and enthralling the thought that an authentic school for wizards really exists amidst the rugged wilderness of rural England.

Yet it is my contention that true magic can be discovered if it’s looked for. It just exists elsewhere.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that artists could be considered the true magicians amongst humans?

Hear me out; as artists we manifest something real, something tangible where nothing previously existed, literally materialising something out of thin air. Artists metamorphose and transform individual colours into new and infinitely variable hues, tones and values, and with these hues create the perception of heat or the frigidity of cold. With learned sleight of hand and an understanding of nature and light, artists readily deceive the sharpest of minds using the illusion of atmospheric perspective or weave linear threads of converging lines that form a loose tapestry of deception.

That’s not to say art is easy, it rarely is. Like everything in life it is a learned process, and to become skilled in any creative pursuit requires practice, commitment, sacrifice, humility, practice, practice and practice.

As an artist I question if any of us ever genuinely attain a level that truly satisfies our inner and eternally critical muse? Probably not. On his death bed in 1919, Renoir said of painting “I think I'm beginning to learn something about it”.

Those earnest words uttered after he had completed over 4,000 paintings and went on to become one of the world’s most loved and collected artists in history. Rather poetically the last word he spoke before his death was “flowers” as someone brought a vase into his bedroom.

I would venture that every artist continues to make many personal discoveries as they forge their own path and process in the act of painting. The process itself is as unique as the brushstrokes, and are as identifiable as fingerprints. Brushstrokes, palette, mediums, grounds, subjects, formats, style and scale, are all parts of the sum. It is fortunate then that the sum is expressed as an infinitely variable number because the number of artists at work is infinitely variable too.

I was recently asked a question about my own process of creating art, which really got me to contemplate my own art and understanding. So I thought I would take a few minutes to share my personal approach with you here. Please understand that it’s neither the right nor wrong way to approach painting, it is just my way.

Inevitably all paintings begin with a motif or concept that either inspires or intrigues. Although I can’t precisely tell you why I find a certain photographic image or place captivating or demanding of my attention, it does invariably require two components, ‘atmosphere’ and ‘light effect’. In my previous working life I was a professional lighting designer where I would create light effects rather than attempt to forge the illusion of them onto canvas.

I begin by toning the ground, which is to blanket tone a white canvas with a pale flat tint. It really is one of life’s most tedious tasks (only marginally less tedious than hanging up a washing machine's worth of socks)! Apparently the old masters would employ a ‘studio boy’ just for this role. Of course, it is my penance as a poor contemporary artist, to perform this rather tiresome task myself.

Ordinarily I use a wash of acrylic paint in a colour called ‘Buff Titanium’ which has a slightly warm caramel hue. Most artists begin by toning their ground with a relatively neutral colour, although there is a trend amongst some contemporary landscape expressionists to employ a vivid red hue. The great master impressionist painter Claude Monet was fond of toning his grounds with a pebble grey ‘putty’ coloured tone.

Once this tedious task is out of the way I simply mark out a canvas using vertical and horizontal lines which basically resembles a large set of cross hairs on the canvas. I do this simply to give me a vague point of reference as I start plotting out the shapes, the horizon and shadow elements.

Once I have loosely sketched the composition, I tend to work across the entire canvas as a whole rather than attempting to resolve individual elements along the way. In that way I can ensure that a harmonious array of colour daubs appears throughout the painting, even if they are barely visible in the finished piece. The joy of impressionism is that through the phenomena of optical mixing, individual colours and tints blend when viewed from a distance. It replicates how we actually see the world. When we look at a lawn, we don’t see individual blades of grass or myriad shades of green, yellow green, blue green or speckles of sky reflected light, we see a ‘green lawn’ as a whole.

Here are three various stages of the same painting called 'Morning Mist'.

You can see the cross hairs that I start with and then the sketched in shapes.

Francis Bacon: The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Francis Bacon when he said “the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery’ and to my mind impressionism certainly achieves this. Examining a painting created in the impressionist style is in itself a journey of discovery. I am reminded of the line from William Blake “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour”. There is natural poetry in impressionist art that I do not believe exists in any other art movement or other painted form.

On a clear night, if we look to the night sky we can

observe a faint smudge of light that humans have

labelled the ‘Andromeda Galaxy’. Seen from Earth with the naked eye, it looks little more than an aberration or visual defect on a lens. Look closely however, (courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope) and the view is simply breathtaking.

It is tantamount to the emotional response that people often experience when viewing a Monet up close. It can confuse and bewitch and for many become a visceral, moving experience.

Above is an extract from one of Monet's Haystack paintings.

How can those impossible and improbable abstracted colours meld together and reassemble in the mind to create an obvious landscape? That is the magic of optical mixing, and Monet was a master alchemist. I think all artists remain students for life, myself included, and like Renoir, when I reach my 78th year, I too will begin to understand something.

To paint in the impressionist style is to compose musical notes of colour. When we hear the Skylark sing, we have no awareness of individual notes punctuated by swiftly vanishing silences or glissando of rising scales, we hear a constant stream of sound, and it is beautiful in its linear wave. For me it is analogous to the natural poetry of impressionist art.

So, once I have the rough shapes, horizon and shadow elements marked on to the canvas, I can start add my own musical notes of colour. Daubs of pure colour appear across my surface, both where they are obvious and less so. Touches of colour (from the French word ‘touché’ which is wholly apt, for at times it really is a fencing duel) begin to suggest depth and atmosphere.

This is a close up example of my daubs and dashed brushstrokes and use of colour.

This is the overall effect when the painting is viewed as a whole.

It is convention to work from dark (shadows) to light when working in oils, although I sometimes work in reverse in the same manner that a watercolourist would approach a painting.

At this juncture I begin thinking in three dimensions and start to consider what elements I can employ to create the illusion of light, atmosphere and depth. There are two possibilities available for a landscape painter, linear perspective and aerial perspective. Of course there are no specific limits that reduce us to opting for one over the other; indeed both can be combined to good effect.

It was the advent of post-impressionism or neo-impressionism to be more precise, that essentially disposed of perspective altogether and relied instead on blocks of colour or directional strokes of colour to express the artists vision. The most obvious examples are Van Gogh, Bonnard, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Redon etc. My work has often been remarked alongside that of Van Gogh for its similarity, but it is purely accidental on my part and maybe little more than subconscious referencing. Certainly as a painter in 2022, there is an expectation to produce ‘saleable’ work, which often seems to border on the whimsical. I’m sure I am not alone in saying it can be challenging to remain true to one's artistic voice, but stay true we must!

So back to my process of creating art; I continue adding harmonious daubs of colour across the canvas, often layering tones and tints and placing adjacent hues that spark off each other creating chromatic vibration. A shimmering and almost ethereal quality can be obtained when laying glazes of colour on top of others. This is where an intimate knowledge of light, observations of nature and an understanding of atmospherics are essential.

In my paintings I am mindful not to paint the objects themselves, but the light between the object and the viewer. Light can fall directly onto a plane and hence render colourful shadows, or can be reflected off of a solid object which tints the reflected light (did you ever hold a buttercup to your chin as a child?), or light can pass through an atmospheric filter like dust or moisture, or translucent medium like a canopy of leaves or fabrics resulting in something called diffusion. It is as enthralling as it is endlessly changeable and to emulate these effects with ‘paint’ is where the magic of art exists. It inevitably results in much to’ing and fro’ing at the easel, hence the analogy to fencing.

It is during the final stages of a painting, that I will add the brightest lights and, or strengthen any reflected lights which can really enliven a somewhat tempered landscape. These are akin to the highest notes of the skylark’s song.

I will then put the painting away from sight for a week or two before returning to cast a critical eye. A little magic trick I learned many years ago is to view the painting in a mirror. It is wholly unforgiveable in what it reveals. Sometimes we artists see a painting with such jaded determination that due to the frailties of 'confirmation bias' we see what we want to see rather than what is. A simple mirror is brutally honest and can save a great deal of embarrassment, especially if humans and portraits are the subject. In portraiture (and especially animal portraits) how often do we see wonky asymmetric eyes completely at odds with each other? I think Picasso could have learned a lot from employing a humble mirror when reviewing his own portraits (said with tongue firmly implanted in cheek).

It’s been an interesting distraction for me to write about my process and has forced me to analyse the hows and whys of my approach to painting. I’ve yet to touch on my palette bias which tends to shift towards the blue end of the spectrum. Even when I doggedly set out to employ a palette oriented towards reds and golds, I find blue creeping back in and tapping me on the shoulder. Of course, for an artist, mixing colour is one of life’s trials and joys and a skill that can only be achieved with years of practice and familiarity (I am still a student of nature), but that’s for another day.

If you have any questions regarding my art or on any of comments that I’ve made, do please drop me a line.

The references to the skylark are probably influenced by my current art project. I’m producing a series of paintings inspired by the music of George Williams (composed in 1914) which itself was inspired by the poem of George Eustace (written in 1881). If you’ve never read, or listened to “The Lark Ascending”, do, you’re in for a very special treat indeed

Thank you for reading. Lee

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