My studio is an old cider barn that looks out across a farmyard from a large, west- facing window. As a painting space, it can be pretty dark through the winter months, but each spring, like some ancient Druid, I wait for the day when the sun just gets into one corner of the studio before setting over the barn across the yard.
From that day on, through the spring and up to mid- summer, the puddle of sunlight gets bigger and the light stronger until, by mid-June, I often can’t work in there at all as the sunlight blazes in and lights up the whole building.
There are days when I hope it might be cloudy, or perhaps even rain, to slow things down a little so that I can do things in a more considered way, but every spring I find myself waiting with growing excitement for the day that I can start to make paintings out of the frenzy of the returning sunlight.
The sun moves quickly – in minutes the shadow of a glazing bar moves across the newspapers sprawled on the studio table. The reflected bounce of colour and light is quite unlike anything I’ve seen all through the winter.
On one such day I manoeuvred my easel so that I could paint a succession of little panels as the scene changed. I laid out my usual palette in the usual way, with a handful of brushes and a jar of spirit to swill them in, so at least that part of the process would be automatic.
No particular thought went into setting up a still life as whatever I did would be subverted by the unpredictability of the splashes of brilliance and darkness – as the sun passes over the studio clutter all things move in and out of the light.
There wasn’t too much thought about composition either – this isn’t about stable pyramids of carefully drawn structure – I got it down as it happened by watching the movement of the light through the next hour or so, painting a sequence of little notes.
I started by looking at a boundary between light and dark and making a pair of marks to establish the relationship between the two. The painting grew quickly from this point; I constantly looked at whether a colour was darker, lighter, warmer or cooler than its neighbour, but my eye had to keep sweeping across the whole field of view to allow the pattern of lights and darks to sink in.
I got about ten minutes before a key part of my little design fell into shadow. I could chase it, modifying what I’ve done to keep up with the change, or leave it. I decided to leave it; I had another little board ready for the easel and took a minute to reset my thoughts about what might make an interesting ‘eyeful’.
Shifting my position to gain a slightly different view, I kept my angle of view fairly restricted, a bit more ‘telephoto’ than ‘wide-angle’. There was enough to think about without the complexities of spreading my gaze too wide. In an hour or so I’d made five little studies: one seemed complete in itself and one was a dud; the other three were all interesting, a toe in the water of a few possible visual ideas, and gave me a glimpse of what might be done.
Days two and…
The next day was cloudy and my afternoon was spent priming boards, stretching canvases and thinking, catching my five little studies out of the corner of my eye.
In fact, several days passed before I could get back to this subject. I wanted to do something a bit bigger but along the same lines. I had two or three canvases ready, to give me a choice of format, but beyond about 20in the size becomes an issue in the limited time available.
I find pencil and watercolour useful for collecting information so, knowing that the light will be just where I want it at say 3pm, I can start drawing at 2pm, concentrating on mapping out lines and getting the structure right. With my watercolours ready and enough drawn marks on the paper I can move quickly and say a lot with a few simple washes.
As the weather forecast looked fair for the rest of the week I thought I could plan something bigger. Oil paint will let me work over two afternoons, maybe three, before it becomes too sticky to do another day. Beyond those two or three days, the sun would be on a noticeably different trajectory.
I’d been watching how my simple tablescape was transformed by the sunlight and had made some simple drawings to plan my composition on a bigger canvas. I was very aware that the range of tone in front of me was enormous; looking at this group, I loved the way that much of the foreground was covered with a big shadow and all the bits and pieces in that area were very quiet, and need a very restricted range of light and dark.
I also noticed that the light was bouncing colour around the shadows, giving variety to these rather restrained parts of the composition.
The first painting session was fairly brief – I started just a few minutes before the light was just how I wanted it, working in a similar way to the earlier studies, but focusing on trying to block everything in very quickly.
I concentrated on getting the big relationships right rather than worrying too much about the more hidden aspects. I got about ten minutes slightly ahead of the moment I wanted, another fifteen with it just about right, then a few more minutes of relying on my visual memory, stopping as that began to fade. About half an hour is as much as I could hope for in one day.
The following day was bright enough for me to work again on the larger oil. At its first stage, I’d just got the bare bones so I wanted to elaborate a little further. This way of painting means I’m doing everything at once, drawing and settling the composition as well as making decisions about tone and colour.
For this reason, it’s inevitable that there will be adjustments and I spotted some drawing corrections that needed to be made. A few marks quickly indicated those adjustments. The previous day’s paint was still fairly wet so the surface was quite receptive and I worked quickly with a loaded brush.
There was stuff going on in the foreground that I hadn’t really noticed – a pair of scissors made a good X shape, and the blue-and-white plastic bag was bouncing its colour into the foreground along with the yellow from the little glass bottle.
The plastic water bottle on the right-hand side was refracting the strong sunlight and becoming a focus in the painting. I got just a little longer but once again, as my visual memory began to fade I stopped, knowing that if I carried on the effect of one moment would be weakened. I love the excitement and fizz of this sort of painting and I can see obvious parallels with the sort of landscape subjects I look for. I’ll carry on making paintings of this corner of my working space until, in the autumn, it’s reduced to a tiny slice of light.