Inspiration not Perspiration

No posts for nearly six months now; regular readers of my blog can be forgiven for thinking I’d given up.

Nothing could be further from the truth, I’ve never worked harder or painted less.

Opportunity knocked when I broke my foot. OK it’s not cancer or anything at all serious, and I neither expect nor deserve a shred of sympathy for such a minor injury, but it did stop me painting. In fact I’ll rephrase that – it stopped me regurgitating the same old paintings, and gave me an opportunity to pause for thought.

Now stopping painting isn’t something I’ve done for nearly two decades, mostly because I teach it, but more importantly because I love out.

I now realise that one can be too much in love. I was in love with the physical act of painting, the pleasure of being competent at at it, and the satisfaction of ‘not having a bad day’. I used to tell my apprentice that amateurs have painters block, professionals paint through it; bad days are for wimps.

I stand before you chastened and corrected. Complacent artists don’t have bad days, because they – like me – are too busy cranking out the (all too competent and lucrative)  turkeys to stop and assess if what they’re doing is actually any good.

Stopping to think what one’s doing is fatal, like stopping on a bike, loose momentum and you crash. And crash I did.

Were my ideas valid? Could my vision be original? Was I painting with vision or from habit? Theses questions are as old as Art, and the answers only apply to the questioner.

Last night I was sitting with an old friend in my local, and by way of conversation, he asked how my new project of painting the Dales was getting on. The answer was, ‘I’ve done it nine times now , you tell me.’

And so I had – nine different ways of getting into the Dales, and this from a painter who made what little reputation he has on painting landscape. They all competent, some of them are commercial and parts of it might even be flirting with originality.

A breakthrough came when I stopped painting, and started to write again. visual inputs are not always or often the best route to visual outputs, so I swapped my sketchbooks for a notebook and journal.

I don’t write to publish or meet grammatical criteria. Impressions in words suit me. Here are my current oils – except they are just words yet; pictures will follow.

Erosion, change. Impermanence, chaos, destruction, a lack of absolutes, a landscape which makes these truths palatable by disguising them under beauty . 

Dark pines, cool and resinous. sudden light on distant grey green hills, sullen trees marching into purple veils of rain up the dale. Yellow white sunlight the wind whickering, never still. 

Cottages and bothies perched on hills or nestled in valleys the road curves and swerves over crest and through scarp to disappear into a tangle of full trees , a spire betrays its passage through to the next sunlit height . 

The smell of swaledale sheep, cowshit and the fat scent of sheds stuffed with ruminants carried-away by fresh breezes. The Unexpected sickly note of agricultural diesel and municipal bus seems incongruous. 

Sunlight raking over fields, old plough lines, the cut of glacial ice, the line of the land and the hand of prehistoric man are revealed. New hands build on it, their fences and gaudy bales wet in the weak sunlight- they will pass into nothing, leaving no trace for the light to find.

Tourists crinkle in cagools and clumsy too new boots. Aluminium walking sticks, bright neckerchief and wrap around sunglasses which serve to keep the truth out . 

Streams bridges, falls and vistas swerve and rise unexpectedly around the bends of never to be found again ways byways and  lanes. Drovers tracks and beguiling rights of way lie nettle strewn in the valleys, promising clean fresh heights. 

Black sheep pubs, trimmed stone and foresquare stand by the roads, over the far dale and down snakelike roads, make do pubs straggle their barns and outbuildings by sunken lanes. Parking is difficult they flash by; better in anticipation . 

Evening falls on the dale casting one side into night, the other under the spotlight of the purest softest light. Fingers of golden light search over the land picking out a window , a stream, the passing of a distant car. The light makes jewels which flash in defiance of the softly stepping  night . Distant coverts and scarps glow roseate, shadows lengthen and then it is gone. The light falls flat, the day has lost its thunder and the long twilight advances. 

Curtains of rain march down the dale chasing the day before them, the earth smells wet and foetid. Ozone and wet traffic dust lie like a blanket over the one road in. 

Spring sunlight bright green and golden like a torch cast into trees looking for signs of regrowth. Cold wind unexpected in the uplifting bright clarity of late winter reminds us this is only a foretaste of spring 

Cloud shadows bisect the land framing a spire here, a vale there, pictures pass before us, nature is never satisfied or still, coyly revealing its potential, keeping the whole truth to itself. 

The dales flow like transfixed water, lapping up to the edges of scarps. Spumelike, woods  flow and eddy in straggling lines against the crooked dry stone breakwaters and groynes , trees like flotsam dissolve and swirl into sunset lit vistas . High barns stand like lighthouses or stately ships out to sea, straining their anchored foundations against the inexorable rise and fall of the land; a record of change.

Name giving, the rivers scratch out their long lost fame down each dale,  broad valley and high walls mute testament to a lost roaring torrents

Long dead trees now sunken into peat, we walk on treetops. The present sinks inexorably into the future.

I look now to turn impressions into visions, but I’m nervous of painting instances when I might find bigger truths beneath them, if I persist. This week I’m teaching a Masterclass on Cezanne, who rejected the colourful vaporous instances of Impressionism to find a more profound, solid truth behind what he saw.

Perhaps Cezanne is the gate and the key? Picasso thought so, I shall see.




7 thoughts on “Inspiration not Perspiration

  1. As always, Mart, so stimulating and thought provoking. Going through a “Wheredo I go now” period myself. So I’ll put it down in words first. Thank you for the impetus.


  2. Cezanne tried to capture the core, the essential, leaving out the rest. I thought the garden paintings also tried to do this.
    The dales were made by sheep farming, which is why I don’t approve of rewilding and George Monbiot. Humans have made them over the centuries but underneath there is still something wild, just as in Mont Ventoux that Cezanne painted so often, Maybe there always needs to be something human or animal in the Dales pictures.
    Does that help? And I hope the foot is better, I’ve done both metatarsals over the years…


  3. Looking forward to seeing these paintings ,Martin, if they are as beautiful and moving as your words, All my best wishes Claire Fried >


  4. Have missed your views and words, so glad you are back, like Tom have been having the same thoughts after regurgitating tourist stuff here in South of France, and though it sells have decided to stop.

    So let’s see what a couple of weeks without picking up a brush will do to the inspiration cells.
    Take care and I look forward to seeing your new work at somepoint


  5. Thank you, Martin, for your openness and generosity in sharing your thoughts on what must have been a difficult time for you. It gives us a great example of how to get out of frustration with our stale and uninspiring efforts. Your poetic verbal visions have given me inspiration to look deeper and see beyond the superficial and, I am sure will result in even more beautiful paintings from you in the future.
    Best regards, Tadhg O’Scanaill


  6. Had gratefully seized my style bricks & run with them for the Dip Show, constructing paintings like a kid with a Lego set, so why didn’t I want to do More of the Same? Like Delaroche & ‘The execution of Lady Jane Grey’ (NG) – if this was a painter’s block I’d better feel for the edge of it quick, or I’d be putting my head on it. Could be fatal at my age. Making art, pleasant? Haunted & driven to feel for, not just a re-hashing of visual elements, but work guided by an unquiet ‘thought machine’ in search of the elusive new creation. Oh Martin, I’m lucky I just get stuck sometimes, nothing so scary as a painter’s block. Still at the baby-steps stage, I’ve put mine on Alumni. Best X


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