Behind the canvas

ToadstoolWhat lies behind my paintings?

Behind most of my larger paintings lies a lot of dreaming (perhaps if I called it incubating ideas it would sound better) and a lot of thinking and a lot of work. I have a special love for open water and woodlands. It is woodlands that I am going to focus on here, maybe I'll share some of the inspiration behind my waterscapes another time.

There are two woodlands that I visit a lot. Rifts Wood in the Saltburn area and Coatham Wood in the Stockton-on-Tees area. Rifts Wood is an old deciduous wood in a valley full of squirrels and leaf mould. Coatham wood is a fairly recent planting (1999), slowly but surely it is teaching me to love the conifer woodlands too with their soft needle carpet and scattered toadstools. deer track

All the time that we are alive we are learning, whether we realise it or not, that's why it matters so much what we feed to our conscious and subconscious minds. All the time I am in the woodlands and thinking about the woodlands I am gathering and storing information which I can use in my artwork.

Sometimes of course this information gathering is much more conscious and intentional. Over the years I've built up a tremendous amount of material that I call on when I'm painting. Photographs, video, sketches, plasticine models for lighting reference, skulls, bark and twigs, rocks, bits of fur and feathers and most importantly a vast bank of observations, memories and experiences tempered with empathy.

In today's world of digital photography it is all too easy to rely on photographs to record images to work from. I certainly take a lot of photos but I've found that for me photos have their limitations as reference material. If I just rely on copying a photo the resulting picture is often not what I wanted to paint. Sometimes it is true that I can think so much into a copy of a photo that the painting becomes much much more than the reference material - that's what happens when I can sense what animals are thinking when I paint their portraits from photos. However I tend to think that if one of my photos already fully tells the story I have in mind then what is the point of painting it again? Sunlit woodland

Summer roebuckVideo is sometimes much more effective than photos to capture an idea to refer back to later. This is especially true if I am trying to paint something like a waterfall, a moving animal or wind brushing the trees or grass. These are all things where the pattern and flow of movement is much more important than a detailed freeze frame.

There's often not time or opportunity to sketch animals when I see them. Either because I don't have time or because they don't give me time. While out walking the with my dog this morning I was about 20 paces away from a superb roe buck. But there were only a few seconds to look at him before he looked at me and decided I wasn't the kind of company he wanted to keep!

deer with tripletsSometimes I sketch animals from memory later and the more I know about the appearance, habits and behaviour of the subject the easier this becomes. Of course there will be things I don't remember right but at least I have a record of the things that seemed important to me at the time. I drew these roe deer later in the same day when I had seen them, the dark shadows under the trees seemed very important because they gave the deer a refuge to retreat to so they could enjoy being in the open. I've never seen another roe doe with three youngsters, twins are more usual. I used a biro to draw with and this stopped me getting too hung up on getting everything perfect.

Close up of badgers pawsIt can be hard to capture all the detail that I want from an animal that is at a distance or only seen fleetingly. Whilst it is possible to fill in details from other peoples images it is rare that they have the precise angle that I want - and if they did simply copying would infringe copyright. Dead animals are a marvellous, even if vaguely macabre, source of information allowing much more detailed photography and painstaking sketches. Sometimes my sadness for the animal deters me from actually recording the information but I tell myself that at least my drawings and photos may bring something useful from the death. The paws in this photo are from a badger roadkill victim.

There are times like with the badgers paws when there is already something specific that I want to know from a find. But I can never know what information I might want to know tomorrow, or the next day, or next year. That why I end up with many many photos and sketches just in case. I haven't yet found a use for many of the photos and sketches that I have, but I would much sooner have them than be thinking "if only" at some later date! Once I drove past a roadkill stoat and even years later I am annoyed with myself that I didn't take the opportunity to stop.

Spirit of the moment When all that is said, to me the best thing about woodlands is to explore them, to feel them, to smell them, to live them, to follow the deer trails, the river crossings and even the rat runs, to puzzle out the animal tracks, droppings and stripped pine cones each with a story to tell, to wait while a yearling roe deer comes to see what I am, to sit and watch a buck fraying the trees or to sketch while a tiny hunting shrew scurrys around my feet.

I have found nothing else to compare with that ripple of life that flows back into a woodland as my disturbance heals over and the wild things accept me, half forget me and close back in hospitably around me. When you look at one of my paintings of woodland I hope you can feel that this is the place where I really feel at home.