I don’t paint commissions…
I don’t paint commissions generally, because in painting by request you accept responsibility for the clients expectations, risk ‘not connecting ‘ with the subject and being unsure of the outcome. All stressful.
This commission was to paint the view from The London Eye to include on the right, the Treasury where the clients met, with Westminster Bridge and the sweep of the Thames on the left. Having painted this subject many times, in many sizes and formats, I could see that this would extend what I have previously achieved and would therefore be a challenge.
I said yes.
Painting a watercolour on this scale is not something I can dive straight into. I have to get my head around the many considerations of size, composition, lighting, process, the ‘order of events’, that I suppose can be called ‘having a plan’. Planning takes time, largely in my head, working mainly on the ‘order of events’. With a certain amount of familiarity of subject it soon became clear that while I had to work up to painting on my 3ft x 4ft board once again, the biggest challenge by far would be the added streets and buildings to include the Treasury. I had to let go of the importance of the Treasury for the clients in order to depict it naturally without feature, nestled among the other buildings in Whitehall. I see painting buildings as a bit like painting portraits, in that they have to be ‘right’…..because if they’re wrong, they’re soooo wrong.
I think of the quote: ‘ A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth’, by John Singer Sargent. In painting Big Ben and his friends, its important to me to not paint the mouth wrong, because if you do, it just screams at you that you failed to get it right! The painted form may just be a collection of drawn and painted marks, dashes and splashes with lost and found edges, but they have to have landed in the right place.
Onto practical considerations, first comes the stretching of the paper. Handling a 3ft x 4ft piece of wet watercolour paper and turning it over on the board to tape it down, is a bit daunting and again has to be ‘worked up to’! It demands space, time and coffee.
The process begins with the background cityscape, placing and balancing marks and tonal blocks that suggest buildings without detail, laid out in their patterns that form believable streets. I don’t draw on the paper with pencil, I use dilute watercolour and a dip pen to gradually map out my composition, working from the background to the foreground, using a sheet of plastic to cover and protect the unpainted paper while I work. Once what I consider to be the whole of the background is in and is totally dry I then paint the sky over the top, which involves re-wetting the whole area and dropping in colour, managing the white light of the sun and lifting the shafts of sunlight as the wash dries. Again this demands more space, more time and more coffee.
Once I am in the foreground it becomes a matter of painting portraits, before at last diving into the water and pulling the whole thing together. When you get up close to these large paintings, as a whole they exceed the visual field, so I like to make them give again, by including small passages written by hand in watercolour paint of poetic phrases and factual detail particular to the subject, in this case almost hidden amongst the buildings and ripples on the water.
“Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
William Wordsworth: Poems, in Two Volumes: Sonnet 14
“I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.”
Philip Larkin: The Whitsun Weddings, 1964