Painting is a moving thing. Describing that movement with words is difficult. I hope I can capture the major twists and turns of this piece with the help of some studio shots taking over whenever the words conk out.
The canvas is Belgian linen. The scent of Belgian linen is up there in my pantheon of all-time favourite smells. It’s the olfactory equivalent of a cockerel crowing in the morning. A little bit of oil paint and it’s gone. I left the canvas untouched for weeks to hold on to that scent and packed it when I left for Italy last summer.
It was so hot in Italy that when I finally started to paint on it with a grey-green oil wash it felt like I was doing it simply to cool myself down. I had an idea to draw thin lined structures on top of the grey green. I liked the swoosh of momentum that was left when I wiped some of it with a rag. For me painting is like boxing or dancing. I remember circling the vertical space from the edges with some pink and yellow shapes, just feeling out the canvas. Then I left it to dry for a week.
When I returned to it I faced it horizontally and started filling in areas with a dark ultramarine, masking elements I liked. Then came a dark green that I didn’t feel particularly comfortable using and sure enough it didn’t work. Feeling a bit deflated with the piece I turned it into the wall for several days.
In the meantime I went to the Uffizi in Florence to see the centre panel of Paolo Uccello's "Battle Of San Romano”. As on a previous visit I was completely buzzed up on the abstract essence in this painting. I spent days just drawing some of the shapes. The large white F-shape in the left hand corner and the small blue dots were a direct result of that trip.
All this time I was walking my dog every day through an olive grove and over this dried river bed. It was late in the summer and I saw some really thirsty trees. Clouds forming in the sky promised rain that never came. The tree structure on the left and the clouds came from these walks. The blanket of Easter Lilly hot green was almost like a visual wish to help the trees, like a rain dancer willing relief. The canvas was vertical again, creating the drips to the edge. I covered a large area in grey and let it dry for the trip home.
The colours shifted dramatically as soon as I started to work on it back in the studio in Ireland. I added a large area of this hot dry pink, a colour that mopped up all the heat stored in the under-layers. Then came a buoyant blue structure influenced by some drawings of the armour in the Uccello battle scene followed by an imaginary grey shadow.
I couldn’t get that shadow right and changed it about four times over the following weeks. Then the orange structures appeared. They transferred from a large canvas I was working on at the same time. Eventually they too got an abstract shadow shape - this time in lemon yellow. All these shadow shapes came from looking at the work of Sassetta (14th century Sienna, Italy). I liked the lemon shape so much that I added a few more for balance.
At that stage the work suddenly tells you what it wants, what colours it needs and where to put them. I knew I was nearly there but it felt too dry. I remembered the last days in Italy when the rains finally came. The dry river bed filled with water and everything felt jubilant in the trees, even the stones sang. This must have been in my mind when, a few days later, I painted the blue at the bottom to cool the work down. Yet somehow the blue shape felt too static. It didn't bring the cooling force the piece needed. I went back to the studio one night, turned the canvas vertical again and painted the final swoosh of blue. I left it to dry, then rubbed some of it off with a rag to help bring out the work underneath.
An Italian Water Scene” is an unusually descriptive title for me but it captures the direct narrative of this piece. It is an accumulation of an environment over a period of months.
The painting will be on show at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin and at Sotheby's, London as part of the upcoming Irish Art Auction at Sotheby's on the 27 Sept 2017 in London.
| Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin | 14 - 16 Sept 2017
|Sotheby's, London | 22 - 26 Sept 2017