When I paint I’m a workman with a little skill in a little area, and happy in my work. The act of painting allows me to be an exceptionally simple man.
A Social Circle of the Mind
Wallace Stevens’s short poem, “Tea,” comes to mind when I think back to being a teenager and discovering oil painting. It contains images of a bleak outdoors where leaves run “like rats,” and a warm interior where lamp-light falls “on pillows, / Of sea-shades and sky-shades, / Like umbrellas in Java.” Through the wintry experience of early adolescence, painting provided an escape into summer light. The art master who gave me my first canvas had studied at the Slade and in Paris but now spent his days running the art room off a crypt beneath a school chapel silhouetted against the rain that swept across the South Downs. My memory of this gloomy mentor gives him a face of paint: vermillion jowls, mauve lips, linseed oil eyes, flake white hair, burnt sienna pipe. He said all my paintings would darken to black, yet his domain was a haven of acceptance and opportunity. He showed me slides of paintings by unimaginable beings from my European heritage: Fra Angelico, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Pieter Breughal, Caravaggio, Johannes Vermeer, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Rosa Bonheur, Berthe Morisot, Georges Seurat. I still have a faded family tree of many of them in my copy of From Giotto to Cézanne. Even now I delude myself that my family will want to spend a holiday afternoon trekking the cobbled lanes of Père-Lachaise in search of the tomb of Delacroix. I still make new discoveries. In recent years, these have included Gerhard Richter, Isabel Bishop and Nicolae Grigorescu, and I continue to look out for painters beyond Europe. Along with writers and musicians, painters provide a social circle of the mind.
A State of Grace
The slide in my head as I think of where and when I learned to paint is Piero della Francesca’s “Baptism,” but Cézanne was my first inspiration, perhaps because his Provençal sunshine contrasted with the Sussex winter. Magritte suggested I paint chess pieces and floating apples. Hopper showed me the effect of sunlight on a bare wall. Dream worlds, foreign lands: anything triumphed over that Prussian blue darkness beyond the art room. On a revisit to the school I told the art master that I’d given up painting to write books. “Just as bad,” he said. I rediscovered painting in parenthood. The smell of oils quickens the pulse. I’m in a state of grace. Time and space change dimension. Coffee stands cold. To paint is to concentrate. I’m intent only on applying paint. I dab away, try new combinations, step back, lean in, look, and, though forever confronted with that old school report phrase, “could do better,” it’s done. Maybe that’s why my subjects include people in a similar state of concentration, where they want to be, doing what they want to do. It’s pleasant to witness the self-possessed: playing an instrument, or dancing, talking, eating, watching. But I also paint because it helps me to see better. When a painting is in progress I try to view the subject as if seen for the first time.
Why I Paint
Painting is a private experience but extends me into the world. I’m increasingly drawn to paint people as well as places, and not just people concentrating on a skill. Painting a portrait is a form of intimacy. This is you, I think. This is your face. These are your eyes. This is a hint of what is behind them. This will outlast us. Occasionally I wonder what will become of my paintings. Some will be destroyed or painted over; some will stay in the family. I imagine a painting of mine in a curiosity shop among objects from lives long gone. A stranger enters from a street glittering with rain. Above the musty furniture, the painting catches their eye. They buy it on impulse, hang it at home, examine the brushstrokes and ponder it as the work of a once-living person in an unknown place. Maybe I paint to frame the ephemeral. When I paint I’m a workman with a little skill in a little area, and happy in my work. The act of painting allows me to be an exceptionally simple man.