Two new plein air paintings in a memory filled garden

I’ve done two small plein airs in my family’s garden, a place which I have intense memories in. I would spend 2 weeks here every summer as a child and then one week around christmas/new year. So although I haven’t spent lots and lots of time here, I have strong memories of those holidays; saturated childhood adventures.

I don’t think I’ve ever painted somewhere with so many years of memories wrapped up within the landscape. As a result the kind of paintings I’m making are noticeably different, so is the way I’m painting them.

First painting:
Looking out from the studio over the estuary, acrylic on cardboard, 42 x 32cm.

I’m finding myself more wrapped up in my head as I paint. Being in the location and looking at it is a jumping board for leaping into memories I have here, which I record on the painting. So although I was looking at the estuary when I painted this, things crept into the painting which I couldn’t see, relational things to this view. For example, we would see this view as we drove into the house on the way down to visit. I have a strong memory of the song Go Down Moses by Louis Armstrong playing in the car as we drove past the view arriving on the visit, and so those lyrics made their way into the painting.

Another example is the ghosts of the Dutch Elm trees, which my Dad and grandparents tell me were majestic and beautiful, and lined the lane near where they live. Although I never saw them myself, I feel a collective loss and grief for these trees in the places they once were. The trees are a ghostly presence in the landscape, being kept alive by the oral histories passed on to my generation. It’s a beautiful feeling to have a connection to a landscape that goes back beyond myself, that is outside of just me and my own memories.

Nuria mentioned in a crit we were having last week that I always use the colour red for family homes, and she’s right, because in this painting I chose this colour to record the revived feeling of entering the home (bottom right hand corner).

Memories surrounding me as I painted this little study engulfed the actual ‘view’ of the estuary that I intended to paint. It is a reminder that when I paint I am not just recording a section of the landscape, one rectangle shaped view within my field of vision. Instead I am letting everything surrounding me influence the painting, including paying attention to feelings in my body. Painting a sectioned view of a place requires a certain disconnection from the place one is in. A mental hurdle is overcome that translates an all encompassing environment into a cultural entity called a ‘picturesque landscape’. I am painting a landscape and choosing not to jump over this hurdle, instead embracing in the encompassing environment and letting that guide the work that I make. Perhaps to do this I am jumping over some other mental hurdle that I cannot see because I am in it culturally? Perhaps!

Second painting:
Corner of the front garden looking towards the home, acrylic on canvas, 42 x 25cm.

For this second painting I used all of the same materials. I really like painting on primed cardboard – the smoothness of the surface allows for the brushmarks to really show through, and the paint glides across the surface much more smoothly than on canvas. The result is that shapes look sharper, even when minimal paint is applied. For this second painting I left the studio and went to the front lawn.

I didn’t paint for that long because something told me to stop quite soon in. Resisting the urge to cover the whole of the surface in paint and challenging the idea that because I can I ‘should’. It was during this painting that I noticed my plein air painting process has become more informed by memories in the landscape since coming down to Devon. I jotted down in my sketchbook ‘I notice that my paintings are becoming more internal responses to place.’ Painting plein air is a ‘leaping off point’ for painting memories-emotions of the place. I suspect this is because of the visceral memories I have of this place.

It will be interesting to see how this series continues. I plan to do one a day for the next week, with the studies contributing to a larger map-painting of some world building sort. Can’t wait!

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