The Tree of Knowledge

I was painting in Florida recently, as part of the ‘Forgotten Coast paint out’. We had a whole week to paint the people and places along a 100 miles of beautiful coast line – it was fabulous! And something lovely happened…

Looking for a painting location in Port St Joe, I drove around a predominantly African-American neighbourhood, there were great subjects to paint, old wooden houses in different colours, and some interesting characters too. I stopped by a derelict old house and spoke with the neighbours. I wanted to paint, they seemed ok about me being there, so I set up. As I worked, I became aware of a disturbance a few yards down the road, I got scared, there was a fight and a lot of shouting. Soon a police car arrived and then an ambulance. Was it safe to paint here? Should I leave? I was working right bedside my car and could pack up fast if I needed to, but actually, everyone I had spoken to had been friendly to me, so I kept on painting. I finished the piece and left.

"Standing on bricks" 9 x 12" Oil on board

"Standing on bricks" 9 x 12" Oil on board

As I drove away, I spotted a group of people sitting in the shade of a tree, their shape against the brightly lit concrete made a great silhouette – and a great story, a simple image that spoke of culture and community. It took me another two days to find the courage to stop and speak to them; painting houses is one thing, but painting a gang of men is quite another! What if I messed it up and they got offended? When I did finally decide to go back, I drove slowly past them, they waved and smiled and called out to me, so I parked a few yards up the road and watched them in my mirror for a moment. Did I feel brave enough to get out of the car and say hello? I did. And so, I met Chuck, and 5 of his friends. I asked if they would allow me to take a few photos, to see if I might make a painting of them. They were lovely, so warm and welcoming, they really liked the idea of being painted, and I found the perfect viewpoint across the street, in the shade of a disused shop.

Chuck and friends chatting as I paint

Chuck and friends chatting as I paint

Unsure how long the guys would stay, I had to work backwards, starting with the detail of the figures and leaving the background until later (instead of my usual approach; starting with large, rough shapes and slowly working towards the detail). With a quick plan for the design in my sketchbook I started to paint the figure to the right of the group, then worked across the group one at a time, linking the figures together with their shadows or clothes to make one solid dark shape. There was an empty chair to the right of the group, it’s shadow joined up with the other shapes and it seemed somehow to complete the picture, so I made sure I left a space for it on the edge of the canvas. As I painted, the guys took turns to come over and watch me, they were chatty and interested, they knew of the ‘paint out’ but hadn’t really been involved before, now they were intrigued. They kept calling out to each other as I painted them “Hey Leon, she just painted your legs!” this was a bad idea, it inevitably prompted Leon, (or whoever I was trying to paint at that moment) to cross the street to see themselves on the canvas – except they weren’t on there yet, because I’d only painted their legs before they moved! It got difficult, but it added to the fun, it was starting to feel like a party on the street corner, more people gathered, more chatting and questions. I worked fast to catch people when they weren’t looking.

Detail of the group of figures

Detail of the group of figures

Soon a lady arrived, she sat on the edge of the table and joined in the talk under the tree, there was a great atmosphere, a lot of joking and laughter. Then she crossed the road and asked why I hadn’t included her in the picture. I tried to explain that she hadn’t been there when I made the initial plan, but it was futile, it was clear that Elitha was part of the group, so she had to be in the painting. Then another guy arrived and he too had to be included– and so the painting evolved, sort of by accident, documenting the folks that came and went. After a while, I asked them to help me to think of a title for the piece. Straight away someone said, well you have to call it “Jus hangin’ under the tree of knowledge” -  what a great title! They explained that the tree had been named by Dave, a great local character who thought of names for everything. Then they told me Dave had passed away unexpectedly, a couple of weeks ago. They asked me to title the painting in his memory- what a lovely idea, I felt honoured. As I looked again at the painting, I saw the empty chair on the right.
“So that’s Dave’s chair then?”  
“Yes.”

Eventually, the painting was done, it was nearly dark and I was meant to be painting a nocturn session at the lighthouse around the corner so I had to rush off. That night I received a message via my website:

This is Elitha. Thank you for capturing us. It was a beautiful experience.

At the end of the week we put our finished artworks in the gala exhibition. On Saturday evening, I was just leaving when somebody stopped me; “There’s some people here to meet you”. I returned to my display and found two ladies looking at my paintings. Their names were Sedra and Whitney Barnes; Dave’s widow and one of his twin daughters, they had heard about my painting and wanted to see it. They showed me a picture of Dave, we talked about him and how his memory would live on, in the tree and in the painting. Sedra, Whitney and I signed a dedication on the back of the artwork, in memory of David Lee Barnes. Then we handed the painting to Susan, a collector who had chosen to buy the painting after she heard its story.  

"Jus' hangin' under the tree of knowledge" 12 x 16" Oil on board

"Jus' hangin' under the tree of knowledge" 12 x 16" Oil on board

Whitney, me and Sedra with the painting

Whitney, me and Sedra with the painting

A busy few months!

Well, it seems a long time since I updated my blog (again). But I promise it isn't because I've been idle - far from it - I've had a fantastic and slightly frantic few months!

So, I thought I would add some of the paintings I have been making whilst I've been away in Scotland, Ireland, France and Norfolk.

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Winning Colours

A very happy and successful trip to Dublin for a workshop and painting competition. I spent a delightful 5 days painting on location with a wonderful group of people from North Dublin and surrounding areas. 

Over the weekend I took part in 'Painting the Parish', a plein air painting exhibition and competition to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of St Kevin's Church in Dublin City.  I've been focusing on the use of 'warm whites' in recent weeks. With this in mind, I decided not to use titanium white on my palette for the competition on Saturday, instead I chose warm white, warm light yellow and lead tin yellow lemon as my lightest values. I wanted to capture the warmth of the candle light inside the church. It seemed to work well - my finished painting won first prize in the competition!

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Little moments captured in paint

What a fabulous time of year to be painting in Cumbria, the colours this autumn have been particularly striking and I spent a lovely few days teaching on location from Higham Hall last week.

As part of the course I gave a painting demonstration on the shore of Derwent Water, with ever changing light and occasional squally wind it was a scene fraught with classic plein air challenges!

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Art in the Open

A brilliant trip to Wexford for 'Art in the Open'. I met some amazing painters and shared lots of laughs with lovely people. And that's the best bit about the whole thing, the people. Yes, Wexford is beautiful and the painting locations are always full of inspiring material, but the thing that really makes Plein Air festivals wonderful is all the plein air painters. They're just such a great bunch. Always game for a laugh, no drama, just down-to-earth, genuine, out going, friendly people. And where else on earth can you discuss the finer points of easel design for a whole hour, without anyone getting bored?!

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Shropshire Calling...

I had a lovely surprise this week when I was called by BBC Radio Shropshire. They wanted to have a little chat about art and how to get started with drawing or painting. You can listen to it for the next few days by using the link in the post and forwarding through the programme to 2 hours 15 minutes. 

It was on Jim Hawkins Show on Friday 20th February at 11:15am, you can listen again on their website if my link doesn't work for your browser. 

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A late night conversation

I sometimes talk about how a painting can only be ‘steered’ so far by the painter, then we have to stop, step back and ask the painting what it needs from the painter. This two way ‘conversation’ with the artwork made me scrape off a big chunk of a ‘finished’ painting this week – and I’m so glad that it did! Here’s what happened…

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A trip to Tuscany

I went to stay with a painter friend in Tuscany last month. After a few rainy days in the mountains we found some sunshine by the sea in the beautiful Sestri Levante. A traditional Italian town with earth coloured houses built right up to the edge of the stunning 'Bay of Silence'.

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Cloud studies

Back in August I spent a couple of days painting at Heybridge Basin on the east coast. The tail end of a hurricane was forecast to arrive the following day so I decided to get out and make some studies of the gathering clouds. These two studies were made whilst hanging onto my easel in increasingly strong winds

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Pintar Rapido Amsterdam

... this view of the distinctive Westerkerk seen from a classic city street in the beautiful (and slightly quieter) Jordaan region. The weather conditions were very helpful as there was a bright but incredibly flat grey sky all day. This allowed me to work on the painting for a lot longer than usual...

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My painting won first prize in the 'quick draw' competition at Art In The Open!

I'm so pleased that my painting won first prize in the 2 hour timed painting competition in Wexford yesterday. 

Participating artists were required to complete a painting of Wexford's Selskar Square in the time allowed. Finding a good outlook I took shelter from the torrential rain in a restaurant doorway with a view down the square.

I decided to paint a cafe with a bright orange awning in front of a deep blue house. I hoped that the complimentary colour combination would brighten an otherwise grey scene. As the rain got heavier I could see the colours reflected...

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Pintar Rapido...what a buzz

Well, what a weekend that was! My first attempt at Plein Air painting in London, with 501 other painters for company...

Last week I took a last minute decision to sign up for the second annual 'paint out' on the streets of Kensington and Chelsea and I'm so glad I decided to go, I had such a great time and learned so much in my 3 days in London.

So what is a 'paint out'? The idea has come from America where they are very popular. Basically, a bunch of artists go out and paint on location for a day, then they frame their paintings for an immediate exhibition where prizes are awarded for the best pictures and members of the public can come to buy the fresh local paintings; often before the paint has even dried! 

I had a lovely day painting on Saturday and met some wonderful artists and buyers at our exhibition on Sunday at Chelsea Old Town Hall. The excitement of painting outside, trying to capture the wind and weather on canvas is heightened further by the presence of so many other painters; and the pressure of an 8pm deadline to present your finished work. It all makes for a very intense painting experience that just cannot be matched in the studio.

I will definitely be taking part in plenty more of these events - in fact, I enjoyed it so much that I'm thinking of going to Wexford, Ireland next week for a whole week of painting at 'Art in the Open'!

The pictures below show the stages of my painting from Chelsea Embankment on the stormy Saturday morning...

The finished painting

The finished painting

View from the embankment - including other painters!

View from the embankment - including other painters!

Adding some colour

Adding some colour

Blocking in lights and darks

Blocking in lights and darks

Composing the blues

Bluebell glade 24x18cm

Bluebell glade 24x18cm

This study is smaller and was painted faster than the first one, because of this, it has more energy and movement in the brushwork. I returned to the same spot as before but this time with the intention to focus on the composition. I climbed a bank and discovered the 'S' shape of the path winding up the hill, I liked the way that the path was striped with light and shade. The greens turned out to be the hardest part - so many hues yet all the same value!