For me, this painting represents a step forward and a loosening of the creative ties that bind. It may not seem that remarkable – three plums on an asymmetrical handmade plate can only say so much! – but it’s not a result I would have been happy with a year ago.
My ambition in still life painting is to achieve certain things: accurately representing what lies before me isn’t one of them. You know what a plum looks like; nothing I can tell you about a plum will make it more profound; however painstakingly I try to reproduce the plum in all its shades and textures and colours it will never look as beautiful as the plum that sits there on that off-white plate.
Instead I offer you my graphic interpretation of a plum. It suggests a certain plum-ness, but like the gages I painted a few weeks ago, you wouldn’t mistake it for the real thing. None of this is new, but what makes it a breakthrough for me is that I didn’t try to tidy it all up.
I thought the red shape behind the plate of plums enhanced the composition, even though it represents nothing concrete in real life. I flattened the perspective of the surface that the plate sits on even though the plate itself is somewhat elliptical. And I painted a line across the top that my art teacher in school would have said was a compositional error had he been interested enough to say anything at all!
So, although this isn’t perfect it is exactly how I wanted it to be, knowing that it wasn’t perfect. When that happens, as the composer Jean Sibelius once said, it’s as if God has thrown down pieces of mosaic from the floor of heaven and asked you to reassemble them on earth. When the hundred small decisions go well in your own small picture, as Felix Scheinberger has it, it’s almost as if you’d discovered the pattern in heaven’s mosaic! I hope you agree.
Every year in October I travel to Frankfurt for the book fair. It’s an inspiring time to be in Germany. The days are often warm, as if the summer can’t bear to let go, but the trees are already starting to turn red, gold and brown.
How often have I picked up a particularly beautiful leaf and put it somewhere – intending to draw or paint it later – then forgetten about it, finding a brown and shrivelled thing weeks later. This time of year is transience made visible, when everything changes from day to day, nature drawing down the shutters for winter.
The book fair is an international expression of creativity. The world’s publishers set out their stalls in five or six halls, some with three floors per hall. Those of us who are mainly English-speaking can only feel humbled walking through, say, the Norwegian or Dutch sections, seeing books by writers largely unknown outside of their own languages. There is so much that we can never know.
On the theme of creativity, this morning I read an interview with the conductor, Simon Rattle, in the SueddeutscherZeitung magazine. He described how, when conducting, the music is felt in every part of the body. He mentioned a conversation between Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn. “How are you, Andre?” asked Bernstein. “OK,” Previn replied, “But I have terrible backache.” “Really?” Bernstein gasped, “I had no idea you were so successful!”
When I was younger no-one talked of seasonal affective disorder: a cynic would say that giving something a name enables someone to sell you something to alleviate it. Whether it is real or just a way to pharmaceuticalise that feeling that winter may never end, it is the case that many of us endure winter rather than enjoy it.
Where I live, with its typical northern European sea climate, the peaks and troughs of the seasons are somewhat levelled, but when I was growing up in the north of England and later, living in the south of Germany, the seasons were more clear cut.
And winter brings its own rewards. What could be better than a crisp morning with the frost on the grass and a thin mist hanging in the trees; or that peculiar silence when you wake to discover that it has snowed overnight; or even a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon with a log fire and a DVD of The Big Country or that book you’ve been meaning to read?
I saw these cobnuts and thought their papery husks would lend themselves to the looser approach to still life painting that I’m trying to develop. The words, taken from The Thrush by Edward Thomas:
I must remember
What died in April
And consider what will be born
Of a fair November
actually refer to memory, language and perception, but could easily be a call to mindfulness, to living in the moment, to appreciating the seasons as they arrive with their gains and losses. After all, what else is there to do?
So that’s probably it for summer: the evenings have acquired a chill edge as soon as the sun drops behind the trees; the gardens and hedges have that exhausted, end-of-the-season look about them.
Last week a neighbour placed a pot containing an extravagant sunflower by her front door, its big bright face a last celebration of summer colours before the winter comes. I was inspired by this to try an abstract pastel drawing of the three sunflowers wilting in a vase in our hallway, something a little more free-form – perhaps in the spirit of Joan Mitchell (woefully under-represented at the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show, I thought).
In the end though, these chaps came out looking more art deco than New York School, perhaps with a memory of 1960s curtain fabric. I’m not sure how successful this was: perhaps acrylic or even watercolour would have been a better choice of medium than pastel, like this from a few years ago:
or this one from Kate Osborne. Anyway, I offer it as a reminder of the summer just passed before the season of fallen leaves, quinces and russets.