Skies and clouds are far from new subjects for me but my latest are a detour away from oil on canvas…to the use of oil on paper, something I’d never tried before. With no expectation as to how successful the two could be when put together, yet prepared to find out, I primed up some ‘oil painting’ paper, which is textured with cross-woven fibres, using pale grey gesso and set to work.
Unsurprisingly, I found that oil paints work very differently on this kind of surface, but really liked the effect as I quickly found (as I was working almost entirely ‘dry’ using the bare minimum of linseed oil) that it became almost powdery on hitting the surface and could be blended in entirely new ways. This powdery quality works particularly well when your subject is clouds, allowing for extremely subtle blending of colour in a way that can be built up and even taken off again using a dry brush used in softly abrasive circular motions…it was all extremely satisfying and experimental and gave a new lease of life to techniques that had otherwise become fairly predictable to me when I work on canvas.
My instinct, even before starting, was to rough-tear the edges of the paper to create some sort of ‘old manuscript’ feel to the painting surface. The end results, with their slightly raggedy appearance and a small degree of curling and undulation, which I decided to encourage rather than stretching the paper absolutely taut as I worked (although I did fasten it to a support board using strong double-sided tape to keep it generally flat), give the impression of being small portions of something larger; the hurriedly-pocketed plunder torn from an old canvas or tattered fresco acquired by some magpie-eyed opportunist on their travels. There’s no doubt that I relished the implied sense of ‘a story’ that seemed to hover behind these self-created fragments of art as I worked on them. To emphasise their fragmented and seemingly timeworn state still further, I’ve framed them in a whole new way for me, floating in a raised position within pristine-edged box frames that act as a foil to their raggedy quality every bit as much as a sturdy museum cabinet does to a fragile piece of parchment.
I also feel that that these little portions of sky, these fragments whose torn edges suggest they were once part of a larger ‘whole’, serve to highlight a truth that underlies the depiction of “sky” in art across many centuries of painting. The fact is that, when you take the sky portion of any painting out of the context of that painting – away from the buildings, landscape, fashion and narrative that act as the historical place-marker in almost every piece of art that there has ever been – that painted depiction of sky (however tiny or fragmented) remains somehow complete in and of itself, still perfectly intact and relevant to us in our present-day human experience; the instantly recognisable and profoundly familiar backdrop of our own day-to-day existence and the one constant across so many years of ever-changing human circumstances. I can walk the endless corridors of some of the biggest galleries in the world and still find myself, primarily, focussed upon all of the wonderful skies that have been depicted across time, studying them in awe and relating to them profoundly as the one subject that can never be tired of or lose relevance to the soul of humanity. Constable considered the sky to be “the chief organ of sentiment” in a painting and I would concur in the sense that I find paintings that lack “sky” or, its messenger, “light” somewhat dead wood to the soul. Implicit in this is the feeling that when we make stabs at capturing something of the sky’s qualities in physical form, as with brush dipped in paint,we are really tugging gently at something much bigger, something much more infinite of which the sky is the closest visual representation that we have in our physical world.
A love of “sky” – a fundamental desire to celebrate it by recreating small portions of it through the medium of paint – is a core motivation for me as an artist and, losing all the trappings of ages, all the other preoccupations that have cluttered and filled the foreground of art and of life (in essence, tearing them away to leave just fragments of sky…), we can see that this motivation has always been there, as evidenced by this one steady constant – the very subject of “sky” – that has held artists rapt for countless centuries. These fragments of mine serve as a reminder that, as we process and rewrite so much of what it means to be human, tearing away what no longer works and with all of the inherent anxiety that comes with starting anew, there are still constants to be found and that they are steady, timeless and magnificent.
To find out more about these paintings – and see even more of my skies – you can go to www.helenwhite.org.
The 10 best… skies in art – The Guardian