A recurrent theme of my paintings (for a couple of years now) has been light coming through windows and what started as an aesthetic fixation gradually revealed itself to be the very way that I was exploring this theme in a far more universal sense.
Earlier versions of this theme were explored, oh-so interesting to me now, via the ‘religious’ setting of the window of Santa Croce (Florentine Window), then the more natural setting of light coming in through the glass ceiling of a greenhouse and even viewed from the garden looking in (The Orangery Window) and as light ‘invited in’ to a very heavily curtained room through the deliberate action of opening the window (Letting light in). Only now as I write this, and draw comparisons between these paintings over the two-year time span, do I feel that I am fully grasping some of the layers of what I have been sub-consciously playing with and one of the things I enjoy most about the metaphorical aspect of my own work is that this process is far from from finite and teaches me things about my journey long after the paint is dry.
Whilst passable compositions resulted from these earlier works, I was conscious of feeling dissatisfied with where I had got to with the underlying theme. The hard-edged ‘window’, it occurred to me, seemed to represent our physical world; the light being the spiritual aspect and yet the marriage of the two felt awkward, like a couple who were so at odds with each other that they were no longer talking over breakfast.
Far more successful, I felt, was The Yellow Window painting of earlier this year; one which carried me away on a wave of bliss as I worked on it and continues to make me smile whenever I look at it. So, what underlies this new bliss-filled response to the same old theme? Well, here is light not just ‘coming in’ so much as collaborating with the hard edges of the window frame, finding its golden equal within physicality in the form of the sunshine-yellow window surround, the muslin curtain and so, in some sense, met halfway by the world of physicality. Those hard edges of the physical window frame soften markedly as light fills the room and becomes caught up in the curtain and there is no doubt that this burst of morning sunlight ‘makes the moment’ and yet the solidity of what is a very ‘real’ and physical subject here does not allow for a flight of spiritual abstraction; this painting is so ‘real’ that it is almost a photograph and that is core to its message. This is light being grounded into the physicality of the earth, held by the very leaves of the tree and blades of the grass outside, then flooding into the hard-edged world of man-embellished human existence through what is the undeniably beautiful Gothic window frame of Woodborough Hall in Nottingham, the place where I experienced this memorable burst of radiance on the morning of my niece’s wedding.
For this is obviously no church and yet the Gothic style of window has been used to embellish a living space – and why not, is there any reason? For, even as I write this, I realise anew that the Gothic arch was man’s early attempt to meet the spiritual half-way in a place where the craftmanship of mediaeval stonemasons released potential from solid stone through physical sweat and toil to create cathedrals of light on the earth. Such cathedrals (and I’ve loved them all my life) always bring to mind Nottingham’s own D.H. Lawrence on the subject of the Gothic arch which, as compared with the doggedly repetitious and striving yet getting nowhere ‘up and down again’ of the Norman arch, “leapt up at heaven and touched the ecstasy and lost itself in the divine”. Just as the Gothic arch tends to sprout and multiply branch-like towards the heavens, celebrating the organic in all of its embellishment along the way, its solid stone column seems to plunge deep beneath the flagstones like the trunk of a mature tree and in a way that always suggests to me that there must be a veritable root system beneath. Such cathedrals were the very vehicle of ‘light being grounded’ from the heavens to the earth, in the form of a zillion fragments of light-filled coloured glass, just as a tree catching the light of a sunset in its leaves draws light down into the ground (a theme I’ve explored before) . I am suddenly brought back, by this previously unnoticed coincidence in the shape of the window frame, to my Florentine painting and find it newly reconciled in my journey as well as understanding more profoundly than ever why the Gothic arch has always been my favourite window surround, in any setting (and nothing to do with religion).
Last month, I returned to the subject of ‘light through a window’ yet again with Parisienne Window; a composition I could hardly wait to put to canvas from the moment we first stepped into our hotel room to discover the most exquisite afternoon sunlight held in the folds of billowing white curtains at the start of our holiday.
As before, there was a ‘knowing’ at a deeper than conscious level, as I embarked upon this painting, that here was another layer on the theme of ‘light coming in’ to be explored and yet I hardly knew what it would reveal until it was finished and hanging in its frame, so engaged was I in the act of painting it.
Once more, the painting process was a bliss-filled experience as I played with the nuances of light and shade, made many subtle adjustments to the light coming through and reflecting off the folds of curtain in what could so easily have been such an intensely light-flooded window as to have lost all subtly of tone against the hard dark edges of the window…and yet, as I considered the subject more closely, even these were far from ‘black’.
There were moments of dilemma along the way as my starting brief to myself was to convey intense radiance pouring into a dark-edged window and yet remaining uncompromised on this would have lost me so many of the details that I longed to include in my picture: a hint of the spiral curls of the balcony, the subtle texture of the gauzy fabric and many of the middle tones that I knew could be so deliciously portrayed. Like life itself, the full and uncompromising longing for such perfection, such merging of it all into purest white light would have lost me the joy of these physical embellishments and there would have been no picture at all in what was left for me to play with.
What resulted described itself to me immediately as ‘a dance between dark and light’ and, like any half-decent dance, there were flourishes and moments of utter flow, slightly more defined moments and a weaving in and out that was hard to keep track of, to give definition to or label.
The darker tones, those verging towards blackest-black, were what made the composition work; making the radiance seem…well, more radiant, and yet there was so much enjoyment to be experienced in between and I am still discovering this painting as it switches on new colour effects under different room circumstances; there is nothing hard-defined about it as it reinterprets itself in every moment. The joy is in the playfulness. The discovery. The experiencing of it all.
Again, just like life itself.
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As a footnote, I’ve been intending to write this post for a couple of weeks now yet, for one reason and another, hadn’t got around to it. It was this morning, as I finally considered writing it, that I perceived the perfection in a delay that meant this now coincided with the experience of some of the very contrast that I give lip-service to above, having woken with a small knot of anxiety in my stomach to confront a less-than-perfect set of circumstances in my day. Nothing too serious, I should add; just one of those ‘why did this have to happen now’ moments in amongst the flow that we tend to feel that we could do without and yet a timely reminder that ‘this is life’ in all its glory.
As I woke up harbouring this feeling of anxiety, it suddenly struck me that I was experiencing my own dance of dark and light. That by seeing the overall picture, and that it is a dance, I get to experience the beauty of the whole, to appreciate the subtle folds in between and to experience some of the twists and turns, the texture and the physicality of life. Its why we came here, what we chose to come here for, after all.
It occurred to me (and I’m not suggesting this is what happens but…), if I was a soul that had queued up for some time to have the earth experience, to know what contrast feels like, from the perspective of such a thing being otherwise unknowable, what would I be hoping to experience when I got here? Would the ‘dark’ challenges of juggling my finances or making my domestic circumstances run like clockwork be the very thing I set this whole life-experience up for or would I be hoping for so much more than that? Wouldn’t I be holding out for some curly embellishment, some texture, some middle shades of experience, some beautiful juxtaposition of light and shade? Isn’t it possible that those rather mundane challenges that life has to offer just keep coming and coming at us as some sort of compromise version of ‘light and shade’ when the soul’s longing to experience something, just anything at all, seeks expression and yet our own fear prevents the more playful range of experiences from being allowed in?
From that perspective, I suddenly find that today’s source of anxiety transforms from being ‘fear’ into a source of ‘adventure’ and some sort of proof of life.
The perspective I’ve gained, from having stepped through the very process with paintbrush in hand, is that we get to choose each brushstroke, every juxtaposition of dark and light, the sheer depth of that contrast and where or when we place these features on the canvas. We can meet the light half way, take steps to invite it in and yet still relish – without guilt, fear or judgement – the very beautiful way that the light comes through whatever blinds, shutters or curtains we decide to hang at our window. One things I always notice on these bright sunny mornings is that, even with the shutters tightly closed, the light is still there, seeping in around all the edges.
So we get to CHOOSE. That’s not to say we get to eliminate contrast altogether; without it, there’s no picture (=no life) and we can be sure a full range of experience will manifest one way or another, because the soul so longs to experience it. Yet when we choose for ourselves where to place the folds in the curtain, as I did with my paintbrush, (which is the equivalent of deciding where to focus our attention and becoming conscious creators of the way these details take shape on the canvas), what results is something we can metaphorically bear to hang on our wall and look at every day with no small sense of accomplishment and joy.