For several years, I lived in an old Victorian house with a buddleia tree in the front garden. It grew thick and very tall, right up beyond the height of the bedroom above, and its leaves were darkest green but its claret-coloured blossom was quite stunning, attracting butterflies galore. I both loved and bewailed this tree; its position in front of my bay window meant that, at its summer thickest, it blocked precious south-westerly sunlight out of the room I spent most of my time in (my occupation being mostly freelance editorial work) yet I loved the way its leaves curled against the glass as though they were trying to get inside, watching butterflies at such close-quarters I could almost have been one of them. Since I was a girl, I’d always loved to imagine myself miniscule so that I could take myself deeply into the branches and foliage of trees (I was always the one sat closest to the Christmas tree, lost in its secret world) and this felt somewhat the same; like a portal into another world that was oblivious to me watching it. It also buffered me from the sounds and sights of the extremely busy road I was living on with its double-decker buses and lorries endlessly passing by.
Yet the exponential growth of this tree did go a little heywire come growing season, gobbling up all the daylight from my room until it became dreary-dark. Each year, I diligently pruned it back to make some room for the sunlight, only to watch the gaps close in and the room become subdued again. One year, I asked a tree surgeon (who had come to lop the top off a wind-damaged fir in my back garden) to cut its thick trunk back almost to the roots…and was immediately struck down with remorse at what I had done to the ugly stump that was left of it…yet it only budded and sprouted more determinedly than ever, springing back to the just same size as always and was there looking in at me through every window pane by the time its blossom had appeared.
It wasn’t this particular, indefatigable buddleia or the sheer determined life-force of it that I had in mind when I set to work painting “All aglow” a few weeks ago; it was another tree entirely, the same one that provided inspiration for “Brilliance” last year. We pass this one often, on one of our favourite walks, in the front garden of one of those aspirational old farmhouses with such a homely symmetry to the sash windows arranged around a central porch full of wellington boots that you can so easily see yourself living in it, enjoying wide open views across unspoilt countryside rolling down to a glistening river and a watermill at the rear. From many encounters, on so many memorable family walks, I have come to know this buddleia well. Caught at just the right moment on a late-Spring morning with a breeze as soft as a whisper, the sunlight pours through its dense branches and lush dancing cones of purply bloom, cascading sparkles and unexpected pools of lemony light into its own foliage and onto the vivid grassy bank below.
In fact, I hadn’t even given my old buddleia a single recent thought until the day I scanned the newly dry painting to post on my website, which was last Monday, which is also when I happened to post my last blog about artist John Everett Millais and mentioned his painting “Mariana“. Studying this painting…it suddenly hit me on my walk…put me in mind of my old house; more, Mariana reminded me so much of me, all those years ago, alone and heavy-hearted, nursing an increasingly painful back, stitching my “Morris” tapestries in the leaded bay window of a room with Pre-Raphaelite inspired wallpaper, my candles lit on the duller days and with the leaves of the tree outside unfurled against the window panes, turning to brown with the seasons. Back then, I was forever waiting for someone to return…for life to “come home” and meet me where I felt I was at the time, which was (on almost every level) compromised, frustrated, limited and stuck.
And then the light burst through – the new painting said it all. The leaves suddenly parted and light came flooding in and suddenly I had the best of both worlds; all that rich, dense, interesting, often messy and unruly, even sometimes contrasty and shadowy “foliage” of a life well-and-truly lived yet also all the sheer radiance of life, the highlights that simply won’t be denied a path through once you are open to their possibility; light so bright it literally shines through the leaves, transforming everything. In its sheer relentless determination to be and to bloom, my buddleia had demonstrated to me all the latent potential in my own existence…over and over again, until I listened. Those long days spent feeling stuck and lonely with a tree for company and these days of painting something that looks uncannily like it could not be more contrasting in so many important respects but to say there is now more light (call it joy if you like) would amply cover the difference.
At some level, we all crave more of this in our lives and, I realise, it wasn’t the waiting that brought it to me in the end, nor was it the drastic pruning (the compromises, the sacrifices) that made it any more likely; the transformation began when I met it half way by (importantly) matching the light I sought with my inner light. It happened when I stepped away from the window and got “out there” into the garden, accepting whatever the elements had to throw at me, moving out of my comfort zone, expecting nothing and nobody to save me but myself. Trimming a fixed view to allow a little light in to a tightly defined space was never going to be the same as expanding that view to allow so much more of everything in, light included. As I digested the deeper message within my own just-completed painting, it was suddenly transformed into a study of life itself; and a celebration of all the synchronistic clues and nudges we leave ourselves along the way.
I am more than open about the fact that, when I paint, I work largely from photography; but only to a point. What I bring to my work is a recollection of something much more than the literal-visual and it is this that informs two-thirds of the finished article. Light, shade and detail is added and taken away until what I see on the canvas matches what is very-much an internal landscape that I am working to, informed by an experiences I have had.
To give you some idea how much this “adds value” to the original photographic starting point, I thought I would share the original snap, taken using a very basic camera, that grew into this painting – recognisably the same tree at the same moment, but the qualities of depth, radiance and colour-play that help bring the painting to life are something that paint can deliver in a way that photography struggles to capture at all (though I can recollect the feeling of them from the original experience). This is what makes painting as relevant today as it has ever been, in my view, getting as close as it does to something much more elusive than even the best photography can get near to.
Getting there relies on the artist possessing a vibrant and durable inner vision, an imprint left behind by an experience that goes way beyond what the eyes took in; I guess you could call it the “human factor” and, when a work of art resonates with its viewer, their own emotions and fond recollections reignited by what they are looking at, its such a wonderful demonstration of how we humans share a consciousness at some level. Those moments of connection through shared reaction are such an incentive to me when I paint – there’s nothing more satisfying than someone telling you that you’ve managed to capture a feeling they once had, an emotion they could hardly pin down, a view they once cherished and so on, especially if the reminder of it brings them joy and a sense of reunion with something that had otherwise felt lost or elusive to them. These are some of the very reasons why I paint, believing as I do that some of the moment that ignite my own heart may have that effect on others.
To view related painting “Brilliance” and read all about the inspiration for that one, go to my earlier post “Picturing synergy“. “All aglow” and “Brilliance” can be viewed at www.helenwhite.org along with plenty more moments of radiance and floral themes.
- Painting backgrounds – a weekend of art films
- Picturing synergy
- The dance of dark and light
- Painting windows
- Dust motes and radiance: windows in art
- Year of the butterfly