Most of my landscape paintings were completed over several sessions.
After four hours the light will change direction as the sun moves round so that the view is no longer the same. The only thing to do is to return the next day and hope that the light conditions are similar.
I always mark the ground in some way so that I can place my easel in exactly the same position when I return. I began a picture of snowdrops growing in a coppice near my home and marked the position of my easel with small sticks pushed into the soft ground. The next day I had to teach and then the weather changed so that when I was able to return the snowdrops were past their best, I did not finish the picture.
A year later I was driving pastthe spot and noticed the snowdrops again and stopped to look at them. The flowers were only just opening but I was astonished to see that the three sticks were still there as I had placed them a year before. I thought this was a good omen and decided to return to the coppice in a few days and finish the painting when the flowers would be at their best. The next day, again on my way to teach a class, I drove past the coppice. There were two men with chain saws thinning out the wood and huge broken trees were lying across the drift of snowdrops.
In September 2001 I was invited to paint at the wonderful old chateau of Lachassagne in the Beaujolais region of France, north of Lyon. I was there for two weeks while the grapes were being harvested and the wine making process got under way.
It was a delightful trip, I was made most welcome by the family who look after the estate, but the weather was not on my side. On my journey south I had flown over a band of cloud that covered all of northern France. It moved very slowly south with the result that I spent the first days of my stay trying to paint in the spells of sunshine between the clouds. Eventually, when it started to rain, I retreated indoors and set up some still life compositions using grapes from the fields with local breads and cheeses.
It was on the Thursday of my second week that the sun came out again and I decided to paint two views from the top of the wonderful tower that stands, thirty metres tall, surrounded on three sides with magnificent trees, in the south western corner of the estate. I had two days left in which to work and began a painting looking south during the afternoon and one looking west as the sun went down in the early evening. There was a lot of wind and I had to strap down my painting equipment (a canvas and an easel and a small table to hold my palette with oil paints). Friday morning, my last day on the estate, turned out bright and calm and clear and it was with much excitement and in anticipation of a good final day's work that I walked with my equipment up to the tower.
This was the first calm, clear, sunny day in two weeks and the male wood ants decided it was just the day to go looking for a mate. The huge swarms of male ants, which fly just once in search of a female, were drawn to the top of the tower. Ants from nests across the woods below me all timed their flights together with the result that I found myself trying to paint in an increasingly dense cloud of ants and after two hours my painting, the palette, my rucksack and bag of food, were all crawling with them. The floor of the platform round the top of the tower, where I was working, was covered with a thick layer of dying ants. There must have been tens of thousands of them with more and more still in the air which was thick with darting specks of black. There were so many ants that I could smell them.
I was desperate to finish my painting but after two hours I could stand the nightmare no longer, I had ants all over me, inside my clothes and in my ears and mouth. I gave up, grabbed my equipment, threw much of it down to the ground and retreated with the rest as I could.
When I got back to the chateau, which was about a mile from the tower, I had a shower and calmed myself down. After an hour and a half I found the courage to return to the tower to see if I could complete the second painting from a window lower down . I could not find the shirt I wore for painting so I crept to the top to see if it was still there. To my amazement the air was clear of ants though the floor was still thickly covered with the dead and dying. My shirt was still hanging where I had thrown it, on a ledge around the tower, six metres from the ground. As I write it is still hanging there. But I finished the second picture.
...Five years later I have revisited the chateau and found my shirt at the base of the tower in amongst the dry leaves and wood litter. It is misshapen and dried out like a piece of old crushed and crumpled card. I brought it home. It still has dead ants in it.
Visit the chateau website here ... www.chateau-lachassagne.com
Ten years ago I went to Agrigento in southern Sicily to paint the wonderful ruined Greek temples that are set along a limestone ridge beside the remains of the old city wall.
There are groves of almonds and olives on one side and on the other the landscape sweeps away towards the sea some miles away to the south. The temple site was a few miles down the hillside from the modern city, so at the end of each day I returned to the hotel with my equipment after a long walk uphill in the heat.
The old Sicilian woman who ran the hotel spent her day at the desk in reception and each evening when I returned she would insist on seeing my work and shower me with extravagant praise. After a couple of days she asked if I would draw her. No amount of polite refusal would satisfy her and after three or four days of her pleading, I eventually agreed.
I sat down and was given coffee while people appeared from nowhere to watch, hotel staff, relatives, residents. Over the next half hour she was taken repeatedly to her room off the reception area to have her hair done, her make up applied, and to try on various outfits and items of jewellery which were commented on by the growing number of onlookers. Eventually she was deemed to be ready for her portrait and I was told that I could begin.
The strength of my work is that I can paint what I see, but this is also its limitation and in this particular situation, drawing exactly what I saw was not a good idea. After twenty minutes or so I had finished and turned the drawing round for the approval of the old woman and the onlookers.
There was a moment of silence while they registered the image and then a collective gasp of shock. I had done the worst thing I could have done and drawn the woman as I saw her, wrinkles, double chins and all. Politely the drawing was returned and I was persuaded that the nose was not quite that big, the chins not that many, I had to completely remodel the hair. It took another half hour to make the alterations but eventually I was able to go to my room.
A few days later I saw my drawing poking out of one of the cleaner's pockets. After that the old woman said good evening as I returned to the hotel after a days work, but showed no more interest in the paintings.
Returning to a landscape
When a landscape painting is finished I usually turn to the view and thank it.
It is a silly ritual. I say 'thank you place'. Sometimes I have returned to scenes that I painted many years before. It is a strange experience. On approaching the view there is excitement and anticipation. I begin to recognise familiar features, some trees, a building, some distant hill. A few feet from where I painted, it is still only familiar but on stepping into the actual spot something else happens, something in my brain clicks into place and not just parts of the view but every detail of the scene takes on a familiarity that is intimate and personal. I remember the individual shape that a branch made in my composition, still there after ten years maybe, or the shape that the sea makes between the distant hills. Of course the light is not the same and other details may have changed but having spent those hours there recording the subtle nuances of shape and colour in that particular view, there is a sense that in the relationship between us there is something intensely personal.
When painting outdoors for hours on end you experience landscape very intimately.
Noises in particular have a different quality. Everything slows down to the pace of the landscape. You notice the cracking of a twig as a bird searches for food or the sound of conversation on the other side of the valley a mile away.
Animals become more trusting, or perhaps they don't notice you are there. Once I was painting in the beech woods near my home, sitting on a low stool with my palette and brushes on the ground next to me. I noticed a mouse there in my pile of brushes nibbling away at the bristles. I kept still and watched him for several minutes before he got bored and left without apparently having noticed me.
Back in 1986 I was asked to paint pictures for an exhibition of images of the Ridgeway, the ancient track that runs across the centre of southern England from Avebury Stone Circle to Streatley in the Thames Valley.
In early spring I borrowed an old van and camped up on the hills near Uffington. I painted a hedgerow with snowdrops growing along the bank, it was bitterly cold.
I began a picture of the famous Uffington White Horse.
An hour into my work it began to snow. Before my eyes the whole hill turned white and the horse disappeared.
I got back to the van, cold and fed up and made myself a cup of tea before deciding whether to brave out the cold and carry on working or give up and go home.
Sitting in the driver's seat with the door open, there was a bottle of milk in the pocket of the van door with enough left for just one cup of tea. As I reached for the milk a bird flew directly overhead. I saw a splash inside the milk bottle, the bird had ruined the rest of my milk.
It was time to go home.