A morning monologue about waiting for the right moment to make our work and a little about the color red.
The conditions for making a painting are never perfect. If they had to be, the work would never get done. During a visit to London in October, I stumbled into Chinatown at the end of the day. I entered through one of the gates, rounded the corner to see people bustling down the middle of the busy street. The light of the setting sun was falling perfectly under the threat of rain clouds looming overhead. The dark shapes and contrasting filtered white light formed the cast shadows of the people in the street. These shapes lead my eye to a focal point on the horizon. The warmth of the red Chinese lanterns, illuminated by a sliver of silvery light from the sun, hung in stark contrast to tall buildings from which they are attached. Unaware of themselves as subjects for my next painting, the scene arrested me. I stopped in the middle of the road and shot a dozen reference photos.
Photos, for me, are paintings made with a camera in my hand. I see pictures made with paint when I look through the lens of my camera. But here’s the thing. I could have easily missed this moment altogether. I was in an unfamiliar part of East London, the rain was looming, people were hurriedly moving past me, I felt slightly cold and was debating the need to dig my raincoat out of my bag. I was hungry, or was it hangry? Aware of darkness falling, with a 15-minute walk to the Central Line and a 30-minute ride on the crowded London Tube, were all good reasons not to slow down long enough to capture the scene. Maybe I’ll come back to Chinatown tomorrow? I could be more intentional about my visit if I weren’t feeling tired. I wonder if the sun will be shining or if the clouds will form themselves in the same way tomorrow? Maybe I should check tomorrow’s weather on the Weather App? With each question, the golden light was disappearing. Experience has taught me that these moments are fleeting and that once passed, they’re gone forever.
A few days later, in Wales, I finally had some time to make the painting inspired by my visit to Chinatown. I had not planned to paint big on this trip, so I did a small sketch in my art journal. I was about 1/2 way through it when I knew enough to start again on a larger piece of paper.
Because I travel light, I did not have any large sizes of loose paper to work on. But my colleague, UK Artist Jean Perrett, offered me a sheet of some handmade paper that she had brought to Wales for our painting holiday.
What I love about this piece – Chinatown London: Lifted – is that it embodies some of the challenges artists encounter as they try to bring their art into tangible form. Sometimes the difficulty is a lack of funding to buy materials. Other times its scarcity of products. But often, it’s all the things I mentioned above that become roadblocks to making our art. For this piece, the unique and unfamiliar paper presented challenges because it’s not my usual ground for painting. Soft and slightly flimsy for a medium-weight handmade paper, it behaved and took on paint water differently. So not only was I creating a new idea in my art, I was trying to make this paper my friend at the same time. Getting to know your medium of choice and the tools of your craft is essential and an often unknown part of the learning process for those who are new to painting.
I’m celebrating 10 years of painting with water media this year. From the beginning, my work is marked by the use of Vermillion or Chinese Red. I’ve painted red trucks, poppies, trees, and skies. Red is considered the color of life. It is associated with blood and eternity. It’s use dates back to 7,000 to 8,000 BC. I don’t know why I like it so much. I just know that it’s part of my palette, and anytime I avoid it, my paintings feel like they are missing part of me. It feels like I didn’t show up on the paper.
This painting is a breakthrough piece for me. It represents a different era in my work. As a result of this piece (+ 10 years), I’ve just completed a body of work that was not possible without this one to open the space for them to be. And, this is what I love most about it.
Join me next weekend for a Holiday Open Studio in the historic Old North End of Colorado Springs, CO, USA.