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Clarion Calls and Lullabies - Inspired by Winifred Nicholson

life as an artist oil painting Dec 05, 2019

Challenging myself is a habit, a good habit in my mind. There are, however, limitations to self-challenging.  How can I challenge myself with a concept that I'm unaware of or that is so far out of my understanding that I don't know where to go with it? For the past year, I've been excavating my life experiences in hopes of discovering a pathway to unleashing a new energy and expression in my oil painting work, both in the studio and en plein air. I hadn't found it. I hadn't imagined I would hit pay dirt in St. Ives.

It's almost impossible to book a workshop with Alice Mumford.  She is a highly respected artist who teaches only four workshops a year, all at St. Ives School of Painting in Cornwall, England.  The workshops are generally filled within forty-five minutes of being posted online, a year in advance of the workshop.  Jill had the good fortune of booking the last spot on Alice's December workshop - Clarion Calls and Lullabies.  The plan was that I would wander the streets of St. Ives sketching and painting for the three days that Jill attended the workshop. On the rare, very rare chance that there would be a last minute cancellation, I would be only a few blocks away, ready to step into the vacant spot ... and that's exactly how it happened that Alice Mumford hijacked my brain and set me on a fabulous new adventure with oil paints.

The workshop was focused on Winifred Nicholson's palette, her colour scale designated by words such as hay, putty, bistre, dun, midnight, pitch and dragon's blood. The words value (tone) or saturation weren't mentioned.  Instead, we were guided to see colour and to mix colour that coincided with previous experiences and our personal relationship with a colour.  For example: Mailboxes in the UK are a very specific colour of red. Rather than do a mental translation of mailbox red into any sort of method of mixing that color with pigments, we just held the colour itself in our mind's eye and mixed until we felt we had achieved mailbox red.

Of course, I can't ignore what I now know about colour, the science of light waves and pigments.  This is where the brain hijacking began. It will be a long while before I can explain clearly the shift in mental process I experienced. The closest I can come is to say that my decision-making took place a bit outside of my head. From this unexplored bubble of space I could ignore the noise of programmed solutions my brain had previously worked out. 

The most monumental challenge for me was to throw form to the wind. Not only to throw it to the wind but to make sure that it didn't encroach on my painting.

My earliest love of art ignored form completely.  My sole purpose was to learn to create the sense of ribbons of light dancing through space, spokes of a bicycle tire spinning into a blur because of the speed of the bicycle on a downhill slope.  Learning to draw realistically and to create the illusion of form was agonizing and almost painful, contrary to my impulses. These very skills I worked so hard to master, and had grown to love, became my first go-to rather than a side-line to pay bills.  I'd sacrificed the growth of my inner, more creative artist in order to live a life as a somewhat recognized artist, to create what I thought others wanted me to create rather than what my inner artist craved to have a go at.

In the dimness of the studio I groped for solutions, both figuratively and literally.  Ten students in the studio. Six still life setups. No spotlights on the setups.  No lights turned on in the studio.  From morning until late afternoon we painted using only the natural light that streamed through the limited windows. At the end of the afternoon, just before leaving for the day, the studio lights were turned on.

Each one of us had painted at least five paintings and every one of them appeared to shimmer with a glow of colour. Something truly significant was happening in this workshop, nudged forward by Alice's passion, enthusiasm and curiosity.

Day Two: Clarion Call paintings

What is a Clarion Call?  Is it a shout of colour? Yes.  Hmmmmm.  What is a shout of colour? 

Is it high contrast? .... sometimes, but not always.

Is it the play of neutrals against fully saturated colours? ... sometimes, but not always.

Is it hot colours? ... sometimes, but not always.

Is it volume? No ... and yes.

When teaching my own workshops, I often compare drawing and painting to creating music.  I refer to rhythms, movement, measures, syncopations, mood, tempo. The elements of art: line; shape; value (tone); texture; colour, can be directly related to elements of music.

Winifred Nicholson arrived at what she called Clarion Call paintings and Lullaby paintings in a more quantum way.  Any one mark of colour can shift the effect away from or toward the desired, and somewhat audible, effect.

Day three: Lullaby paintings

I thought creating a lullaby painting would be a far greater challenge for me than the Clarion Call. I'm so keen on high contrast and strong design elements in a painting. I was wrong.  The paintings flowed out of my brush far more intuitively.  I felt as if I were writing poetry as I painted.

Rather than matching the colours of the still life in front of me, I matched the colours of a similar still life that appeared in the decision-making bubble just outside (above and slightly to the left) of my head. My heart sang. All I wanted to do was paint, paint, paint and paint.

Thank you, Alice Mumford, for sparking this breakthrough for me.

And thank you, Jill Richards, for bringing me to Wales in the first place and to introduce me to the life of St. Ives.


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