Hallerbos Painting: In Process

Work in Progress Hallerbos Belgium Painting

Everyone loves time lapse images, right? Here are some before and after photos, just for you. A smattering of art theory in between, but feel free to scroll through and just enjoy the pretty pictures.

This is the first painting in a collection called IMMENSITIES.

My first step with this painting was visiting and sketching the locations that inspired an entire 20 canvas landscape series. Hallerbos is a huge forest in Belgium. When I was little I was under the impression that bluebells are special because they only grow in the wild. Hallerbos has big wide promenade paths because bluebell colonies take a long time to establish and when crushed can take years to recover. The location of the forest (“bos”) is in Halle, which is mostly in the Flemish Brabant with a little part in Walloon Brabant. It makes Belgian people agree on one thing, which is unusual. Our whole local community, the Flemish, the Walloons and the expat bubble, all equally love the annual display of bluebells at Hallerbos, and there’s a lot of excitement every year when people start asking each other “Are the bluebells out yet? Don’t miss them!”

There are certain places, and certain people, that make me ache to paint them. I feel like even if you lost everything I’ve ever painted, those would represent the essential points of light in my life.

This collection is different from my previous art work because I normally do continuous line portraits and the only landscapes I’ve ever made before were miniatures. The “opening up” giant shapes I intended for this collection, were originally inspired by real out-of-this-world landscapes witnessed as I travelled across Greece. Just the Peloponnese alone has lava sand beaches and slate stone towers on dry mountains and lush vineyards and white sand beaches with ancient temples. One day across one coast is like visiting 7 different country’s landscapes all in one gulp. There are so many dramatic shapes in Greek landscapes, often with a cliff precipice involved. I carry that awareness of the movement of the earth with me now travelling through Belgium. To talk Art Theory of a minute (if not here, then where?), I try to actualise a Kantian understanding of the Sublime in my landscapes: the human-sized relationship to the greater-than-human sized “reveal” of the nature scene. This relates to the title of my art collection, IMMENSITIES, because immense spaces were the starting point and the sublime reaction was the intention behind the work. In Kant’s aesthetics, the sublime (distinct from the beautiful) occurs “when we confront a reality that exceeds our conceptual faculties,” (Martel 45). To be more precise, we experience the sublime when our mind is confronted with reason, which forces the mind to conceptualise the object (the world), but fails to conceptualise because the world is too enormous and overwhelming to be represented as a whole (24). In neurotheology, the part of our brain that experiences awe shuts down our sense of personal circumference. The individual literally lets go to experience the greater whole without ego. A combination of dynamic paint brush strokes mimic hot air shafts, which provides the movement that leads us into the sense of space. The use of paint on the frame should lean us into the depth of the space and lend itself to the enveloping of the enormous scene.

Over the last few years I’ve prepared for these paintings by workshopping unusual real-world shapes, especially landscape shapes in my sketchbooks, with pen and ink and watercolours too.

I spent about a month mixing my own bespoke colour palette for this series. Acrylic paints only because I have a family now and oil paint brush cleaners are toxic. I knew I wanted an Andy Dixon-style use of oil pastel to bring in illustrative details, but I wasn’t sure how I would achieve this on a more textured layering of paint than the flat surface he normally utilises.

It was very difficult to settle on which colours I would use throughout this whole collection. I knew I had to go with essentials rather than nice-to-have colours. I kept having to pull myself back from what are pleasant mixes and return again and again to the mixing board to find what are the essential mixes for me. For example, what is True Red for nobody but me. I found that the only indubitable red, for me, on a gut level is a very orangey red. A glossy red reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich, in my case.

Next step: me overthinking more things, of course. I worried about the cost of framing for the average art collector. There are often three stages of payment for a piece of art: purchase, shipment and framing. I get it. That’s a lot. Someone commissions a painting, pays half up front, or buys one already made and then has to pay for shipping AND framing. Sometimes that takes the art far out of their original budget, or extends the spending process that takes the joy out of the acquisition. So, with full empathy for the person who wants to own art, (and support living artists!), without breaking the bank, I came up with the idea to use beautiful antique frames, with their own original sculptural elements to inspire the shapes in the final artwork (rather than the other way around) and provide the new art owner an easier solution to the cost of framing. This should cut the cost of owning an artwork down by at least a third, and even down by two thirds if they don’t need shipment either.

Belgium has an incredibly rich antique collecting culture. There are regular antique markets, popular antique shops and international annual fairs too. I was enrapt when first visiting the “Old Market,” Jeu de Balle, in the Marolles district of Brussels. One of the most famous weekend antique markets, it was a living museum. Handling Delftware, Bavarian mugs, French asparagus plates, even original silver Art Nouveau period antiques, I realised there was a distinct diversity here: Belgium sits between the Netherlands, Germany and France. Of course the antique markets will reflect that crossroad! Then, most brilliantly, Art Nouveau was born in Belgium, in the middle of all that, of course. Sourcing the antique frames for this series was an exciting, educational hunt. I learnt a lot about history through the objects we treasure. (Even bought an antique that we traced to a friend’s grandparent’s honeymoon!)

A lot of sanding and cleaning and priming went into prepping these frames. I had to hold a vision for the final image, for each of the paintings, already in mind all the way back then, while choosing the size of the frame and the background tone for that canvas. Holding 20 visions for 20 paintings while working for over a year, while being interrupted by family every day. It’s a challenge.

I prepared preliminary sketches with a rough placing of the final images so I could visualise them even better. Then measured the gallery walls to check I had everything lined up correctly. Then bought new canvases to fill those frames.

By that time the holiday season was upon us, so I brought my studio work right into our living room. No, we do not have the extra space. Yes, I did get a little help from the mini artist.

I painted them multiple times to get a richness of tone for even that very fundamental base layer. With different colours layering on top of each other, only barely visible through thin patches, there’s a sense that emotions are bubbling under the surface.

I had intended to only work on largescale Greek landscapes but the curator at Art Base gallery suggested that I prepare works based on my travels through Belgium too, because as he put it, “That has been my personal journey, as a visual artist.”

After months of discussions with Art Base gallery over solo show scheduling, doing 40 other continuous line paintings for another solo art show at the EU Parliament, framing a different collection for another auction, and the final confirmation of the next artshow dates, I finally, FINALLY, got that sweet and scary deadline to work towards, and could focus on these antique-frame-painted paintings with the knowledge they had a host gallery waiting for them, somewhere truly special where they could come alive in the world.

The next stage was to think long and hard about the different points of light inside The Blue Forest (Hallerbos) and choose the part that felt like the heart of the place, to me. This was done from memory. Then to plot the best version of that on the canvas. Shaping the way you move toward it on the path through the trees, I wanted the forest to bend like a fisheye lens to the big reveal of the bluebell carpet that is blooming on the near horizon. This meant that I even had to have the light source and the fallen puddles of light already in mind before layering up all the foreground details.

When paint brushes finally hit the canvas, the first global lockdown in the history of civilization had just begun. Painting landscapes in lockdown felt like grief. It hurt to think of all the beautiful places we had travelled and the great outdoors. Nature felt inaccessible at the time of painting. Memories could be my only reference.

It was at this point that I came to the title for the whole collection. IMMENSITIES just fit. I think a lot about the theory and the philosophy behind the art, and I think a lot about the largess I want to convey. The sense that with this painting you have a new window in your home. The idea that you could walk into it and get a lungful of fresh air. I needed a word that reflected both the big ideas behind the pieces and the big views inside them too.

Where did the word come from? While painting I was listening to an audio recording of Howard’s End by EM Forster. It had been 20 years since I’d read the book and unlike most books, it ripened with age and was well worth the reread. Elizabeth Klett’s free Librivox’s recording is exceptional. The locations in the book are both intimate and immense. I listened while I painted as the characters were also listening, me to them and them to Beethoven. EM Forster was excited to describe Beethoven’s Fifth. He suggests that even if we lost everything else Beethoven had ever written:

If we lost everything he wrote except what is in this key, we should still have the essential Beethoven, the Beethoven tragic, the Beethoven so excited at the approach of something enormous that he can only just interpret and subdue it. It would be a pity to lose a Beethoven unbuttoned, a Beethoven yodelling, but this musician excited by immensities is unique in the annals of any art. No one has ever been so thrilled by things so huge, for the vast masses of doom crush the rest of us before we can hope to measure them. Fate knocks at our door; but before the final tap can sound, the flimsy door flies into pieces, and we never learn the sublime rhythm of destruction.

Howard’s End, page 120

Excited by immensities. That’s me. That’s exactly the work I’m doing here.

I’ll admit it. I always panic halfway through every painting. I call it the Midway Blues. It’s no longer the promise and potential of the start, nor the pleasure of completion at the end. I also wonder whether the final vision will be achieved and if the work in progress is not already beautiful enough… I’m taking a chance, a leap of wobbly faith, that my skills will be able to carry the vision all the way through the painting process to an objective audience’s satisfactory completion. I doubt myself. I often weep. It’s a frustrating moment. Just like Forster describes Beethoven’s music, the Fifth in particular, as the place of a “thrilling” conflict between the composer and “something enormous,” “immense,” “the sublime rhythm of destruction,” I needed to fully digest the vastness of the scene and with my own painting rhythm, layer it up and over itself, with layered paint upon paint, getting over myself in the process.

The thing that drove me through the halfway point on this Hallerbos painting was the knowledge that the bluebell forest is more shady than at that point in the painting process. It had more depth. It needed a lot more shade. Only then would the magnificence of the blue bells pop on the canvas, as they do in real life. If the real life shade of the woods had not been essential, to my commitment to the real place, I could have just left the canvas at the midway point. It was pretty enough. But pretty enough doesn’t cut it, in my book.

I layered on the shadowy bits, the crinkly bits, the leaves, the bluebells themselves. And finished it. Got it as close to my original vision as humanly possible, then varnished it. The painting was ready to visit the photographer’s studio. On the first day of the newly relaxed quarantine measures I put on a mask and gloves and drove to the studio of the incredible photographer Iris Haidau. I’m trying to get better at keeping a record of these works before they go live in your house!

Here is the final painting. I love it so much and can’t wait to share it with you, in person, at the artshow in September. I know when you see it in real life you’ll fall deep inside it and want this extra room in your home as seen through this handpainted window.

If you buy it here or at the show, I’d be delighted this painting found a happy home. That said, if nobody buys it, I honestly don’t care. It was so successful. I wouldn’t mind having this horizon in my own home from here on out.

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