Positive anthroposcenery #4 parallel project

I have had a frustratingly barren time lately, distracted by the local art trail and everything that involved and finding myself inventively empty. The previous post evidences my attempts to get back on track and what a bumpy track it was. Today, I met someone who asked about ‘our’ seal; the one spotted last spring and a newcomer to the river. Seals need abundant food to make swimming so far inland worthwhile and the fact the this one was frequently several miles up river is testament to the improved quality of the water. It attracted crowds and I’m almost certain it performed for them; at one point swimming on its back and juggling a fish on its abdomen in front of groups with cameras, long lenses, and phones. As many of us hadn’t negotiated stiles for a good while, I like to think we reciprocated the entertainment.

Our seal, then, is an example of how humans can change an environment to render it habitable by species dependent on water quality that sustains them. To see it frequently hauled out on the mud banks was one of those moments of communal pleasure; eye sparkling, broad smiling, hushed explaining, and in one instance, vivid describing to a man with limited vision.

In these sketches, I’m getting the feel of the shapes, particularly the seal, in the eventual composition. River banks are multiple horizontals and in this one I also have the river with its reflections. That is going to take some serious deep breathing to tackle, I think!

I have painted this landscape several times in the past, and I like to render the colours as closer to stained glass than in shades of brown and khaki mud. This has been most successful on a canvas board and so I’ve prepared a 16 x 12 board with white primer. Thin and fluid is the aim, not thick and textural.

16th September. This is a composite composition, all of the elements coming from the same area along the river but each playing a role the actual scene could not. In this regard, the painting is less document than imagined reconstruction.

These are acrylics with willow charcoal. Charcoal is very paintable; I’ve found I can position it as lines then move the substance of it around until only the slightest hint of a line remains, the rest blending into the paint around it. This is essentially a first layer but I want to keep it light in its materiality while deepening the pigment. In keeping with the previous pieces in this short series, there is an element of collage – mirror film representing the seal’s reflection in the water. I’m aware I’ve rendered the seal in camouflage kit. This wasn’t intentional but I like the contemporary reference so I have emphasised it.

Removed the mirror foil because it was doing nothing helpful and worked on an impression of reflections instead. I’ve also deepened and darkened the landscape, brightened the sky, and made marks that I’m hoping indicate the river. This is a tricky area because, being tidal, it’s often the same colour as the mud it washes up against but it seems to me that for pictorial purposes, and because I don’t have sufficient skill to render a muddy river that’s distinct from its bank, I’ve added some blue tones. At the moment I think the field in the centre ground is a little too blue and bright and so it creeps forward instead of staying back. And there’s a yellowish area mid left that needs attention. Oddly, it’s beginning to remind me of 19th century(?) watercolours which seemed to include everything in more focus than much of it deserved.

Next task – mute the seal. In the original setting, the sun was very bright and the seal blended into the muddy bank extremely well. Since I’ve darkened the whole image, the seal stands out in a way that would expose it to predators. A brownish wash should do it.

May need to just tip the reflection over into a darker tone.

This is the point I need to stop. I’ve had that seal in and out of focus, its eyes have been up and down, it looked like a dog at one stage, and like a dog looking to the right and also forwards at another. The seal is this painting’s raison d’etre and so it needs to be more right than the scenery. A gloss varnish should bring out the tones and I’ll do that tomorrow.

17th September. That lasted till this morning. Too dark too drab, too lifeless. Looking through the earlier versions, I found I liked the brighter, less laboured iterations, so I re-primed it (leaving the seal) and went back to a more imagined landscape based on my experience of the kinds of geography we have in this area.

In this version, I’ve lightened the background and rendered it as quasi-realistic, then treated the foreground as a camouflage area – an army camp with greens and browns breaking up the shapes so that they have to be inferred more than they would had I gone for a more representational look.

The texture of the board is apparent through the areas where I’ve pulled paint off with a rough cloth, again breaking up the shapes a little more.

Push came to shove, I would crop the seal with a little of its background and reflection. A digital possibility if not a physical one.

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