Final rift – that between idealism and reality in farming

13th June 2022. Every year in this semi rural place, there are farms inviting people to bring their children to see lambs and lambing. ‘Baby lambs’ in the fields is an almost universal springtime aaaaw moment. How many ask the hard questions about where last year’s lambs went, what will happen to these, or make the connection between the cuteness of the baby animals and their Sunday dinners?

This was not where I started; this below is where I started – inks and soft pastels on primed canvas with no direction beyond drip and see.

This is the same canvas after a further application of soft pastels, white primer, and water. Still no direction but at least there are cave paintings – more or less.

16th June. Suddenly, sheep emerged from those marks and brought to mind some paintings that stylised landscapes so that they looked like stained glass, possibly prompted by the shadows artificially dividing the image.

Keeping the sheep barely painted seemed important but at this stage the theme of disconnection between their fantasised lives and the reality had not emerged. I also had to sort out various legs and ears and imagine the angle of heads to settle them as sheep shaped. I borrowed from my own photos and Henry Moore’s sketchbook of sheep for this.

I focused initially on the landscape and, with that stained glass window look in mind, aimed for a cute, idealised, ‘toy town’ appearance by brightening the fields with dilute acrylic, and dropping in grazing animals, trees, and houses. Then I added a layer of T white to the sheep to give them substance while avoiding entirely erasing their fragile opacity. I was painting the fields again in shiny jewel colours, looking for a purple I’ve seen in photos and paintings of lavender (Tom Voyce, for instance, winner of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year in 2017), when the purple/red began to run. And this is what brought the theme fully into focus.

June 21/22

I’ve painted a union flag on the flank of the sheep and some cutesy trees and houses in the background. Watercolour from my new little box set is surprisingly good at sitting on top of acrylic and being visible but understated. At present, I’m doing a lot of looking sideways at it while I consider my next best move. I want to brighten the background and subtly make more of the red beneath the sheep. I wonder if I should abandon my original idea of keeping the sheep sketchy and fill them out more. This will need care.

24th June. I’m using soft pastels, coloured charcoal sticks, pearl finish acrylics, and black conte to make a semi-realistic, quasi-idealistic background to the sheep. Splash marks are fluorescent pink.

Now I think I need to pull the sheep out of that background with a bit more definition. And what do their ears look like from the back?

Now I have more direction for the foreground; no splashes, just foliage in shades of red. I’ve added a layer of varnish to that section so that I can slide leaf-shaped marks into it. Now I’m caught up in my own story and feeling upset for that first sheep who’s looking back at its past life. [Dear Reader – they escape!]

The flag needs shifting up a little now, but I’m happy with the new foliage beneath the sheep. Again, this is fantasy foliage but in a deliberately different style from the background so that it could be flames. I’ve hinted at the slaughterhouse in the layer of red; the flames could be about cooking.

A light gloss varnish to finish because this is ‘pretty’.

Sheep (working title). Acrylics on canvas 30×40″. Soft pastels, coloured charcoal, watercolours also employed.

26th June and an opportunistic moment with some dappled leaf shadow in my studio:

Tidy up crop.

10th July. Finally completed the video element of this painting and renamed it Toy Town. There’s a brutality to the juxtapositioning of the cute animals and the sight/sounds of cooking.

Moore, H. and Clarke, K. (1980) Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook. Thames and Hudson.

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