swallows at 9pm

oil on canvas, 1020mm x 1020mm
private collection


Just after the sun has set, the Earth's shadow appears on the atmosphere at the horizon. Sun light passes overhead leaving the land in shade as unforseen colours appear.

Oil mixes were quickly laid on a board already blocked in with acrylic. A set of differently exposed photos were taken. As it became darker, at about 9pm a band of swallows flew past like bullets. The lead bird turned violet over the rape. I made colour marks to record this, then noticed a red radio mast light on the horizon and put that down, and finally a car headlight in the distance to the right.


Next day the study looked worth taking forward, so I needed images for the birds and went to a barley field where I knew swallows hunted. Bright daylight allowed the fast exposures needed to stop fast objects. The shapes were unforeseen. They looked ancient, reminding me of cuneform text or swallows painted on Etruscan pots. 


colour textures

A digital selection tool was used to analyse the distribution of similar colours within the photos. The distribution of similar colours in nature often reveals a texture, and these colour-textures often help us see complicated things more clearly.

Photos were chosen for closeness to the tonal range of different parts of the scene, which helps a mapping process. The idea is to combine colours observed and selected by the human eye, in the oil study, with the colour textures revealed by the computer, from the photographs. Only three exposures were needed for this painting:

tree colours on horizon
crop yellows and greens
tonal changes across the sky
Colours are selected from each image to map to similar colours on the oil study:
The reds label a computer selection of dark orange-yellows. The distribution maps to a comparable colour in the oil study. The canvas will have a dot grid to help transfer the revealed colour-textures from one image to the other.
This layer shows the darkest yellows and greens. A3 prints of selections are taken into the studio to use as a guide.


The linen canvas is primed with acrylic. For this painting I had already underpainted the canvas for a night picture. But I felt the new image would benefit from this dark ground, because it was about floating over something, maybe a Greek underworld. So I started to paint in oil on top:

Above are early oil layers. Colours are taken from the oil study but are effected by the under painting like gravity. Subsequent layers increased opacity and made colours much closer to the oil study values, adding the sense of lift I was looking for. The yellow cotton is a bit of the initial grid set up.


The patterning of distinct layers is visible in this finished detail. This area has some white grid dots too, but in the detail below there are fewer traces of construction. In general, I want the painting to have maximum realism and maximum artifice at the same time.



Seeing the finished painting next to its companion Swallows at 11am I decided to call it Swallows at 9pm. It's the same field but the crops are different, so there is at least a year between the two images - the birds have been to Africa and back. There are other time scales too. The oak is about 250 years old, the shadow of the Earth on the atmosphere at sunset lasts about twenty minutes, the car was gone in twenty seconds, the birds in less than ten.

There are only a few days in the year when the crop looks like this and the landscape illumination is grand, strange and fugitive. The Latin for bird watching is augury, and the canvas is like the piece of sky across which the messengers flew. In the end my painting had four swallows and a tiny, man-made red light. The beauty is fleeting and uneasy. Swallows flying between day and night. Four little horsemen.

John Mollon, professor of experimental psycology at Cambridge and an expert on primate colour vision, observed that the colours of this painting are like those seen by a dichromate retina - the eye from which the human eye evolved. This suggests to me that as the light level drops we see into a more primitive world.

For a fuller and more personal account of how this painting was made click here.

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