Artist Writing

covenant with an oak

I'm writing this on a field trip in a Welsh hill cottage. Through the window are foothills covered in a green blanket woven with boskage, rocks and walls. Everything is alive with change: slow changes of season, rapid changes of light, colour and weather. Nature changes and I change too: with each look I notice different features, sense different thoughts. This is what poets once called Mutability.

My starting point as a painter is that I don't know what's there. I can not predict nature, so I discover it by looking and painting. And although I had noticed this particular oak many times, deciding to paint it repeatedly for three years was a decision to find out what it looked like.

To do this I had to drive a few miles out of suburban Colchester, where I was then living. On arriving the oak was always different : in differerent weather or time of day, with new growth, farming events, birds... These changes took place without me, and painting the tree became an appointment with an unpredicatable stranger. A stranger that, through time, I began to trust.

I made the initial study in July 2003 in bright sunlight as I stood in a field of pale green rape. The dark green tree seemed to float over the crop and to absorb some of its incredible monoculture energy. I came back in October and painted a haze of orange pinpricks and black-red boughs on a turquoise sky over now reddish soil. It looked like a different tree. This little revelation confirmed I had found a show.

Over the next three years I passed through boredom, delight, curiosity, exasperation and even fear.

Perhaps boredom is familiar to all artists? Delight was often in painting itself: pitching families of greens so that each colour was clear; controlling the sky to exactly catch colours between the branches; expressing leaf and branch with one stroke, not two. Curiosity was prompted by observation: Dr. Chris Gibson from English Nature took me on a walk round the tree - it took an hour, and I had thirty new things to notice. I was exasperated by weather (wrong light) health (can't go) and car (broke down). The fear was fleeting. It was a starless night. I heard heavy hooves approaching but could see nothing - a shape appeared between me and the tree. A stag! He fled when I switched a light on.

But as the paintings accumulated I felt a more persistent sense of being helped by my outdoor studio. As I worked on I began to feel at home in the world and, in turn, more at home with myself. The paintings were like small contracts between an indifferent but endlessly rich natural world and a feeling, human mind.

That such contracts can be made between ourselves and the natural world is surely a hopeful thing, a covenant. And it seems deeply appropriate that the subject of such a covenant can be an oak tree.

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