Giving things some time

Still life oil painting of a terracotta jug and clementine by Helen Davison

‘From the Earth’. Oil on card, 6″ x 8″

Completed before Christmas, this painting was so difficult to bring to resolution, the only reason I kept it was because I persevered too long to scrap it.

Firstly, I set up in a very dark corner of the studio where just seeing was a struggle. As much as I know not to paint what you think you see, that was easier said than done, and I kept trying to subtly indicate the right-hand side of the terracotta jug, even though it was lost in the shadow. Next, I find very dark colours have some challenges of their own, such as varied drying times and sinking in. Even though the shadows are incredibly intense, you still want to express nuances of atmosphere within them, but it can be difficult to judge the richness in the darks as you put them down because of these surface changes. Sometimes this will resolve itself when the whole painting has dried, and certainly a coat of varnish down the road will even things out and bring the darks back to life; however, this doesn’t help during the actual process of painting. Finally, the nature of terracotta was also tricky to capture. It has a soft, matt finish which absorbs a lot of the light that hits it and reflects back very little. Without a strong highlight, it wasn’t easy to describe the roundness and solidity of the jug. The natural, earth pigment in the paint itself behaved in a similar way to the terracotta too, and (like the darks) sank into the surface and looked too flat for much of the time.

I painted and re-painted and got more and more frustrated, leading to greater experimentation in my brushwork. This can be seen most clearly in the handling of the clementine. I used more medium in the paint and laid down strokes which I left to remain as individual islands of colour, with little overwork or blending. In this I found an element that I really enjoyed, and I hope I’ll be able to re-find it within new work.

Still hating the little painting, I put it to one side and left it. Then, a couple of weeks ago we decided to have a go at frame making at the studio in Salisbury. We bought moulding from Rose & Hollis, employed an old mitre hand-saw, and got stuck in. Using band-clamps and a bit of woodfiller, the basic frames started to come together pretty well. Buoyed by this we invested in an electric saw, made some more, and started experimenting with finishes. I used layers of chalk paint (starting with a brick red with antique white on top), distressing the edges and trying both gold paint and a rub-on gold paste called Goldfinger. The result is (admittedly) a bit over the top, but it was a fantastic exercise.

As an afterthought I tried the dark, unloved little painting in my first frame, and much to my surprise discovered that with fresh eyes, I not only really liked the painting I had disregarded, but that the frame suited it more than I would have ever predicted. The lesson? Keep an open mind and give things some time.