What do I mean by reverse archaeology? That archaeology may have something to offer painting is less complicated than you might imagine. The painting that you see here is really 3 paintings in one, except that you can only see the last layer, or the current layer, to be more accurate.

This work started out as a monochrome image using a bitumen ground with a white chalk paint applied in alternate layers. The chalk layer acted as a kind of sgraffito surface that could reveal the darker tones below. At this stage, with the paint still wet, it was also possible to drag the surface with a wide squeegee, a technique used by the German artist Gerhard Richter to create unexpected marks and gradations of tone.

I guess I could have stopped at this point. The painting had already gained a rugged tactile quality with a richly textured surface. I had also used horizontal bands or sections to echo the characteristics of the Fenland landscape and aerial perspective. I reworked the painting a few days later. To be honest, I know the precise reason I made the next set of changes. I had seen a contemporary textile piece in a local gallery that comprised sections of worn, multi-coloured cloth, stitched together in vertical strips. The effect was mesmerising. The artist explained that the old clothing belonged to her husband, a farmer, and she wanted to embed and embody his work in the textile landscape.

I introduced several opaque layers of cold wax medium to the surface. These were stained with light ochre and I waited a few days for them to dry. I then scored regular horizontal lines through the surface to the bitumen. The painting at this stage was monochrome. It had a definite presence with a minimalist abstract quality. I had successfully avoided the trap of becoming overly decorative and too narrowly focused on detail. However, I didn’t stop at that point, hence the reference to reverse archaeology. Archaeology is a process of extraction and excavation, revealing the events of time. My paintings are a process of accretion and sedimentation, which disguise the origins of the work.

I became dissatisfied with the absence of colour in the work and I wanted to introduce a range of warmer, differentiated tones to the gridlike structure. I switched to acrylic paints and some metallic effects, which I applied selectively. As you know, acrylic and oil don’t mix particularly well, but this can be an advantage if you are striving to achieve an uneven, variegated colour. The last part of the process involved the application of heat with a heat gun. The intense heat allowed the bitumen to burn through the wax, reinstating the fine lines and increasing the textural qualities in the paint which momentarily bubbled and then resettled.

This is where I have arrived, and maybe this is where I should remain. Maybe the painting becomes less convincing each time I make a significant intervention. Maybe the earlier foundations and cumulative changes conjure a depth and a weight that may have lifted the work beyond the pedestrian. At this moment, the jury is out.

Let me know your thoughts, it’s always good to hear other viewpoints and opinions.

Somersham Fen 40 x 40 x 4 cm

This painting based on Somersham Fen has been created using oil and cold wax medium on a canvas stretcher. The intense yellow of rapeseed dominates the Fenlands at certain times of the year; it saturates the retina. For a painter, the task is to capture the overwhelming power of colour and yet also retain structure and form in the painting. The heavy impasto of cold wax helps to establish the solidity and sculptural qualities of the landscape near the Fenland village of Somersham.

‘We associate yellow with warmth, sunshine, and positivity. Bright yellow is an attention-getter, and its contrast with black is the most visible color combination.

‘Despite its association with cheerfulness and warmth, yellow carries a surprising number of negative connotations. Yellow is a symbol of cowardice, of sickness, and of mental illness. It’s the color of sensationalism and even of excess. Vibrant yellow is typically used with caution by designers, though paler yellows can certainly have a modest uplifting effect. Too much bright yellow can easily overwhelm a project’. source: The Meaning of Colour

Somersham Fen: (detail)
Somersham Fen (detail)

‘Sienna’s World’ Anglesey Abbey
‘Christina’s World’ Andrew Wyeth

The black and white photograph of my granddaughter was taken at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. The painting below, which many of you will be very familiar with, set in the coastal landscape of Maine was created by the American artist Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth’s painting is a penetrating psychological portrait and a vivid representation of the inner world of Christina Olson who, because of a muscle degenerative disease, was unable to walk. It is undoubtedly a powerful and memorable image. When I took the ‘shot’ of Sienna, she had just befriended a tiny snail on a leaf and was gingerly carrying it up the embankment; she had already given it a suitable name and was completely lost in her own imaginary world. When I looked at the photograph later, I immediately recognised the composition I had unwittingly borrowed. The house, the gradual incline, the perspective and the viewpoint. Of course the psychological drama was necessarily absent but it does reveal the extent to which we make aesthetic judgements based on our previous experience.

landscape photograph monochrome Fenland road
White House Road: Fenland

I think late Autumn and Winter are probably the best seasons for landscape photographers living in the Fenlands.  I know that Cambridgeshire doesn’t have the dramatic landscapes of the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales or even the Trough of Bowland, but it does have something special.

At this time of year the landscape maintains a gritty and determined resolve.  There is a complete absence of pretension and prettiness.  The uneven roads and tilted telegraph poles, the isolated columns of tall trees,  vast skies with fields stretching to the distant horizon makes me feel as if I have been cast adrift on an open sea.

John Clare: The Fens

There’s not a hill in all the view,
Save that a forked cloud or two
Upon the verge of distance lies
And into mountains cheats the eyes.
And as to trees the willows wear
Lopped heads as high as bushes are;
Some taller things the distance shrouds
That may be trees or stacks or clouds
Or may be nothing; still they wear
A semblance where there’s nought to spare.