DEAR READERS, I thought this time I would describe something of the reality of making real classical art in Scotland. For there are many aspects one needs to consider and none of them are foolish trendy modern, or arty, but are concerned with the actual reality of making proper art.
So I will begin with that first step, and how these decisions may begin. I enjoy fly-fishing and on this occasion, I was on a reconnaissance one Sunday night along our nearby river and I was looking for somewhere new to fish on my side of the riverbank. The location itself was ridiculously steep, with no footpaths and a high-sided drop, full with brambles or neck high bracken. Having fallen, suddenly to my surprise, I both heard and glimpsed a new waterfall. As it was late, the next morning I went back. I deliberately turned right, along the little B Road down below, crossed a big field and it took me forever to find a way down, back through all those trees, thorns and bushes to get to the river and this location.
Yet I did, and discovered there was not one waterfall, but three. They are situated in a little steep hidden valley, about a mile long and at least one hundred and fifty feet deep. If you didn't turn left or right at the bottom of my road and avoiding those trees and impregnable undergrowth in front, you could almost drive right down over the edge.
It is much hidden, and I never knew it was there, although I had seen the twin fence rows of barbed wire up above many times. So I decided yes I would like to make a painting just above the first of the three falls, looking across and up the second, towards the third fall above and with the ravine sides going up to a small piece of sky appearing above.
My fishing friend John had said a week before, “Glen Lyon looks prehistoric and beautiful.” Yet this hidden vale is nothing like that, it’s just wild. It is not hard to imagine if Pixies and Elves lived anywhere, this is where they would be. And getting to it easily is a complex task.
I realised It would be almost impossible to go the way I went that morning with painting kit, so I went in the afternoon with a 4ft x 3ft canvas, a bag and my stool a different way. I turned left, as on that Sunday night, through a gate some way to the right, crossed a field but then turned left instead and then right again at a riverbank fence. Again it was really steep going down, almost vertical, but there was worse to follow. You need Wellingtons, as there is a watercourse to ascend that flows into the river. Only the right bank is navigable going in, with a wet, muddy steep trail suitable for rabbits. It traverses and goes up and down, up and down, about twenty feet above the rocks and the watercourse below.
Yet at no point is it wider than a footprint. It's mud on top of moss and mould, which can crumble away when you put your foot or any weight upon it. After painting that first day I fell six times coming back, once very badly and nearly over the edge onto rocks twelve feet below. The back of the canvas was covered in mud, plus the corners and me as well, especially where I dug my fingernails in. It is almost rock climbing I guess, but you need Wellies to walk through the shallows going in. I also didn’t know how deep it would get down there when it rained? Yet I was sure it would be a good picture if I could do it.
I decided I would take no stool the next day, just a small backpack and fix a stronger shoulder strap for the canvas. The one I had the day before had broken twice when I fell. I also fell again coming back up the steep riverbank slope, as everything near there is inevitably wet, weak, and rotten if you grab it. Nevertheless, I was pleased with this wild scene and my beginnings.
I had started this large painting on the 30th September. Then, unfortunately, the constant rain became a torment making access dangerous in November, December, and January. Consequently, I also experienced a number of bad falls in the process of trying to gain access to paint or returning out again, as the steep vertical sides were often running wet and never really stable.
With a backpack for the painting kit, I carried the painting itself on one shoulder, held with one arm, and a large wading stick in the other, going backwards and forwards. This was more successful, I didn't fall half as frequently, although I expected the place would ruin my Wellingtons. And indeed it did. In fact, I tore two pairs during this painting, as the mud at the bottom just sucked them off my feet. Naturally, it didn’t help starting work with cold wet feet, nor walking and driving home with wet feet either.
There was also a problem with the water level constantly coming up and down. Towards the end it was bad, as the little bank where I stood was washed away. Eventually, I just ended standing in the water, which I had done before for other paintings.
Unfortunately, paintings don’t paint themselves, nor can you get someone else to make it, like modern conceptual art. So if you wish to honestly work directly from life, you must accept like everybody else who works outside – the weather will be whatever it is and that's what you get.
Yet I am very happy to report I eventually finished this major work and I must admit I was also pleased not to need to go back again. So I thought I would end with a compliment that an Italian friend of mine wrote, which kindly touches those practical realities too.
“When I think of your classical art, I think of something at higher values, something that can draw you out from your own current thoughts. This magic to produce such works of art is difficult as you have to fight against everything around you, plus your own bad feelings to let emerge the good ones.”