Thinking about colour

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IMG_6314So yesterday I started thinking about the colour set for the red cabbage leaf painting. If I were to use the closest colours I could get to the ones printers use in three colour printing, I could use them in two alternative combinations of warm and cool. But this morning as I was trying a few swatches, it occurred to me that I could get closer to the purple red I need by using alizarin crimson. Then a couple of experiments with the two blues moved me towards French ultramarine which gives a warmer touch.  But there are also many browns and greens to be got and sticking with my three tube resolution I tested cadmium orange and Indian yellow.  Why bother? Why not just open a different tube for every colour I can see?  Well, because it’s far less interesting and it costs a fortune and I don’t need to work that way. I’m just an apprentice, and I just learn a lot more by using a restricted palette.  Didn’t I learn all this at art school decades ago? No I didn’t because art schools went through a long phase of treating technique with great suspicion. Imagine a conservatoire that didn’t allow students to practice scales because it might disrupt their inner musicality?  That was what art schools were like in the seventies – ideas were supposed to emerge untroubled by anything resembling skill.  I’ve no idea whether things have changed, but if I were offered that kind of education on a huge loan I’d think twice.

Anyway, today was meant to be a drawing day because the forecast was for rain, but it didn’t rain and so we went up to the allotment and while Madame sowed peas – douce Provence do well over the winter – I dug up strawberry offsets and planted them out in their new bed.  It’s a little late to be doing it but if they get their roots down and we have a decent autumn we’ll have new plants for free and we can give many of the fruit bushes more space when we move them.

It’s been a good year for Jays – we saw six together yesterday, but todays unusual sighting was a parakeet.  We heard it first, and then caught sight of its brilliant green plumage. Sadly we also noticed that someone has nicked a bag of compost – there’s obviously a thief on the site, but very little we can do about it. I’m cooking pork shoulder in cider tonight, with pommes dauphinoise and chard off the allotment. If this is brief it’s because I’m knackered.  The only thing we could do to prevent any more compost being stolen was to get it all on to the beds – which involved much heavy lifting. As I was prepping the new strawberry bed I noticed that the worm population has exploded since last year – good news and confirmation that all this emphasis on organic matter is paying off.  Not so, sadly, with the leeks which have been struck down for the second year running  by allium leaf miner. There are just a couple of plots that haven’t been affected but the variety doesn’t seem to matter.  Next year we’ll have to think whether leeks are one crop we should give up for a year or two.

I’ve ordered second hand copies of Gerard’s and Culpeper’s herbals – Gerard was only 17p so well worth a try. Culpeper just arrived and that’s where I’m off next.

Placating the gods of mortality?

 

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Not another dead leaf?” you may well ask, and I will admit to having a bit of  thing about them – because a leaf can be stunningly beautiful even if it did once belong to a red cabbage rather than a Japanese Acer in an arboretum. I get my pleasures where I can.  The fact that it looks a bit like the back of my hand on a bad day is neither here nor there because the gods of mortality are strictly neutral as to species.

This is one I just have to paint for its sheer delicacy, for the way it expresses the temporality and fragility of all living things and for its exquisite colours.

The world is a better place for this one dead cabbage leaf.

But isn’t it rather morbid to reflect on these things?  Christmas is coming and we’ll all have a jolly time and …..

One of my earliest memories is of making Christmas puddings with my mother – or at least my sister and me would watch while my mother, red faced, would mix the ingredients and give us our turn so we could make a Christmas wish, and then lower the pudding bowls  – covered in cotton torn from old sheets and tied around with string – and lowered into the wash boiler suspended from the copper stick. The copper stick outlasted the old boiler by several decades because it was still used to extract boiling washing from the super up-to-date twin tub washing machine. Everybody had a copper stick in those days, and I have a vague memory that our next door neighbour “Aunty Doreen” was fond of threatening us with hers.  Unlike most old boilers, though, ours never found its way into the garden and a new life containing a rampant mint plant. But my memory includes the reckless danger of lighting the gas ring under the boiler; of smelling the wet cotton and watching the steam condensing on the kitchen window for hours on end.

All of which may, or may not explain why making Christmas puddings is nine parts ritual to one part recipe; but I always feel that I’m channelling my mother when I do it. There’s an element of defiance in holding a feast when everything looks as if it’s finished, done for. The same goes for painting dead leaves, or for that matter writing a blog. It’s always an act of defiance, a two fingered salute to the gods of mortality and entropy.  We shall have our feast and celebrate all this unnecessary beauty for the sheer joy of it. No I don’t think we’re placating any gods, although it would please me enormously if we were annoying the gods of the economy, the gods of greed and selfishness, the gods of eternal growth and prosperity and especially the gods of industrial farming, along with all the other liars.

‘Seeing the world in a grain of sand’ is a bit of a stretch for me most of the time, but occasionally I catch a glimpse of it in a leaf, and it was leaves that occupied most of my morning.  As it got light I looked out of the window across the green and I could see leaves, scuttering along in the wind, piling up in drifts.  “Good” I thought – “There’ll be leaves up at the allotment” – and there were: several tons of them dropped off by the parks department. But don’t for a moment assume that allotmenteers are a peace loving equitable bunch of people who love nothing more than sharing.  The terrible truth is we only share our surpluses and not our shortages. The leaf season only lasts a few weeks and I just happened to be first on the scene this morning so I had to drop everything and haul leaves back because I knew that within hours our narrow eyed neighbours would be competing for every last leaf. Speed is essential and over the years I’ve evolved a rapid system using a 1.5 cubic metre woven sack.  It holds just the right number of leaves – probably four or possibly even five barrow loads – just a bit more than I can comfortably lift – but I’m prepared to be very uncomfortable when there’s free mulch about.  By the time our bin was full, pressed down and covered there were three more people working on the heap – like locusts we were – maintaining the pretence of neighbourliness all the while. More leaves will arrive, no doubt, and there are more than enough to go around but we’ve got this year’s supply secured – result!

Meanwhile, the slow process of cooking the puddings went on all day. We don’t have a pan nearly big enough to cook four puddings at once, and so I’ve been doing them one at a time in the pressure cooker. Each one takes two hours in total, so the whole operation still takes eight hours, but I can set the hob to turn itself off automatically so we can leave each one cooking without supervision. The flat is full of Christmas smells and there’s something quite nice about closing the shutters when it gets dark – earlier every day.

The wine we made last year went down the drain today. It was fun to make, but it tasted rubbish and it was taking up a lot of space.

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Home on the range

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Well, sort of – although this isn’t home, rather a borrowed kitchen in the summer where we cooked some great food for all the family. However, the range – or the stove is a wonderful place of retreat when everything is going to hell in a handcart, and that certainly seems to be the case in the UK where we, or the government, have managed to create an extra crisis as if environmental extinctions and global heating weren’t bad enough. We’re poised on the edge of withdrawing from the EU in pursuit of some bizarre dream that we can relocate in another age.  Even a member of our family (fortunately not one we have to see very much of) opined yesterday that it would be lovely to go back to the 60’s.  ‘Be careful what you wish for’, I thought, as I tried not to bite the end off my tongue.

It all adds up to a terribly depressing and stressful time as we are being lured into a distraction robbery by a bunch of people I would gladly introduce to some of the unregulated dark and satanic mills I’ve had the misfortune to work in. BUT – it is what it is, and we may yet escape from the gimlet eyed brexit evangelicals.  Tomorrow will tell.

So today was supposed to be a bit of R & R after a very busy week and my first thought was to do some drawing, but that idea soon wilted like a warm lettuce as he “what’s the point” feeling swept over me.  There were jobs lining up on the list so in the end we went to the garden centre and bought the first seeds for the 2020 season, and ordered some more on the internet.  Preparing for the spring does, at least, inject a bit of joy into the procedings and thereafter I tied myself to the cooker and cooked as if my life depended on it. I quite enjoy batch cooking and so I did 6Kg of ragu to be portioned up for the freezer, I roasted a chicken, flaked the meat off and made stock, I made tomato soup with yet another batch of fruit, drank copious expressos and forgot that we have virtually no freezer space – that’s the problem with displacement activity, it always seems to displace the most important bit of the brain.

One aspect of the difficulty with getting on with drawing is the fact that we’ve just been to an exhibition of the Bath Society of Botanical Artists. In fact we’ve been twice and I’ll probably find an excuse to go again.  My teacher has a piece in, and she’s also recently published a book which I bought. She (Julia Trickey – “Botanical Artistry”, Two Rivers Press) is inspiring and daunting, and she’s a great teacher.  When I look at my work after having seen some of the work on display, I know I’ve got a million miles to go.  My last big project ended in hundreds of preparatory drawings and photos but collapsed in the face of the challenge.  Being the kind of person I am, (I hate failing), one of the purchases in the garden centre was a single hyacinth bulb which, when it flowers, will enable me to complete the project and move on. You can’t wait for inspiration to call, it has to be willpower plus technique, I’m not Michelangelo!

Go on – sneeze!

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Well, Mr Wordsworth, you were right about emotion recollected in tranquility. Our trip to Cornwall was entirely unexpected, and so, with no more travel plans in place, this is the beginning of the rest of the Potwell Inn autumn and today we sat down and reviewed all our summer photographs on a big screen. I was taken aback at quite how intense an experience it was, and this picture of a Sneezewort plant just about had it all for me. As we went through all the new plants, I remembered the exact spot we found this one.  It’s not particularly rare and no-one apart, perhaps, the painter Giorgio Morandi, would write poems to its beauty.  He’d love it for its restrained colours and I can just see the buff and white flowers somewhere in the background of one of his still-life paintings.

It was the colours that first caught my eye, and then the fact that I’d never seen it before. The identifications you have to work hard for are by far the most memorable and as time goes on I can usually place a plant somewhere in the right family. But once I knew its name I realized I knew a little bit about its medicinal uses in the past and instead of being a stranger it was a friend at the first meeting.

There were lots of meetings like that during the summer and I took hundreds of photographs in which I could instantly recall where they were taken and then refer back to my waterproof notebook to find the name. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes there are a sequence of letters or numbers that mean I had to key it out by answering a series of questions exactly correctly to take me to the right place in the book.

But there was more, because many of the plants had features that just cried out to be painted; the brilliant hues of blackberry leaves, the exact texture of the skins of sloes, the sealing wax red of hawthorn berries and rose-hips. Some of them also stood astride more than one field of interest – illustration, medicine, abstract structure and form, folk names. The natural world suddenly becomes a far richer, more precious place. As I’ve written often before, it populates it with friends whom the prospect of losing fills me with sadness and the resolve to stop that from happening.

I saw at once what I need to get done during the winter months when the allotment takes up less time and I can set up my tiny cramped drawing space once more. I feel blessed and inspired to be back at the Potwell Inn.