Getting Out of The Way

The old olive tree isn’t done with me yet…she’s clamouring for more attention.

She has so much to tell, yet does not have the words. I am sure she lives on, spreading her waxy leaves, fattening up her olives, yielding her golden oil, hoping that her message will eventually find a voice.

Perhaps we imbibe some of the wisdom locked in her every cell with all the nutrients that she feeds us when we use her rich liquid. Who knows? All I can say for certain is that, every time I go to visit her, she repeats her imperative, ‘Tell my story!’

I wish I could hear what she has to say, but as I do not speak or understand tree language, I am compelled to work from intuition. Perhaps she is playing her part in guiding my hand, because the new work that I am making about her is certainly very different from what I did before. In fact, in many ways, it is very different from anything I have ever done before, and none of this was consciously decided.

It is all still very much ‘Work in Progress,’ but it seems appropriate to share some of the evolutionary steps that are going into the making of these pieces because, in some ways this pilgrim’s progress can be an echo of the old tree’s own contorted evolution.

And, although this article is apparently all about how I am working on certain paintings in my studio, if you read to the end you will discover how the process of making a few paintings has parallels in our ordinary, daily lives.

One piece is finished - I think.

How it has turned out - very different from previous work - has, I feel, had very little to do with me and comes as a complete surprise. With qualities that I associate with fairy tales and mystical myths, it seems to take the us to unexpected mysterious lands, and lead us to distant and elusive secrets…none of which was in my mind when I embarked on the work.

‘So what was in your mind?’ I hear you ask. Form and texture were there, and mass too. Yes, mass. She is a big and very substantial tree, solidly grounded, and this I wanted to portray. And yet this piece has an almost ephemeral quality to it that isn’t entirely unfitting when I think about it. Her messages are, after all, difficult to grasp, even more difficult to put into words.

So, as an artist, where do you go next after a magical moment like that?

At this point I should tell you that these new pieces are all taken from sketches and details of sketches that I made in the past. Composition has been an important consideration, as are the things that I think I want to say about the tree - her convolutions and her textures; her mass and her secret places; her heart and her hurts.

But, whatever I think I’m going to do, I know that, at the end of the day the tree will determine the result.

I have been working in acrylics with just four colours - lemon yellow, yellow ochre, ultramarine, mars red (a kind of dark burnt sienna) - and white, and they are yielding a wonderful range of subtle greys, greens and yellows.

At this time of year, here on Ibiza, the paints tend to dry quite quickly, so I have been adding a small quantity of glaze medium to keep them open for longer. A large amount makes the colours more transparent so that they can be used as a glaze, and there are times when I have done that too.

The second sketch that I used was one that I have called Basket of Life, because it captures an essence of bounty and solidity. At the moment this one is just hanging around in the studio, waiting for me to decide what to do next. I like what’s there, but I know that it is very unfinished and I haven’t a clue where to go next with it.

Also, I’m feeling pretty inhibited by that scary feeling of not wanting to lose what’s good by carrying on…

Best thing to do, then, is to start on something else. Which I did, then decided that the composition simply wasn’t ever going to work, so I scrubbed everything off with a scouring pad and water and slapped on a coat of white.

That one now looks like this - the latest one that I’ve started.

I have tweaked it several times to get the composition right and I’m not entirely happy with it yet, but I’m sure that adding colour is going to make things different yet again.

All the grey tones in this one have been mixed from just the mars red, lemon yellow and ultramarine blue, by the way, and I’ve had to add white from time to time, when I need to get more coverage where I’ve wanted to adjust the composition.

It’ll be interesting to see how it develops when I start layering colour glazes over the grey, and start to introduce texture with either paint or graphite. (Incidentally, I’m drawing with a long stick that has the graphite taped to the end of it. Less control makes for looser line and mark).

The fourth one that I’ve got on the go at the moment is, once again, more obviously ‘tree.’ Again, the grey tones were mixed from basic colours that I had on my palette, and again I had to tweak the composition to get the tree to be better grounded. You can see that I’ve started adding the colour glaze (blended lemon yellow and mars red, in this case) over the grey base in places, and the textures that have already been painted in will show through the glaze in places, but I will eventually be drawing in more texture with the graphite.

So there you have it - so far. Waiting in the wings to be worked on are another canvas and a board. I think I know what I’m going to put on them, but the tree might have other plans. We will see.

Does any of this in any way reflect the story of the tree? Who am I to say? It’s very unclear at the moment but, as I’ve written before, these things only really become clear in retrospect.

Does any of this have any relevance to the life we live? Well, as some of you are probably well aware, I truly believe that making art can mirror our wider reality and daily lives in so many ways, if we can only notice the parallels.


Most importantly, get out of the way of the process. Have an initial plan, by all means, but be open to change and don’t be afraid to ditch things that aren’t working.

Remember that you do not have to have it all to be able to create wondrous things. There’s a lot to be said for limiting your resources and making the most of what you do have - in this case my colour palette and my singular choice of subject.

When you reach an impasse and don’t know what to do next, do not push on regardless. Change the focus of your attention. The way out of your dilemma will reveal itself in due course.

Finally, step away from the immediate and obvious. Draw on your memory and your felt response to whatever it is that you are thinking about. It will yield a new and unexpected perception.

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