'The Enemy of Art is the Absence of Limitations'

It was the actor and film-maker Orson Wells who made that seemingly counter-intuitive statement, and yet, as an artist, I found over and over that it is the limitations that drive me to ever greater creative explorations.

There's a look of incredulity on people's faces when, in answer to questions about my current work, I tell them that it's all about one particular tree. They already have a problem getting their heads around the fact that all I am focussing on is trees at the moment. The idea of many trees is, it seems, already hard enough to grasp, so just ONE singular tree......!

Time, then, to look more closely into this idea of delving more deeply into a single subject of study. To start with, it's not such a novel idea. Paul Cezanne, after all, is known to have painted that mountain, the Mont St Victoire, over 60 times.

Painting of a mpuntain in the distance, in soft pastel colours of lilac, pink, grey and white, with a flat green landscape int he foreground featuring small rural dwellings. Semi abstract. By Paul Cezanne.
Paul Cezanne painted the Mont St Victoire over 60 times

The truth of the matter is that constraint fuels creativity, and my recent experience working on just one particular tree can offer some interesting insights into how this has happened.

Having said that, this one tree is already much more than a single subject. Centuries of history and experience are deeply etched into her every fibre and facet, marking her with a whole repertory of textures and colours and shapes. There was a time when, as a student, I was set the task of creating a long series based on the vertical line. In the beginning I felt baffled by the task ahead, of creating 120 variations on such a monotonous theme. By the end of the project, though, I had reached a point where I thought I could have made studies of the vertical line my life's work.

But back to the topic of the day - my ancient olive tree.

Even before I started on the main work, my sketchbooks were already bursting with sketches in pencil and ink and charcoal and pastel and graphite. Sketches of twisted limbs and flaking bark and tattered amputations. It took a long time for me to feel familiar enough with the challenge of beginning the task of moving from sketchbook to larger pieces, let alone to even consider start working in oil on canvas....!

So I began safely, with bigger drawings on large sheets (76cm x 56 cm) of a very rough, handmade paper that I happened to have in stock. I decided that I could exploit its coarse texture to emphasis the ad hoc textures of the branches and trunk, and I set myself the task of making six large drawings.

Filled with trepidation - this tree is truly awe-inspiring - I opted to work with a medium that felt relatively safe - Derwent Inktense pencils, that can be used as a drawing implement, while at the same time letting you explore the vagaries of liquid ink by adding water. This seemed to be the perfect bridge to take me from the graphic nature of the sketches that I had already made to the full-blown paintings that I had it in mind to do.

In one respect the pencils did offer me more control, and so allowed me to explore the subtleties that I wanted to get to grips with. On the other hand, though, they were new to me, so I had to get to know what I could do with them, and that meant less control.

I had also decided to use pen (the dipping sort) and ink, which offered another element of chance and 'happy' or not-so-happy accident.

In the first of the series all my effort seemed to be going into the business of learning what this new medium was capable/not capable of, and then amending errors, using fair means and foul, to get the piece to work. That was just part of the learning process, that also entailed finding as many colour subtleties as possible from the limited range of just twelve colours that I had in my box. The other part was the business of getting to know the tree better.

The early works were tense and tight and controlled, and not just because I was unfamiliar with the medium I had decided to use. I was still trying to understand how that tree actually worked - how on earth had that part of the trunk actually made its way through that branch there to come out here? How, in heaven's name, did all the various parts of the puzzle actually join up with each other?

Having reached Version 6 I still don't know all the answers, and I know I never will, but my understanding has grown sufficiently to give me the confidence to feel that I can take a few liberties now, and to work in a more relaxed and fluid way, readier to take more risks and be more exploratory because I have more experience with both subject and medium.

When I looked back at my first efforts I realised that so much of my focus had been on trying to understand her contorted intricacies, that I had overlooked the fact that, despite all those years of weathering and abuse, she still has the capacity to send out delicate new branches and fresh leaves to provide shade, shelter and nurture. So I have now added those, and suddenly actually brought her to life.

A hand-coloured pen and ink drawing of an ancient olive tree, showing a complex set of twisted and broken branches, yet still bearing delicate branches of new foliage. At the foot of the tree fresh green grass and a rosemary bush. Yellow, ochres, greens, greys and greens.
Originally, this version all my focus was on the contorted branches, trying to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fitted together. By the time I had worked on six variations, I had come to realise that she still bears fresh and delicate new foliage.

Speaking about it to someone recently, I had a flash of insight when I found myself comparing the process to getting to know a person. When we first meet someone we feel guarded, and are cautious about how we interact with them. The better we get to know them, the deeper our relationship becomes, the easier we feel in their company, the more we can be ourselves. And that's how it has been working on this one tree. As I've got to know her better I've felt readier to explore her nuances with different mediums and details, and even to make a little bit of her story up so that our stories - hers and mine - become intertwined with one another.

She has become part of me and whatever work I make about her, it will always contain something of my experience of her.

Getting to know something in depth has been enriching in so many ways. Far from being boring, working within tight constraints has engendered an invigorated creativity. It has been, and continues to be, exciting and constantly generates ideas about how to deepen that experience even more as I strive to turn the mundane into the sublime.

You can read further on the topic of working creatively within constraints here:


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