Myth, Art, and the Mythic Landscape
Tuesday, October 04, 2011
Walking by the river with Howard, Howard's mum, and young Tilly on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I found myself thinking about the powerful impression this landscape made on me back when I first set foot on Dartmoor 25 years ago (long before I ever dreamed I would someday settle here). The colors, the light, the shapes of tree and stone were so very different, in ways both large and small, from any countryside I'd known back in America. It felt like stepping into a storybook: into an Arthur Rackham illustration, or a painting by Alan Lee.
And in a sense, I was stepping into those paintings, for Alan Lee, one of the modern heirs to Arthur Rackham, has lived and painted here for many years (when he's not off working on a certain film set in New Zealand). His art has been shaped by these rivers, these stones, these hills stretching green, ochre, and misty blue-grey from horizon to horizon. . . from ocean to forest and field and back to ocean. . . from village lanes to the open, wild moor.
Way back in 1997 I talked to Alan about his work for an article in an American magazine. "I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature," he told me then. "Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape, as many boulders, foaming rivers and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. . . . When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime just painting that river."
Regarding his painting process, he said: "I like to work in watercolor, with as little under-drawing as I can get away with. I like the unpredictability of a medium which is affected as much by humidity, gravity, the way that heavier particles in the wash settle into the undulations of the paper surface, as by whatever I wish to do with it. In other mediums you have more control, you are responsible for every mark on the page — but with watercolor you are in a dialogue with the paint, it responds to you and you respond to it in turn. Printmaking is also like this, it has an unpredictable element. This encourages an intuitive response, a spontaneity which allows magic to happen on the page.
"When I begin an illustration, I usually work up from small sketches — which indicate in a simple way something of the atmosphere or dynamics of an illustration; then I do drawings on a larger scale supported by studies from models — usually friends — if figures play a large part in the picture. When I've reached a stage where the drawing looks good enough I'll transfer it to watercolor paper, but I like to leave as much unresolved as possible before starting to put on washes. This allows for an interaction with the medium itself, a dialogue between me and the paint. Otherwise it is too much like painting by number, or a one-sided conversation."
There will be an "Around the Table" discussion with Alan coming up on the John Barleycorn blog in a couple of weeks -- I've had a sneak peek, and it's terrific. (I will, of course, post a link when it's up.) In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Alan's pictures here . . . coupled with my photographs of a Sunday walk through a landscape that his Muse has oft' tread.
And on a lighter note, here's our zanni of a pup enjoying the mythic landscape in her own way....