Our theme for the Sunday (14 Oct) sessions of Paint Out Norwich was the Medieval townscape, for which Norwich is renowned – we were directed to the Cathedral area and Elm Hill for the day.
Morning Session – I found it impossible to ignore the dominant shape of the Cathedral spire, although it presented a compositional dilemma, especially close in with its lone form standing against the sky. However I was keen to work at close quarters to give a sense of the houses jostling around this imposing building.
The light was quite even and flat with no distracting shadows to chase, and I chose a spot on the Green, to the south of the Cathedral. Using a stretched rectangular format, reflecting the shapes I was portraying, I planned a grouping of strong vertical structures. In the foreground, a lamp post stood out against the pale masonry of a handsome Georgian house. The edge of the house, with its garden wall, gabled roofline and chimney stack, supported the vertical theme, following through to the Cathedral tower and steeple itself.
My proximity to the buildings allowed me to explore the variety of make up and materials – house walls a checkerboard of warm stone matched with blue/grey flint, bordered by red brick quoins. A similar yellow stone had been used in the construction of the Cathedral. To emphasize its importance and pull it forward, I left the background to the spire as a simple flat orange area. I also wanted this bright colour to echo the way in which the brickwork details of the house had been used to demarcate its masonry. Although not naturalistic, I was interested to see if this more post impressionistic use of colours would help to give cohesion to the painting.
Afternoon Session – During the rather rainy afternoon a number of us broke off from our own work to observe how the artist and teacher Tony Robinson (Founder of ‘Art in the Open’, Wexford, Eire), would handle a plein air composition under testing conditions. With professional determination, he set to and produced a painting with subtle tonal observations, drawing on a street scene in which the unintended circumstances of water on the road were turned to his advantage and created opportunities for mirroring the flow of life and lights that washed over them. Eschewing offers of an umbrella he worked against a growing body of precipitation, until he could do so no more, as the paint would no longer stick. It was heartening to see, and we all resolved to avoid the rain if at all possible!
Nocturne Session – Later in the day, in the growing twilight and with the threat of rain, I made my way to the upper side of the Cathedral Close, onto a quiet road leading towards the River Wensom. I set my easel and, making use of the familiar upright format of the morning’s painting, began to work out my main shapes. In spite of the dark, the steeple was still prominent, although this time accompanied to its left, and nearly matched in scale, by a tall house with crow-stepped gable. These large abstract shapes were what drew me to this composition encouraging me to use bold brushwork rather than being distracted by detail.
The distinctive stepping of the house gable cut diagonally through the view of the Cathedral tower – its near-black edge contrasting strikingly with the illuminated faces of the spire and tower. Crockets spotted brightly along the shaft of the spire and drew the attention of the viewer to the background of the composition. This strongly lit area was highlighted further by shadows to the right – a very dark area that extended downward and helped to define some of the more muted foreground shapes. In the foreground, I roughly rendered the house and outbuildings with toned-down colours and marks to give some indication of building materials.
As well as the low level of lighting, increasing wind and rain became quite challenging through the evening. The small umbrella I had attached to my easel at the outset was more often turned inside out and at a certain point I could no longer convince fresh oil paint to adhere to the support. Eventually, I felt I had put down enough paint to loosely describe the scene. Packing up in these conditions requires an extra degree of meditative organization, to avoid accidental damage to the painted surface of the finished work.