Archive for May, 2016

On Contemplating Art

Monday, May 2nd, 2016


I was working at an unfamiliar hotel one evening and as I always do when I visit such a venue, I casually glance at the pictures on the walls. Often, if it’s a modern, chain hotel, the pictures will be bland and pretty in an ersatz parody of art. The older the hotel however, the more care they seem to take in selecting their wall art.

This particular hotel was old, hundreds of years old. The mullioned windows were straight out of Wuthering Heights.

This set my curiosity to ‘high’ and I conducted a deliberate viewing of the walls when I entered reception. To my delight, they were covered in a host of pictures and none of them seemed generic or glossy. In fact, many looked like the works of gifted amateurs and suggested that they might be originals.

As I rounded a corner a picture presented itself to me. The composition of it was such that I instinctively knew it was the work of a true artist – the balance of shape and tone was delightful. This drew me in like a magnet and I inspected it from a metre or so away. It was a sketch of a street scene executed on a dark ivory coloured board. The style was quite loose as if it had been drawn from life but the draughtsmanship in the overall structure was such that it was evident the artist had a lifetime of experience.

As I continued to study it, it became apparent that it was a pencil drawing finished with watercolour but the colour palette was so restricted that it took a while for me to realise this.

This inspection from a middle distance increased my interest in the artwork. The various elements within the picture intrigued me with their textures and depth of tone. This progression of curiosity was telling me that this was a major work of art.

I stepped closer to the picture, my nose barely a foot away form its surface and I stepped into another world…

I was in the street. I could hear snippets of conversation of the people going about their shopping, I could feel the soft crunch of dust under my feet as I walked the parade of shops—I could even smell the subtle fecund aromas in the hot air. The light was magical, gently warming the edges of the awnings and buildings.

The picture achieved this incredible transportation purely through the power of suggestion. Some parts of the image were so loosely executed that a few brushes with a wash of muted colour created the solid wall of a building complete with reflective windows. Smoke from the chimney pots was achieved with a few swift, deft touches from a charcoal stick. The mastery of control, the sheer economy of line, the unerring choice of colour mesmerised me.

It had an inverse law of appreciation: the closer I looked at the detail, the greater my pleasure and the deeper I was transported into this other world. I was like a scientist from the middle ages being given a microscope for the first time and the higher the magnification I used, the greater was my amazement.

How on earth was that texture achieved? The colours blended in and out of shadow and light as elusively as playful ghosts. As I drank in all the detail it was clear now that the picture was mixed media: soft pencil, charcoal, watercolour and gouache.

I stood there captivated by the work of a master craftsperson.

It has been a while since art moved me with such force. I’d almost forgotten how marks on a surface could sometimes perform the miracle of turning dirt into an entire world. This painting did what exquisite art does: move me to profound depths and inspire me to try to emulate the miracle.

Footnote: I went back to the hotel to photograph the sketch. Due to the reflections on the glass I’ve had to tweak the image but the atmosphere of the original is mostly preserved. My research suggests Joseph Rideal Smith is the artist.