I have been excitedly planning my next big painting today. I've been mulling the notion of a painting over in my head for some time; gradually piecing, forming and building on the idea of it to a more solid visualisation; but the original inspiration was back in March 2011 on my field trip to Botswana.
Near to the present airstrip used by the camp I stayed at, is the old airstrip. Its position in the area was not ideal in that it was often severely affected as the flood waters rose, so a new site was found, one on slightly higher ground which remained dry throughout the flood season. The old site was left alone and the wildlife and vegetation soon reclaimed it. Each time I was taken to the old airstrip, there would be many animals gathered there, for some reason it was greatly favoured them; perhaps because it was open and they could gather, with good vision around them having a clear line of sight for danger. There were dips and small lagoons of shallow water and higher dry ground for standing on.
On my last day as we were waiting for the planes to arrive to take me and some other staff out of the Delta, back to Maun; we drove, to wait at the old airstrip, where we could catch the last glimpse of Delta wildlife before we left. The plane was delayed so we enjoyed the time to just sit and watch. I got lots of lovely references of the animals as I watched their comings and goings, but also, as I sat there and looked at the vista I thought it would make an interesting backdrop to a painting. With that in mind, I took a series of photos spanning about 180 degrees of my field of vision that would piece together and form a panorama of the area. Wildlife wise - there were various waders and ducks, red lechwe, zebra, tsessebe, a lone wildebeeste, an elephant half hidden in the distant tree line, an eagle soaring over head; the sun was high and lighting the whole scene beautifully. The zebra milled around for sometime in several groups, some with juveniles, others just of adults. At one point some zebra started galloping from the dry land of the airstrip into the water to one side and charging through the shallows emerged onto higher drier ground before disappearing into the treeline. I don't know if they were spooked (no other animal reacted) or whether there was some specific reason for their hasty departure... but it started me thinking on a landscape painting, a long 'postbox' shaped one with the running zebra the focus. I wanted to get so much of what I had seen in, without cramming it. How was I to do that?
Over many years I had seen diptych's or triptych's approached in different ways by many artists. Not long after I returned from Botswana I saw a painting made up of four different sized canvases set together in an asymmetrical way, but it was of just one tree at sundown spread across the expanse of all the canvases together; and it was that particular painting which triggered me to think of my old airstrip idea again. Rather than using one canvas... maybe I could use three or four and have them different sizes.... each one forming a painting in its own right but put together they make a whole landscape.
So I toyed with the idea in my head from then on and did several roughs over time playing with composition of canvases and sizes. I'm quite a conventional person so being too radical with all different sizes didn't sit well for me to actually produce a painting on... so I gradually came to three, set in a symmetrical way. I settled on a formation of canvases and rough sizes of canvas proportionally that I could imagine my scene to be played out on.
I drew a rough of the landscape's composition, putting in notes about the animals I was going to portray and how they were placed and acting in the scene. I split it across the rough proportions I wanted and then went to investigate canvases. No good getting too set if I couldn't get the canvases or they didn't look right as a set. Best way I could determine that was to physically hold the canvases together in front of me. In a local art shop I checked out the canvases they had and tried out different size combination along the proportions I had envisaged. Typically one canvas wasn't the exact size I had in mind, but I figured I could jiggle my composition to sit comfortably on it, but just in case I also asked a friend of mine, who does framing, how easy or difficult it would be if I bought a canvas and had the long sides made shorter and the canvas restretched over it. After a little discussion, I decided to look again at the shop sizes and see if I could accommodate my composition on that, it would be less hassle and if the composition was fine on the shop dimensions then, no problem. Happy with that I then turned to my computer to 'visualise it'.
In the InDesign software on my Mac, I created three documents each to the size of one of the canvases. I set these documents side by side on my desktop so I could work with all three open and viewable at the same time; this enables me to see the whole effect at once. I enlarged and superimposed selected photo's that I took in my 180 degree panorama and matching up them across the three canvases I tried successive series of views until I got something that would 'sit' with the composition I had in my head. As this painting will be of an actual place I need to get the scene more or less correct although there will be a bit of artistic tweeking, moving a tree slightly this way or that, to improve the composition. I also had to make sure that each canvas would work well on an individual basis as although I shall paint it as one piece, and hope therefore to sell it as such, I may not find a buyer to take all three, so if they worked individually, or as two, I wouldn't be left with something that didn't work if only one section sold.
Happily the composition works well on the shop dimensions and may actually be better, so I placed all three documents side by side and did a screen shot, which I then opened and saved in Photoshop. I cropped and cleaned the image up so that I was left with the three canvas sizes sat together forming an impression of something like the finished painting will look like. I then enlarged one canvas up to full size to see the scale of the landscape from a painting perspective, just to give me an idea of what level of detail I may, or may not, do with it.
I have yet to plan the actual animals... their exact positions, groupings and pose. I have an idea of the 'story' I want to tell with it and where roughly the groupings will be, and what I want the animals to be doing, but my next step now will be to start drawing the individual animals and compose their groupings more definitely on paper... this will be the hardest part and will take time. I want to get this right and not to rush it, so now is the perfect time to start on this as I don't actually plan to paint this piece until I have my two months off from the zoo in September and October. I am waiting until then as time-wise I can really knuckle down then and concentrate on it without all the stops and starts my painting life has when I am working part-time at the zoo. But I want to be able to crack on with it straight away when September comes, so if I can get all the planning and composing done and ready over the next few months I shall be ready to splosh away at that time.
This is going to be a challenging piece for me, but I am really excited about the prospect of this one, so I am looking forward to starting it.