Coming under the heading of ‘things I thought I would never do’, I am greatly enjoying being part of a small ‘painting for leisure’ group. Artist Gill, our teacher, lives in Bampton and she has an art studio in her garden. This is every bit as idyllic a location as it sounds, and on Wednesday afternoons I spend a happy two hours applying water-based oil paint to canvas. I work from my photographs and Gill’s teaching includes a method of underpainting, where each project starts with a watery mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna being liberally applied across the whole canvas. The outlines of the features of the painting are then wiped or brushed away and gradually the picture is built up over a number of sessions, until it is deemed to be to the artist’s satisfaction.
Having recently come across an old school report that, somewhat harshly, described me as having no aptitude for the subject of art, I am delighted to find that I can enjoy trying to produce a reasonable facsimile of the images I am copying. This is thanks to Gill’s patient teaching and her gentle encouragement, along with that of the other members of the group.
The sessions fly by. There is invariably a point, after the initial chat and discussion about what we are working on, when the room goes companionably quiet. Everyone is concentrating on their work and there is a particularly lovely quality to this silent, artistic space.
Last week I realised that in a creative group such as this, there is yet another correlation with the grieving process. It amazes me just how many things I do that are synonymous with the whole process of working through loss. It’s nearly 14 years since we lost James, and I am still finding new armoury for the grief toolbox.
With each painting, I start off with something messy, quite chaotic and unformed. Then I slowly begin to alter the shapes before me, with the creation of some soft outlines.
How like the early doom pit of new loss and the gradual, tentative peeping over the parapet
The balance between light and dark, sunshine and shadow, begins to emerge as I apply more paint.
Not for me the ‘once only’ opportunity of water colour – I need to use oil paint to keep making marks, layer upon layer, going over the parts of the painting that are not working.
How like the processing, the thinking and rethinking of events surrounding loss.
Every mark becomes thoughtful and deliberate and by about week three or four of a painting (in my case), the magic starts to happen with the gradually emergent light somehow releasing itself from the darker underpainting beneath
How like the steady dawning of the mourning light with the passage of time.
Art is illusory. We see what we expect to see on a canvas. In some ways it is like the acronym beloved of web developers … WYSIWYG … (what you see is what you get) in that you are producing something that closely resembles whatever it is you are copying. If you expect to see a tree, you will see a tree. If you expect to see a happy face, you will see a happy face.
How like the illusion you can give that everything is normal after loss, when you have donned the superficial mask which only a few people can see behind.
At about week five or six, the big question becomes: When do I stop brushing, tweaking, altering the form that I see before me? When is the painting complete? Perhaps the answer is, “Never”, for generally speaking, we are our own worst critics and rarely satisfied.
How like the endless path of grief that has its own way stations but is an everlasting journey that is never concluded.
Practically, I have learned a great deal in the short time of attending my art group. I know that horizons must be straight and the further away something is, the smaller it should appear on the canvas. My years of taking photographs have informed me about structure, to a degree, but I never knew that it would be so satisfying to dab and stroke with a paintbrush, to learn about how tints of colour, shades of light and dark can work. My ultimate aim is to produce something balanced and symmetrical and pleasing to the eye. The process is very therapeutic.
I don’t expect anyone to be blown away by my artistic talents.
No one ever expects prizes for good grieving either … but each painting implies hard work, concentration and a resultant well composed, colourful, light/shade outcome.
Just like processing loss, really.
And there is an added bonus in being in a group where no-one knows each other’s back story. In grief terms, it can be liberating to have the control and choice of when, and if, this is shared.
Creative activities are often recommended for the bereaved; they take you out of yourself for a time and you generally end up with a sense of achievement, along with something tangible to keep and enjoy.
How like the gradual softening of the rawness of early loss, the sense of moving forward and the holding close of your precious memories.