Paul Johnson

A writer plays hookey with a magic paintbox

A writer plays hookey with a magic paintbox

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At a time when I should be writing my book on human monsters — goaded on by the many ingenious suggestions from readers of this column — I have actually been painting. There are many reasons for this disgraceful irresponsibility. First, the delicious autumn weather and the tremendous rainbow of colours it has coaxed out of the generous earth. The greenies who accuse us of destroying our planet are too young to remember the Novembers of my youth, when blankets of fog, greenish-grey and poisonous, descended in early November and often clung to southeast England for weeks at a time, stretching from Berkshire to Essex, and particularly virulent in London itself. Its fumes killed off the very young and the elderly and made life a misery to all. The ‘London particular’, as Dickens called it, had been perennial since Shakespeare’s day, when sea coal from Newcastle was first burned by Londoners in large quantities. This fog was banished within a decade by the combination of smokeless fuel and the Clean Air Act, and November is becoming one of the clearest and finest months of the year. This enlightened alliance of ingenious and unhysterical science, and legislative wisdom by politicians who were not then habitual grandstanders on TV, ought to be a lesson to us all in these days of cosmic Cassandras and phoney physics. There is no need to destroy our economies to correct any imbalance — all we need are brains and inventiveness. Our rulers should follow my example (and Churchill’s) and study nature by painting it: there is no activity so conducive to calm and the nourishment of deep thought.

The second reason is that I have been given a 24-colour box of the best watercolour paints I have ever used. They are wonderfully pure and dramatic in their power and luminosity. They come in double-size pans, too, which makes brushwork easier and more dashing. (I can almost hear Sargent’s whoops of joy.) These paints are made in St Petersburg, by hand and according to methods going back deep into the 19th century (perhaps before), and which seem to have been lost in the mass-producing West. The name of the firm is Yarka. My box was bought in the famous Artist’s Shop in Rhinebeck, upstate New York, where my daughter lives with her husband and beautiful gold-red-haired daughter. It seems painters come from all over to buy them there, though the paints are exclusively imported by Jack Richeson & Co., PO Box 160, Kimberly, WI 54136 ( There, that’s all I know about these magical pigments.

The third reason is that Carla bought me from Rome a superbly bound sketchbook of high-quality watercolour paper made by a firm called Fabriano. It is the kind of handmade laid stuff not easy to get over here. I can imagine Guercino using it for his ink and wash drawings, or Fragonard taking it to Tivoli for his enchanting watercolours of fountains, or that greatest of Italian watercolourists, Giacinto Gigante (what a name, eh?) for his startling sketches of Garibaldi entering Naples in triumph. The combination of enticing paints and inviting paper has made my studio irresistible, and I have been there, hard at it, for many hours each day, engaged both in venturesome experiments and meticulous brushwork.

This follows a busy summer in which I have not only done my annual series of landscapes overlooking Lake Como and its basin of mountains which, with its ever-changing clouds, shadows and sunlight, is the perfect arena for watercolour, but I have also experimented with two innovations. The first is still life. By this I mean not only flower studies, which I often work on when the weather keeps me indoors, but careful and elaborate paintings of fruit and vegetables. I have particularly concentrated on apples, pears, grapes, tomatoes, figs and avocados. Doing them involves restraining my natural and self-destructive impatience and working slowly, first by looking intently, then by using a variety of brush sizes to get shapes, colour consistencies, shadows, shine and highlights exactly right. I discovered that there is a great deal to be learned by painting tomatoes in various stages of ripeness, from hard, bright green to erupting vermilion, and that the shadows cast by artfully arranged combinations are satisfyingly difficult. I also had exacting troubles, at length triumphantly overcome, with light falling on the mottled surfaces of avocados, themselves composed of subtle dark colours, and with apples from different trees making fascinating contrasts. These studies involved inspecting Chardin minutely, and learning from him.

From fruit and vegetables, I passed on to solid, non-organic objects: bottles and tankards, glasses, tins, boots and shoes, Wellingtons, oil-lamps, candles, watering-cans and jars. Earthenware jars are marvellously nutritious to paint, especially when inspired by scrutiny of Velasquez’s ‘The Water-Seller of Seville’ (Apsley House, London, but now on view in the National Gallery show). I did two big watercolour drawings a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Grappling with these objects, in both strong and subdued lighting systems, sometimes in both, is wonderful practice both in pencil-work, which you must get right, and in the use of watercolour. The shine on glasswork and, still more, metalwork like silver, pewter and brass raises a variety of serious problems, the solving of which is engrossing and — dare I say it — fun. It is true that, in watercolour, once you make a serious mistake you are sunk. But then, as with old-fashioned moral hygiene, you learn to avoid the occasions of sin by the arrangement of your still life in the first place, cutting out problems you know you cannot tackle, and introducing highlight opportunities which you know you can, and which provide sensational bits of virtuosity. Here, William Nicholson is the best exemplar: his painting of silverware and its shine is unequalled even by Vermeer.

Fortified by three months of still-life work, I then plunged into something I had never done before: abstracts. It is the one legitimate form, in my view, of Modern Art (i.e., fashion art) and I have often been tempted to try it. I did three or four a day for a month, then sat back to think. It is not easy to decide what is, or is not, abstract art. You cannot learn it by studying so-called masters like Klee or Kandinsky. You have to trust your instincts for form. I discovered that while I could tell whether something I did was a success or a failure, in neither case could I explain why. It is, paradoxically, like playing blindman’s buff with your eyes open but the quarry invisible. What I did find, however, is that abstract painting is wonderful training in sharpening your colour sense, particularly in the juxta-position of key colours, unusual combinations, and the sheer use of imagination in constructing colour sequences and dissonances. And all that, too, is huge fun, especially with a colour-master like Ivon Hitchens as mentor.

Now I am back to the real world, doing autumn leaves, especially maples (brought from America), Virginia creeper (from Newton Road) and vine-leaves from my garden. My Russian paints, my Roman paper and what I have learnt from still life and abstraction are being put to good use. Oh, the joys of painting!