Sunday, March 29, 2009

Churchill's Blank Wall

Because our parents had met at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in the early 1930s, my brother and I grew up in a household with paint boxes, half finished canvases and the smell of linseed oil. Given this background, I was surprised to discover that one of the best descriptions of the painter’s eye I had ever read or heard was written by Sir Winston Churchill. I found it while I was doing research for In the Mind’s Eye -- so I put it in the book. Even though I first read Churchill's words many years ago, I think of them often -- and always when I try to see reflected colors on a blank white wall in full sun. Below, I will insert a brief passage:

But these shreds of evidence are as nothing compared to the passionate love of painting described by Churchill in “Painting As A Pastime.” The essay title belies its content. We are not given, as the title would suggest, the idle musings of a hobbyist dabbler in semi-retirement. On the contrary, we are given, instead, the ardent passion of one who has discovered, before it is too late, a fresh new love in his middle years. This new passion draws on such deep resources and reserves that one can only guess that these great engines of refined and skillful observation had previously had some other object in other facets of a rich and energetic life. He explains:

“One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object in it, one never noticed before. And this is a tremendous new pleasure and interest which invests every walk or drive with an added object. So many colours on the hillside, each different in shadow and in sunlight; such brilliant reflections in the pool, each a key lower than what they repeat. . . . I found myself instinctively as I walked noting the tint and character of a leaf, . . . the exquisite lacery of winter branches, the dim pale silhouettes of far horizons. And I had lived for over forty years without ever noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, 'What a lot of people!' I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint. . . .

“Once you begin to study it, all Nature is equally interesting and equally charged with beauty. I was shown a picture by C├ęzanne of a blank wall of a house, which he had made distinct with the most delicate lights and colours. Now I often amuse myself when I am looking at a wall or a flat surface of any kind by trying to distinguish all the different colours and tints which can be discerned upon it, and considering whether these arise from reflections or from natural hue. You would be astonished the first time you tried this to see how many and what beautiful colours there are even in the most commonplace objects, and the more carefully and frequently you look the more variations do you perceive.”

From In the Mind’s Eye, 1991, 1997, pages 163-164.

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