Finding constancy in fluctuation
If there is a common thread to all the twists and turns of life over the course of the past twelve pandemic-months, we might paradoxically say that it has been change and uncertainty. Life has been in flux, and at each moment that greater certainty seemed to appear on the horizon, it receded timidly below the next crest of doubt.
In this time many of us have sought refuge in things that feel more steady and secure, whether it has been a recurring routine, more time spent with family, or a hobby or passion project. As a painter, I feel fortunate to have been rooted by my work in this tumultuous time and think painting can offer us insights into ourselves as individuals and as societies.
My own attachment is to impressionistic painting. This way of painting allows me to express my interpretation of the world around me. Utilizing techniques that focus on capturing the fleeting effects of light, I employ a direct painting method to illustrate my view of the everyday. Rooted in the tradition of painting, my work acknowledges the skills and knowledge that have been passed down through generations from masters to apprentices, which resides in skill, visual beauty, and the emotional response it evokes. I build upon the traditions of the past and hone my craft to produce pictures that aim to convey my appreciation for nature and the beauty I see within it.
I’ve always been of the view that beauty is something constant, which anyone can take refuge in during uncertain times. The modern adage that ‘beauty is in eye of the beholder’ is true to an extent, but as beholders we are not as different from one another as we tend to think. And if we lose a collective sense of beauty, we risk losing a source of constancy and community which we all need.
During the lockdown, it became evident how much being a part of the community impacts me. When I paint, I do not simply copy the landscape in front of me. Rather, I focus on the atmosphere, the lighting, and the way it interacts with the objects around me. However, I was unable to paint outdoors and could not interact with the people I would typically see while painting on scene. This greatly impacted my work as an impressionist, as I could not connect with a vital part of my world: my community.
As an impressionistic painter, always painting on location, this greatly affected my productivity.
I was unable to experience the sense of community I get while painting outdoors. I also felt a loss of connection to my community, as the people I meet while painting further enhance the experience.
My passion is to paint from life, usually down by the Thames, in one of London’s parks or busy streets, painting my landscapes on location. Traditionally, Boston school painters and the lineage they followed were trained to work from direct observation. Students learn to draw, paint, and sculpt from things they have seen first-hand.
Painting on location not only makes me feel connected to the plein air painters of the past and present who painted areas around London (Turner, Sargent, Corot), but further connects me with my local community.
Painting from life is about capturing the changeable and fluctuating aspects of our life, a single viewpoint containing many perspectives, details, moments. Painting is a way to capture the flux of a moment, a moving, living scene, into something that we can take in as a single, comprehensible whole. It is about bringing some personal order to an outer chaos, capturing the beauty of change and uncertainty, instead of fixing it in place. Painting from life is a time of reflection, to make attentive, holistic observations of the environment which surrounds us. In so doing, we aim to capture our unique perspective of the world on canvas.
In the times we have recently been living through, we have come to understand that a snapshot of life does not represent its totality. To see life clearly, we must observe it change over time. What would past generations make of a picture of a socially distanced gathering? Lacking context, story and narrative, the image would be confusing. Metaphorically speaking, landscape painting from life is about endowing a location with meaning by showing the story of a place unfold over time.
For me, that’s time spent outdoors, in front of a canvas, part of the living scene playing out all around me. A landscape painting, abstract patterns of colour on a canvas, does more than capture a perspective or a moment in time, it helps me achieve my goal of capturing the beauty I see around me and sharing it with others.
Oliver Maughan is a London based landscape painter