Distant Bonfires on Ashdown Forest
Despite a most welcome Indian summer, over the last fortnight Autumn has started to drop the pretence and behave with a little more normality - plenty of rain, cooler mornings, the need for coats and jumpers, and the replacement of salads with pies and root vegetables.
There are few better times to be out and about in the landscape. The sky moves quickly, clouds break up and the light has a crisp, searching quality, illuminating a spectacular spectrum of green to gold, orange to ochre. It brought to mind a beautiful afternoon from a few years back that I have wanted to paint for some time, but have only done so recently. I am regularly asked if I prefer to paint on location or from photos in the studio, and to be honest I'm impartial; I enjoy both equally. Back in the studio though it is never the case that I simply rely on a photo, there are always other dimensions that influence my work - imagination and memory. Perhaps the greatest gift that landscape painting bestows is the discipline of taking your time outdoors, not rushing from A to B, via C, but developing an awareness through observation and a deep understanding of what is around you. It shouldn't matter whether you paint or not, try developing a resistance to haste and you will build stronger moment memories.
My afternoon walk - annoyingly without either camera or sketch pad - had taken me from Hollies car park on Ashdown Forest down across an area known as the Southern Slopes, past the Airman's Grave and back up the hill, along rutted paths to the car park. I love these undulating tracks on Ashdown; as a child I would pretend to be a train running along the rails, but now like to imagine myself as the tip of a stylus running through the grooves of a heathland LP, a far more grown-up pretence if I may say so. Might I also add that the Airman's Grave is not an aviator's burial place as such, but a memorial that marks the location where a Wellington bomber, returning from a raid on Cologne, came down with the loss of six airmen in 1941? There is always a point on this walk, returning back up the Slopes and just past a small clump of pine trees, where I like to stop and look back across the Sussex Weald towards the South Downs in the distance, featureless and lavender blue. It is almost impossible not to and is one of my favourite views; familiar, comforting, and ever-so-Sussex. On this occasion I couldn't help noticing the proliferation of wispy blue smoke-columns in the distance, undoubtedly from garden bonfires of damp leaves and seasonal clippings as the diligent residents of Five Ash Down, Fletching and Newick tidied their charming cottage gardens, tucking them into bed for the winter ahead. I knew instantly that the scene would make for a wonderful painting.
My favourite paintings are not necessarily those that I consider to be the best technically, rather the ones that evoke special memories of place and time. For this painting I glanced infrequently at a reference photo, ultimately relying upon my impressions of that afternoon, dialled into the memory as I walked back to the car. Sometimes I make a very quick sketch when I return to the studio or scribble a few notes as a prompt for future work, but more often than not I will simply drawdown the atmosphere and sense of enjoyment I felt at the time to recreate the experience. Looking at the painting again those memories spring into life: a chill in the air despite a little warmth from the setting sun; a distant walker calling her Golden Retriever to attention; the musty smell of garden bonfire smoke, only just perceptible on the light autumnal breeze.
The most direct drive home that afternoon was certainly not via The Hatch, a beautiful old country pub in the village of Coleman's Hatch, perched on the edge of the Forest. But it was impossible to ignore, indeed it would have been churlish to have done so. Pie and a pint anyone?