Rope-walking on the diagonal line
As a twenty-year-old art student, I would experiment with walking on a slack rope, spanned between the iron girders that strengthened the walls of our Birmingham Art College studio. Balancing in my own space became an obsession that extended into many of my paintings. For example, I loved stretching a "dancing line" of people, houses or a landscape horizon across empty space, trying to focus on this line, to create space around it and ignore a mass of seemingly irrelevant information. But placed diagonally, such a line seems to gain energy. Here's a very early example:In 1966 I sat in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, trembling with excitement as I sketched a young Bernard Haitink rehearsing the orchestra. I had sneaked around the hall to find a good vantage point and discovered that from the balcony, the silhouette of the cello and bass group provided me with a dancing, rising diagonal line for my composition. The energy of the orchestra was palpable. I was just thirty-three, still learning how to paint, you might say. My works were dominated by the visual impressionist oil painting I had learned at college and I was struggling to convert that into more abstract terms. You can see the struggle in the paint. Below is another, quieter example of my work from the same period.
Bernard Haitink rehearsing the Concertgebouw Orchestra, oil on canvas,
110 x 70cm,1966.
Lakeside road through Weggis, Switzerland, oil on canvas, 80 x 60cm. 1965.
I had yet to discover a medium with which to express the energy of this dancing line more freely. That medium was watercolour, and it had a revolutionary effect on my work. See what happened (below) in the twenty years that followed. I no longer needed to paint the space. Influenced by a visit to Japan and by Asian calligraphy, my brush-strokes have acquired a freer dynamic that carries you across the paper. The conductor, cellos and basses are still just perceptible, but they have now become mere dynamic elements in a celebration of the music.
Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi conducting Beethoven, watercolour, 70 x 50cm, 1985.
Twenty years or so later another compositional device - the zigzag - was frequently appearing in my paintings - a diagonal interrupted twice or more. In the recent watercolour below the zigzag starts bottom right, then finally arrives in the top lefthand corner, after first delineating the bowing of the strings, then the score, the baton, and Andris Nelson's left hand, flinging the music into the air as it were, as he urges the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to even greater heights during Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
Andris Nelsons conducting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony,
watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 2013.How did I think of this? I didn't. It's part of my DNA. As you listen to the music, you just follow what comes naturally.