Monday 2 June 2014

The dead painting

The dead painting

I laid out the wet watercolour on its board to dry and cycled home from the studio, trying to figure out what was wrong. My subject looked stiff and lifeless. A painting of a musical subject has to "sing", but as I worked on this commission to paint the flamboyant French cellist Paul Tortelier in December 1990, using a collection of images and sketches and playing his recordings again and again, it seemed hopeless. I just couldn't get the sensation of movement and music. 

The phone rang as I walked into my apartment. It was my friend the cellist Herre-Jan Stegenga, former student of the man I'm painting. "Have you heard the news?" he says - "Tortelier is dead". The shock was terrible. No wonder I couldn't make my painting live! 

Tortelier was due to perform at Birmingham's Symphony Hall and the commission was one of the first of nearly thirty paintings of prestigious musicians they had programmed. I had been so deeply involved with my subject, it took me a while to recover, but the only thing I could do was to start again (hence the two dates, bottom right). Paint a memorial to this great personality.

The challenge was to use the watercolour more transparently, to let the paper glow through, to "go with the flow", letting him go, as I listened to the music. To use a slightly dryer brush here and there to suggest the "decay" of the sound. To paint the "memory" of that phenomenal energy. And especially, to give him space. Less is more. Born a hundred years ago, he's still playing - somewhere.

Paul Tortelier, watercolour 84 x 56cm, 1990/91. Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.


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