Patio de los Leones, Alhambra
Watercolour on paper 60″ x 137″ (152cm x 348cm)
A true painting of the month this one, now exactly one month since I first confronted the huge piece of unmarked watercolour paper stretched out on my drawing table. A month (save a few sleepless nights and a gentle family Christmas) of dedicated application to the greatest challenge of my career, the most complex subject and the largest watercolour I have ever attempted.
This major commissioned work began in June last year with a three day sketching trip to Granada, Spain. I had chosen this subject from the memory of a visit long ago with my father. I remembered the sunny courtyard, the linear rills of trickling water which bisect the floor plan, and the central alabaster basin held up on stylised stone lions. I remembered the delicate colonnades, the intricate carved filigree of stone arabesques and Kufic inscriptions. I remembered this outlandish, exotic Arabian architecture deep in the heart of Andalucia, a strong whiff of the orient in the part of Europe which gazes to the East just as much as it genuflects to the West.
A hard-won special ‘permiso’ allowed me to sit alone in the shadows in the Alhambra, away from the hoards of tourists, to draw this harmonious yet complex subject. The balance between intricacy of detail and simplicity of mood, strong sunlight and calm water, dusty light and reflective shadows, would dictate the character of the painting. The most recent large work I had painted was the dramatic and noisy fireworks of the Redentore festival in Venice, a riot of colour and abstract effects, gashes of light and deep feral colours: this would be the opposite.
This commission had called for a stage-set in a confined space, a trompe l’oeil in the lobby of a lavish new superyacht. I had in mind a virtual courtyard, a glimpse into a secret sunny glade seen through a forest of slender columns and screens of pierced stone filigree, with gentle breezes and dusty rays of sunlight, a trickle of water at the feet. It would be a space that only the eyes could inhabit, a room created by the imagination. A dream.
That was the theory. Standing in front of that huge piece of paper as rain lashed the studio windows I wondered what I had let myself in for. How to begin? I felt like a tightrope walker confronting the delicate line before him and the consequences of inadequacy over intent. I had prepared months of drawings, compositional studies and diagrams, axes, vanishing points and golden sections. Once these were all transposed onto the huge piece of paper, with giant rulers, set-squares and string lines, and the detailed sketches had been digitally scanned and blasted out of a projector, the paper was no longer so precious, so pristine. That first step is the toughest, the most daunting.
My first washes of watercolour had been mixed beforehand in large pickle jars – still smelling faintly of onions. Earlier I had mixed the histrionic bright colours for the underpainting on a quarter-scale maquette. This was now pinned to the wall as a reminder to be brave with colour. In watercolour it is easy to tone down something too bright, but impossible to breathe life into something dead.
After the first week I felt I had the basics established safely: composition, drawing and first washes. Daily I was posting photos of the work in progress on my Facebook page; not to elicit compliments but to ensure that I felt committed enough to the progress I was making. Once the underpainting was dry I felt I was getting somewhere: Facebook followers commented that it was great – “leave it as it is”, some urged. No, there was a long way to go – fifty-five square feet of detail yet!
The basic painting was established in those first feverish hours, one week’s work at most. But, after this first intensity and months of preparation, there were at least three weeks of working up the detail, undramatic methodical hard work to introduce carefully all those elements. Like flavours in a meal, these are the ingredients which are only noticed if they’re missing; they take time to produce and none at all to consume.
I continued to work up the painting, eager to go into the studio each morning, picking up where I had left off. Every evening I reviewed the progress and posted online, as each little detail of carved stone emerged like embroidery on a canvas, as patina transformed colour into surface, and shadow learnt how to describe volume and space. I particularly enjoyed stone against sky, reflected sunlight lifting arches, stains and veins turning stripes of paper into marble columns. Gradually the nuances no longer showed up quite so dramatically when posted online. There is a fascination with pulling images out of blank paper, conjuring space out of surface, three dimensions out of two, dreams out of facts.
Here’s the irony: this painting, possibly my greatest yet, lives only in the making of it. We should have filmed its birth as an artwork in itself, because its life will be confined to near-monastic exclusivity. As a painting it may as well not exist. In the next few weeks it will be installed in the superyacht, in the most securely guarded of today’s fortresses. There it will be seen only by the privileged few. It is unlikely ever to be exhibited publicly, nor examined critically, not broadcast nor reproduced.
That makes me sad. But I do get a wry pleasure from the fact that it’s birth took place on the verges of that most casual highway that is social networking: I invite you to go there now, have it to yourself – ‘like’ my painting (and my facebook page) for free before it disappears. Then at least I’ll know that it has many friends long after the cheque has cleared and the gangplank has been raised.