My Working Method and Inspiration by Stephen Bishop Artist
This painting was completed in August 2020 Dancing Ledge, oil on canvas 100 x 150 cm
Some notes on a recent large-scale painting “Dancing Ledge” should give an insight into my working method and raison d'etre.
I recently found some old transparency slides whilst having the onerous and sad task of clearing possessions of our late parents home. The slides were taken of Dancing Ledge in Purbeck. From the scorched landscape and weather conditions I could see that it would have been one of the hot summers of the mid 1970’s, when I was a teenager. The photos were taken by my father or my mother, they were both keen photographers. As children we would have slide evenings where we shared our transparencies projected onto the lounge wall.
Projecting two slides onto the wall of my studio I assembled the composition I wanted for my painting. I sketched out a few lines and then blocked in the colour as a kind of puzzle. I do this stage at lightning speed, sometimes with acrylic paint to quicken the initial process. Then I start adding and mixing oil paint, in thick impasto blobs directly onto the canvas, mixing and thinning as a palette come painting; I like the directness of this approach. In recent years I have enjoyed exploring the contrast between impasto and translucent colour washes. The initial energy and playfulness of these first stages are where I am happiest. There is a sense of being young and of endless possibilities. I work very intuitively. The painting starts to have a conversation with the artist; the voice may be loud and clear or sometimes hard to hear. I do not like to have a set way of working and in many ways do not know what the hell I am doing. Or so it seems. This sense of wanton discovery is one reason why I have shied away from teaching, as I am loath to turn intuition into instruction.
The concept of “finishing” a painting is a mind set that I dislike and so I try my best to maintain this high octane sense of wonder alive until the very end. It is always a nice feeling of surprise if the end comes before I expect it. I am conflicted; I hate ending a work and yet yearn to get onto the next new fresh canvas. Where all the possibilities open up once more. Over many years I have learnt that this is a necessarily uncomfortable process in my artistic practice. To ameliorate this and keep my energy high I often work on several canvasses over a period of weeks. Then someone asks, “How long did it take? Answer, “I don’t know exactly, quite a time. Each painting is unique”. I could of course choose to leave my works in a more “unfinished” early state. Indeed, I sometimes hanker after the freshness of an earlier version and have regretted over working a subject. But I have a really strong work ethic and am suspicious of art that comes too easily without a tortuous struggle.
Dancing Ledge mixes my own memories of Dorset from childhood and as an adult. Being without living parents is a position I find hard to acclimitise to on a daily basis. My love and gratitude for their care and warmth is a painful reminder that I am alone from them in a physical sense. Spiritually of course I am not an orphan. My paintings are prayers to connect with the universe and all that I love and have loved.
Painting as Constable stated, is another word for feeling. My artistic goal has always been to make art that is moving and creates a spiritual bond. Nature is the great source as acknowledged by the impressionists that I admire so much.
Memories of Dancing Ledge by Actress Sheila Hancock
So when I was asked by the BBC to make a programme called My Life In Verse I was delighted to explore the poems that seemed to capture people and places that had mattered to me, and others that had taught me a lesson. I began at our house in France contemplating Yeats and then wound the clock back almost 70 years to England's Jurassic coast. There Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Break, Break, Break carried me back to a hot summer week in 1940 when I was an evacuee. I had been billeted on a rather desiccated old couple in Somerset, but my best friend Brenda Barry, from home in London, was in an idyllic cottage at Dancing Ledge in Dorset and I was allowed to visit her. One night we went down to the sea together. Goodness knows why two little girls should have been allowed to go off gallivanting on such a hazardous adventure, alone, in the dark, but I'm glad we did. We lay on our backs in a tidal pool, holding hands. Even now I still remember the shuddering loveliness of it all, being with someone I loved and who I knew loved me back, embraced by nature: the velvety water, the sound of the waves and the night sky. It was many years later in adulthood that I read Tennyson's poem, which was written about the sudden death of his best friend Arthur Hallam, and recognised that it perfectly expressed my experience with Brenda. He says: And the stately ships go on / To their haven under the hill; / But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand, / And the sound of a voice that is still! / Break, break, break, / At the foot of thy crags, O Sea! / But the tender grace of a day that is dead / Will never come back to me. He is bereft at the loss of the 'tender grace' and that is precisely what I feel when I read Break, Break, Break and look back on my eight-year-old self.