Why are you painting now?

We are living in unprecedented times, as people keep saying. We are in a state of constant emergency. We rush towards ecological collapse while worrying about ‘rebuilding the economy’ once the pandemic has brought our system to its knees. A renewed anger in the face of institutional racism fills the streets, overriding any instructions to ‘stay home’. Our politicians seem to be handpicked to do a bad job on the most urgent issues, while they pursue absurd self-inflicted quests for border walls and Brexit.

The sense of obligation to ‘do something’ felt by many of us is expressed mainly in signing petitions and sharing things on social media. We try to be diligent recyclers, eat less meat and use public transport when we can, donate to good causes – all those individual actions which feel so ineffectual when what is needed is system change.

Some braver and more committed souls dedicate themselves to serious activism – they march for change and camp out in trees to hold back the bulldozers. They give up their life plans in hope or despair for a better future.

How can I then sit in my ‘studio’ painting still lifes and wishing for the pandemic to end so that I can get someone to sit for a portrait again? Surely all art should somehow be addressed to these emergencies? Though I am inclined to think polemical art, art with a ‘message’, is usually bad art, does that matter? How can some idea of the self-sufficiency of ‘Art’ (ars gratia artis) outweigh the urgency of the climate crisis, the vast injustices of racism and colonialism? Check your privilege, indeed!

No answer I’m afraid, just a confession that, in spite of everything, I am still sitting here looking at stuff, putting more paint on (reused) surfaces. Feel free to attribute meaning if you like.

in progress
in progress
drapery, oil on board, 2020

Notes to self: Learning to paint etc.

When modelling in clay, avoid smearing the clay about, or automatically, arbitrarily, smoothing out all the tool marks, etc. Smearing produces an unintended, uncontrolled form (and combined with smoothing, usually a lumpy and uninteresting surface). Instead I want to add or remove clay in response to an observation or an intention.

As in drawing, so in modelling and in painting, each mark, each piece of clay, each brushstroke, ought to be part of an act of seeing, of paying attention to the subject and the work.

So practise, practise … so that the medium becomes a familiar tool to enable that act of seeing, not a hindrance to it. As familiar as this pencil or the hand that holds it.Photo1553

And another thing: don’t hunt for something ‘meaningful’ or ‘significant’ to paint. It isn’t really about the content, or even the form; the significance is in the paying attention.


1 June

The bereaved house stands, neglected, at the end of a short terrace. Paint peeling around its windows, a bright green sea of uncut grass washes around its feet, waiting for the mower to be repaired. And the garden climbs up the walls and fences – roses, clematis, honeysuckle, on the brink of flowering.

Beside the back door, tumbled but convenient, three small piles of coal, logs and kindling.

Inside the neglect is more ingrained, the natural state in a house of two men (father and son – ‘we were two peas in a pod’) not much interested in housework and decoration.

Habitual hands have left their marks, on door frames and light switches, dark stains of countless touches. Many shelves line a room, crammed with dusty books, on art and magic, history and nature – a life-time’s library.

The disorder of illness overlies it all – the bed in the sitting room, a table dismantled in an upstairs room to make way for it, a small pile of plastic bags hold his clothes brought home from the hospital.

‘Here’s a picture of my father…and the dog we had…’ wiping the murky glass with tender fingers as he takes it off the mantelpiece, leaving its shadow in the dust.

But on the wall above the displaced bed there is a picture, a painting in a gilded frame, of a glorious sunlit afternoon – it shines like a jewel in this gloomy room, as fresh as if it were painted yesterday. (Though it is decades old – ‘He wouldn’t let me sell that one.’)

Two great trees stand in a green pasture which runs down to a hidden river. Beyond, the bluer green of farther woods rises to a low horizon.  A black and white cow, three quick dabs of paint, repeats itself, moving slowly from left to right across the picture plane. Leaf shadows ripple blue on the warm tree trunks and the trees’ crowns reach up into a tumbling airy height of sky.

Like a window into shining memory, it redeems the room.


Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Story: Disillusionment

Well – I’m taking advantage of the long weekend (though as a self-employed person that concept doesn’t really apply) to add to the story pages. It is remarkable how proofreading a dull textbook can stimulate the desire to do something else – boredom is a great motivator. 😉

This is an illustration for one of the stories I’ve uploaded that hasn’t appeared as a post already:




And here is an excerpt:

Mary found the letter at the bottom of the ‘dressing-up’ box, sticking out from the lining. The envelope was still drily stuck down but it seemed eager to open as she pulled it out. She knew she had no right to read it but she couldn’t resist.


[If you would like to read the rest of this story, click on the Short fiction link at the top of the blog.]

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts