06 Colour me Payne’s Grey

You know, Aston Rowant is a lovely place to work. Once you remember the parking and meeting place (one of four if you count Hill Farm), that is. Once I got it wrong and wandered around those hills and combes for ages until a wisp of smoke lazily and brokenly climbing skywards gave me a clue. Getting a bit closer loud voices, bursts of laughter and scattered conversation told me I’d found the right place.

Okay there is a lot of heavy scrub bashing that doesn’t suit everyone. But we have done other things, nervously weeding round a rare juniper tree, herding sheep, fixing gates and fences….Well I like scrub bashing so there. This is why. Just like ragwort pulling you make a cleared path through the mass of bramble and then work round to form a sort of island. Once you have this you have a workable chunk that breaks off a bit of the huge ocean of green and brown and flecks of orange and black before you. This gives you a feeling you are making progress and psychologically you are spurred on. It’s as much in the mind as the hands, arms and legs. Well more on that theme another time.

Talking about those hillside scrub colours takes me on to the views. Wherever you work at Aston Rowan, being on the Chiltern escarpment, way up above the monotonous hum of the passing traffic on the M40 below you, those views stretch out before you. Wheatley miles away, the villages, Lewknor and others, maybe a whitish blob of Oxford. 7, 8, maybe even 10 miles or more of blue and grey and pink and green, triangular bits of yellow rape in season, squashed splashes of regular sided green polygons, pressed dark brown blodges of linear hedges.

Blue? Yes indeed. Do you remember that play ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ by Dennis Potter broadcast on TV in 1979? It is a piece about childhood joys and hidden tragedy and growing up in the English countryside, scenes frozen in time. He takes his title from the A E Houseman poem ‘The Shropshire Lad’ (1896) and I quote

‘Into my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

This is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.’

As you look and look and look the greys and blues rise above the greens, yellows and browns the further out you try to discern the distant horizon. And I haven’t even got started on word painting the clouds. Colours and paints and catching the light it all seems to float through my head as I pause in my bramble slashing, resting and catching my breath.

I did go on a short water colouring course a year or two back, how good was that! In my paint box all those colours again but how to match them up to what my eyes tell me is out there? But they are not red, orange, blue etc oh no much too straightforward. We have Prussian Blue, Cobalt Blue, Yellow Ochre, Hooker’s Green a dozen or more all different. My tutor goes through the starter techniques of wet on wet wash with the paint running down the page slowly and gently letting the colours merge just as they do in nature. I splodge and daub with the best of ‘em but does it look like a landscape ,or does it look like a heavy handed crude scrawl, to be kind call it ‘primitive’? You bet.

But wait, we are homing in on one colour, Payne’s Grey (named after an 18th century colourist called William Payne). Described as ‘dark blue-grey used as a mixer in place of black’ you can with care and some judicious mixture of other hues use it for the whole painting. It’s amazing, who would credit it? For white leave a portion of your paper unpainted.

So mix in a little Ultramarine for a slightly lighter shade then a little Burnt Sienna or Yellow Ochre to catch the earth and light over the mountains as we come closer in. Strange to tell, Burnt Sienna is given as ‘anhydrous iron oxide with brown natural earth pigment’. Our paints are drawn from the natural world and pass through hand, brain and eye to show in cartoon form the world from which they spring. Powerful stuff, eh!

Lunch break and we flop down to munch our sandwiches. I look out over that marvellous view. Now why did I forget to bring my drawing pad, a set of paints, some water a brush or two and, not to miss out a tube of Payne’s Grey.


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