Emerging through layers

Painting of newly emerged pink poppy full of light by Helen White in oil on canvasI had the title “Emergence” ready long before I reached for my brushes; the inspiration was a moment of intense afternoon sunlight through some blush-pink poppies that had newly emerged from their bud and I knew I was going to paint one of them as soon as all that transparency and dissolving into the light started to happen before my very eyes.

The way those massive crumpled petals emerged from the velveteen pouch of the bud – butterfly-out-of-chrysalis-fashion – and, like reverse origami, unfurled themselves with such confidence and audacity to the intense afternoon sunlight…something in that reminded me of something else that is quite universal, something at the heart of every audaciously courageous journey towards light that there is.

In those very first moments of exposure, there was almost too much fragility to be borne and, yes, such crinkled imperfection in what was suddenly there for all to see…and yet such knowing, such assertion, such celebration and determination and exhilaration; these poppies wanted passionately to be out there, there was no hesitation whatsoever in that impulse to be alive. Then it struck me, how many poppies have been captured in paint in the pristine pinnacle of their fully-open state, their ‘heart’ proudly on display and petals poised in ironed-out perfection and yet how many (not) in this first delicate condition, like the new-born babe still wrinkled and blinking in the light. The desire to capture this moment in paint was quickly transformed into such compulsion that I could hardly stem the desire to get started right away.

The process that followed became my own capsule journey of emergence. Started in late May, on one of the biggest canvases I’d prepared in some time, the groundwork for the flower-head was straightforward enough. In many layers, and introducing soft touches of transparency and ultraviolet, I worked towards the radiance that I still held in my mind’s eye, balanced by the depth of all those dark creases; the perfect dance of dark and light that I’ve worked with before.

What I struggled with the most was the background – what surroundings to put the subject into – something which went through several permeations, dramatic reinventions and complete overhauls and, still, I wasn’t happy with it; was conscious of fighting a natural urge to make the background very dark indeed. I moved from the realistic through the way-out fantastical and started to settle somewhere close to a neutral, universal backdrop, something like the as-yet undefined cosmic void from which all things are ‘birthed’.

Painting of pink poppy full of light

Still, there was something missing and it was then that I started to play with my new favourite tool – sandpaper – using its controlled abrasiveness to remove areas of the many-layered background to reveal choice patches of what lay beneath, then overpainting some more and starting the whole process again, creating electric colour-bursts like the sparking and crackling of new life. The ‘plane of creation’ that this background began to emerge as started to settle, of its own accord, into the horizontal and vertical folds that you see here, as though to suggest the birth of this new creation out of two intersecting wavelengths of cosmic energy.”Out of nothingness” it seemed to suggest “an impulse arises out of two vibrations, two wavelengths, that meet and, so, bend each other in an entirely new direction, creating a third impulse, a form that flowers out of that initial interruption of cosmic waves and much more than the sum of its parts”. Out of such cosmic bending, a cell is created and then another – and so all this beauty emerges…such is the universal fact of the matter.

Paiting in oil of huge pink poppy full of light

What took shape started to present like a metaphor of life itself. When we first start to emerge – fragile, fresh, optimistic, a little unformed – this is just the beginning of a far longer emergence process and, thereafter, we work through many ‘backgrounds’, trying them all out. Some of them we don’t like at all; others feel…well, a bit wishy-washy, dull, not really what we wanted; others (those that are most daring, experimental) we like at first but tend to grow out of them. What we finish with tends to be an amalgamation of them all and, if we’re standing in our wisdom, we will have learned to appreciate every layer that got us to this, even the most immature efforts that made us cringe at the time, allowing just a touch of all those layers to show through and to contribute to what we present on the surface rather than burying them all deep in denial of our own journey. Some abrasion is necessary to achieve this – yes – and yet that abrasion (the use of sandpaper on layers of oil, I find) achieves something that no other technique has managed to do, in my experience, and that is to blend tiniest micro-layers of pigment together from all the layers and in the most fascinating and light-mimicking way. Conversely, the background itself became – strikingly – darker and darker, no longer reliant on being an obvious source of light since the subject of the painting seemed to be generating its own inner source from this point onwards.

Like a giant metaphor for so much else that was going on in my life at the time of painting, this one obviously had so much to tell me and would not declare itself “done” until it was really quite sure I had got the message, calling me back to work on it again and again long after I wanted to be finished. Even the video I made using ‘flat’ photography, taken from many angles and amalgamated into a flowing storyboard of images, seemed to have some more to tell me; about how radiance was generated the most effectively (like light interacting with crystal) when I made use of the very movement and contrast that are typical of life itself; how conveying that light most effectively relied upon the steadying focal-point of breath – because, of course, I realised towards the very end of making that video that the in-and-out panning of the images had the very rhythm of breath and that it was being able to, literally, see “Emergence” breathe to life that, ultimately, completed the whole process for me. Like a multi-dimensional complement to the larger-than-life canvas now hanging like an orb of light on my wall, the video became a crucial part of the process of creating it. With that done, I feel I can consider this work of art to be complete at last or, you could say, to have “emerged” through all its own vulnerabilities and creases, made peace with all its layers and connected with its very own inner source of light.

You can see the video of “Emergence” below and view the finished work of art in detail on both my websites, Helen White and Painting Light.

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