I realised as I was preparing for this review that the way I work – making notes, picking up quotes, starting ideas that I may develop later, is very much the way Charles paints. He’s immensely quotable: “The way I paint is more intuitive, it’s what intrigues me, I see things happening, I don’t have a plan.” Even my (even to me) almost illegible scribbles are a bit like some of the marks Charles makes. He always starts with a pencil sketch that defines shapes, determines proportions and puts the elements of the composition into place – “It’s very import to connect adjacent areas.”
The thing is that, because he’s not working to a prepared plan, and everything emerges organically, the film becomes more of an entertainment than a lesson. I don’t mean that it’s trivial, far from it; rather, you sit waiting for the pearls of wisdom to come, which they do almost as a stream of consciousness (“You can’t soften edges if your paint’s too watery”). At the same time, you’re on the edge of your seat because, if he doesn’t know exactly how the picture is going to turn out, neither do you. There are plot twists to come.
To begin at the end, the final demonstration of the four here is a complex scene at Stow on the Wold (they’re all in the Cotswolds). The main element is a hotel, but there’s a lot of detail in the roof and there are parasols outside and trees in the foreground. There is also a river and a bridge and constantly–passing figures that Charles works in generically. There’s a lot going on and a lot of manipulation of the image so that it becomes coherent and reflects the scene without also being incomprehensible.
Charles’s pencil drawings define the outlines and the shape of the image, but also include small details that don’t immediately appear to have a purpose. Just as I make notes while I’m watching, picking up on points I want to remember or develop, so he puts in small marks that guide the shapes later. At this stage, there’s still very little detail and no attempt to start giving substance to the picture. That comes later with the colour. “It’s all about shapes and colours” is something he said in his very first film, about flowers. I’ve always been amazed by the sheer looseness of the way Charles works and admire the way he can describe a subject in what seem to be just a few splashes of colour. Watching him here, I’m beginning to get an idea of how this works. The pencil sketch provides the form – a bit like the armature of a sculpture – and the colour provides the body, the depth, the shading and the shadows. He remarks at one point that he rarely mixes colour on the palette (“I don’t mix it all into greys”), preferring to do it on the paper. In the first demonstration, at Arlington Mill in Bibury, it’s worth taking a look at just how much colour he introduces into what at first appears to be a grey slab of a building. It’s not there to be colourful, though it can be that, but to give form and character.
I could go on, but I don’t think I need to sell this film too heavily. Charles is an immensely popular teacher and it’s easy to see why. It’s also nice to see him painting in surroundings that are more familiar to a British audience.
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