Beginning of Creation

My task was to depict the Four Elements, Water, Earth, Fire and Air, on slices of tree trunks measuring 10ft by 15ins. In addition, Day and Night were to appear on 12ft lengths. After a brief introduction to these lengths of oak, I was able to identify which piece belonged to which element by the grain, which was to guide me throughout. I was not producing a picture on wood, as if it were canvas or paper, but was to be led solely by the grain. I used hardwearing acrylic paint, suitable for outdoor use.

I began with Water since it was the least intimidating and the most transparent in the pattern of the grain, which spoke of ripples, pools, eddies, currents, bubbles and a gently flowing river. In the lower section a fish emerged and, at the top, an unmistakeable mallard appeared. 

Next came Earth because the grain seemed to be the contour lines on a relief map, and then widened to reveal a high level tarn with unfathomable depths of turquoise and blues. Around the edge of the graded hills, field systems and a wooded area led into rock strata above and below. At the base, animals trudged onto Earth – a grizzly and polar bear, seal, penguin, and others. 

At the time of painting this, I was listening to the celebrations of Darwin’s bi-centenary and the remarkable artwork that commemorates him in the Natural History Museum by Tania Kovats. She chose to reconstruct a full-length slice of an oak tree, which is glued to the ceiling of the Museum. I identified with much of her experience of working with her oak.

On to Fire. This was a powerful, all engulfing, outrageously loud piece that was difficult to contain, particularly after the gentle qualities of the previous two. Hugely challenging, vibrant in colour and form and very exciting to execute. The long ‘blob’ of molten lava fixed this one from the first sightings. The lava falls into a pool of swirling white heat whilst flames leap up the sides, threatening to jump out of the confines of the grain, with smoke rising up at either side.

This time I was painting during the devastating fires in Australia whilst we were under cover of snowdrifts. The white, therefore, has a double meaning for me as I slid across to the studio through feet of snow, scoops of which I used to dilute the acrylic paint. I felt a strange mixture of guilt that I should be producing artwork-celebrating fire while it was destroying.

Air shows a twister; the eye of the storm; air currents and movement with vapour trails and bubbles. Cloud formations appear towards the top.

Day and Night are by far the largest pieces, with beautiful grain that immediately offered a very broad range of symbolism. The more I looked into the wood, the more emerged. 

Day is painted in the colours of the rainbow, which God created and sent to Noah as a sign of the covenant He established between Himself and all life on earth.

It begins as the vestiges of the dawn burn off into the hot, ground colours that are echoed in the chakra colours .As red earth turns into oranges and golds, African animals emerge from the grain. None of these was” added”, they were already there – waiting for their moment. The duck in the centre flies into the midday sun at exactly the halfway point, with a chick alongside.

The colours are mostly painted in smooth, even strokes apart from the areas affected by the shimmering heat of the midday sun. As the day draws to a close and dusk is nearing, the cooler, spiritual colours frame the heron flying in with a small fish in his beak, ready for his supper.

Lastly, Night. There is almost a mirroring of the grain at the top of the piece, but this time it was very definitely a stag’s head that loomed out of the undergrowth as the sun sinks behind him and darkness descends. He is looking decidedly shifty, with tongue in cheek. The beautiful grain lent itself to a long neck that merged into the gloaming. At the heart is the moon with the bright North Star above and the Pleiades below, with an owl making an appearance. Alongside, the light of the moon catches the seashore. Haley’s comet shoots off to the far left with the Milky Way in the centre. A sly fox keeps watch just below as the night slips away and the dawn breaks - as my journey ends. 

Extraordinarily, the 40th anniversary of the first man on the moon was being widely celebrated and broadcast as I painted the moon and the Milky Way.

The process took me on an extraordinary, challenging journey of discovery and intrigue. It took a full year from the time I first saw the wood to its completion .The painting took ten months and there was a lengthy process of preparing and treating the wood with fungicides and wood preservatives, followed by layers of protective coatings after the paintings were finished. It became a running dialogue with each subject, requiring stillness, reflection and listening - to the wood. As I fine-sanded some of the rougher areas, I smelt the sweet aroma and breathed the wood as well as feeling the pleasure of touching it. The intricate knots, twists and turns of the grain were a constant delight and wonderment about the causes of particular configurations and what was going on in the life of the tree at that moment, and in the history of the wider world.