Painting Stories 1: ‘Settlement’

‘Settlement’ watercolour on 300CP 19x28cm 2021

There is little contrast in the sky at this time of year. Clouds are often heavy with vapour, reflecting cool and warm tones depending on how they layer, or thin and let some sunshine through. Rarely the sunshine reaches us but nevertheless I find the skies’ soft pastels fascinating in November through to February. I like the challenge of remembering and creating the feeling those skies give me, of gradually, peacefully settling into the darker time of year.

There are technical issues to manage – allowing the colours to blend evenly means that the paper has to remain equally damp, but not too wet. It has to dry evenly too so preparation is essential and also I have to say somewhat satisfying. Brushwork is vigorous and the balance of pigment to water carefully judged. Too much water and the result will be patchy; too little pigment and will lose depth and tonal range.

The title came from sitting with the finished piece and reflecting on the elements in it. Often I try to express something of the deeper stories that emerge by describing the elements in relation to one another. But on this occasion, one word came to me: settlement. Settlement describes the sense of winding down, of compacting and layering like a soft blanket, but also the suggestion of humans inhabiting the landscape, of making a home there. In this space they are actively engaging in their surroundings, altering them and perhaps, one hopes, respecting the place they’ve come to inhabit. It raises the question as to how we settle on our land and what our responsibility is towards the existing, other living organisms with whom we share our space.

In this painting there’s the suggestion of the settlements along the North Wales coast on Deeside from Flint to where the coast turns sharply west at the Point of Ayr and vanishes from our sight here in Burton Marshes, Wirral. It’s not clear what they are, but in daylight there are many — industrial, farmland, open common, residential and protected natural areas. The scene reminds me of returning at dusk to my starting point after a long walk in the hills, gradually descending to meet the brightening lights of the settlement where I’ve begun. There’s nostalgia in remembering, and yet questions in the present.