Painting with Words

There’s always one viewer who can’t stand still long enough to sip in a picture. He’s looking for action and fizz – a heady cocktail of light and sound.

Living in the Port of Lyttelton affords me access to my own art gallery with its ever-changing display of scenes. Just when I’ve become accustomed to a particular aspect, the lighting changes or an intriguing ship arrives or a storm whips up the waves or a boat bursts into flames (as happened on Saturday). Let me paint in words a couple of pictures from yesterday and today for you, though artist I am not. 

Last night, after the crowds had left the beaches, hubby and I took our favourite walk along the bays – Magazine Bay to Corsair Bay to Cass Bay. A forest path with wooden steps dips into and out of the bays and in-between teeters on a ledge overlooking the inlets. We stopped for a rest and sat on a bench, motionless, marvelling at the still life before us.

It was as if the sea had been plastic wrapped to preserve peace forever. If I had but the skill I could show you on smooth paper using a large paintbrush wash of pastel blues and greens. The margins of the hills, beach and sea would bleed into each other lending a timeless appeal to the background. Once dry, restrained detail would be added with fine, long haired bristles and coloured inks of browns and taupes. I’d introduce you to the mismatched parallels of a broken jetty, edges weathered and resigned to their fate after devastating storms in 2000. One tiny horizontal dash would complete this serene twilight picture: a kayaker paddling stealthily, barely breaking the surface tension of the water. 

Solitary. Soundless. Soothing.

But there’s always one viewer who can’t stand still long enough to sip in a picture. He’s looking for action and fizz – a heady cocktail of light and sound. And art galleries nowadays cater for them with “mixed media” works.

Our coastal calm was gatecrashed by a seagull desperate for a mid-evening nibble. What a pity I can’t show you a motion picture of his comical antics. It’s impossible to record on paper the rhythmic “thwack” that echoed into the evening as the bird repeatedly dropped his mussel from a height onto the jetty. Or how his wings hunched with growing frustration that the hard shelled creature refused to crack. Or how we sat forward on our bench, caught up in the desperation of the scene. I’m sure you would have sighed in unison with us when eventually the snack splattered onto the board walk. Greedy beak gobbled it whole and then glided right out of our frame, not waiting to hear the sound of our laughter. We sat a while longer watching the colours in the bay darken, then returned home relaxed and closed the curtains on a hushed port, unusually empty of ships after the public holiday.

I woke with a jolt this morning to see a very different panoramic scene from my window – a video loop of activity: crowds of anonymous figures being industrious on the wharves. A canvas with rough weave would be in keeping with the inclement weather. Use of oil paints means applications can be reworked over several hours – necessary for a such dynamic scene. Detail of the landscape is inconsequential now which is a good job because there is no play of light today on the crooks and crevices of the hills. Clouds are rolling in and the winds have texturised the sea with daubs of muddy blue.

Laurence Lowry, one of England’s favourite artists (b.1887, d.1976) painted industrial landscapes and busy crowds. His simple colour palette of ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white would work splendidly for my painting. Instead of his ‘matchstick’ figures though I would add simplistic ‘matchbox’ vehicles: dot-dash-dot-dash sooty blobs for the coal train; red streak of a bus driving across the railway over-bridge and blue smudge of tug bobbing on the water.

The main hub is the container terminal. Straddle cranes are constantly reconfiguring a mosaic of thousands of stacked metal boxes, trucks are queueing to be loaded with cargo. Mid-ground, yellow vehicles with petrifying pincers are plucking logs off lorries and expertly placing these giant matchsticks into stable towers. Several ships slipped into port over night. Vehicles with flashing lights are tending them. Though it seems chaotic from a distance, there are no wild splurges of random paint – all movements within port are deliberate and carefully monitored.

Fortunately for me, when the hurry gets too much I only need lower my eyes to the foreground within the frame. There lays my ‘Monet garden’ – impression of tranquility – as my flowers have the freedom to splash colours around in the breeze.   

*Images from my archives, painting with my camera

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