Canals in the landscape.

Since surmounting the official retirement age something over a year ago I have been revisiting my adolescent ambition to be a painter of the old fashioned sort, an artist painting landscapes and portraits in oils and watercolours.


As part of that venture I have been out sketching a lot including, not too surprisingly given a long obsession with the subject, many canal scenes. But what has surprised me is how few views as actually seen add up to being the right material for a good picture. Define a good picture here please. Well, for the purposes of this article it is a two dimensional ground — paper or canvas — that carries a design of colour, shape and line that excites or interests the viewer either by the abstract power of the composition or the subject matter. Ideally it does both at the same time.


So I have been looking again at the canal and waterway world with rather different eyes, trying to focus on finding and recording specific images that say something about both me and my subject within the confines of a small bit of paper. This has led to a lot of careful looking and a much more formal analysis of what actually visually interests me, and perhaps you too. (It has also led to a fair amount of personal frustration about my skills and ambitions, but that is bye the bye.) We already share an interest in canals or you would not be reading these words but can my specific findings as a painter offer something a bit more universal, useful even?


English nature is, generally speaking, green. There’s masses of it, sometimes enlivened with dark green or browny green but broadly it is unexciting green, except perhaps in the autumn. We don’t usually notice this neutrality when we are walking or boating through it because we are distracted by the dog chasing the rabbit, the pink flowers in the hedge or the smell of muck-spreading. The background green-ness of everything is almost the epitome of the very peace of the countryside that we have come out to experience. However, by itself it is rarely visually exciting, and not therefore an exciting start to a picture. A painting of nothing but a grass field — sky above and green below – is likely to be very boring. This is not to say that being there and seeing the field was boring for the wind was strong that day, lapwings were tumbling and calling and an inquisitive bull was approaching purposefully. Being there was part of an event in time, a moment in a chain of experience, a bit of life. None of that is apparent or even hinted at in the dull depiction of a field so it is not an interesting picture either for me to paint or anyone else to look at. Clearly I need something more interesting for a pictorial subject.


Traditionally and classically water is very useful stuff in any landscape picture. Water is reflective, so painting water immediately introduces a lighter tone into the lower part of the picture below the horizon, the blue or pale grey of the sky or the colours of the sunset. It is also reflecting the trees and banks of the water’s edge so there is also an immediate element of repetitive pattern making going on. Things are looking more interesting already. That watery reflection is also establishing a firm statement about the horizontal in the picture and by implication the force of gravity. We are beginning to feel more comfortable now we know something of where we are; surely this visual peaceful balance is at the heart of our relationship with the waterways whether painting them, walking by them or floating through them. Calm equilibrium rules (well, most of the time.)


But nature is also, generally speaking, rather soft — frilly round the edges and a bit untidy. The up side of this is asymmetry, gentle surprise and a lack of boring predictability. The down side is a lack of drama or forceful statement, the lack of rigid scaffolding to build the depiction of a pictorial space or a story. Tree trunks can do it and some rocks maybe but what is really needed is something hard and sharp against the bushes, something straight and artificial. Stick in a building somewhere — any building for now. Clearly mankind has been here before, fighting gravity, battling against the elements so our picture is now has a narrative. If it is a Greek temple we might be talking about ancient mythology or the eighteenth century obsession with Arcadia, if it is an English castle it could be medievalism, historic or romanticised. If it is a ruin we have established the passing of time too, maybe regretfully with a tinge of melancholia. All this with a painted statement of architecture inserted into the landscape.

What more do we need? Well some colour, contrast and curves would be useful, the sharp artificial curves of archways leaping the water, bridging and linking, providing a pathway both above and below. Or the mysterious dark portals to mines and tunnels or the tight little arches into a dank dripping lock chamber. Colour? Well, bricks are good too, warm orange and russet pinks, or the mauves of engineering bricks and the ochres of stonework all contrasting beautifully with our background green. We are getting there. Anything more for perfection? What about a deep loaded painted narrow boat inhabiting this idyllic space then, or is it too late? Yes, too late I’m afraid.

This fusion of the theoretical art of landscape painting with the world of waterways as we experience it today is not as fanciful as it first appears. The canal system was largely the product of the late eighteenth century, honed and altered by utilitarian use in the nineteenth century and the pressures of the industrial revolution. However soft and naturalised it now seems the system is an artifice designed and created by eighteenth century minds and sensibilities. It is not an accident that so many of the bridges are beautiful or that the relationship of the lock cottage to the landscape so balanced. The instigators and designers were perfectly conscious that they were introducing new engineering and architecture into the landscape. They were familiar with the paintings of Claude Lorraine and the art of the picturesque in the landscape gardening of Capability Brown, and some of the avowed intent was to enhance the prospect (as well as make their money back.)

So if everything is there why do I find it so difficult to express some of that in a painting? Possibly it is the difference between a theatrical experience and a photograph. One is moved through, lived through for a period of time, the other records one moment. A canal journey is being part of the picture, floating on the sylvan light reflected from the sky, exploring the constantly changing relationship of hard to soft, of architecture to nature, of archway to distant hills. If we can still read the picture aright we can see lessons about craftsmanship and even see hints of the old fashioned concept of building things for the benefit of the whole society. That is a tall order for an amateur painter with a small bit of paper. First I have to find something that will stay still long enough.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. No unauthorised reproduction. Page last updated: 27/01/2023.

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