I have recently taken to painting. I’ve done the occasional canvas before but over the last couple of months the needle had crept – and stuck – in the red zone!
A ripple effect in the second week of December 2019 got the whole thing started. The proverbial pebble being provided by political unrest that threatened to plunge the North East of India into a state of high alert.
Unfortunately, a planned week-long birding trip to Nagaland caught the crest of that wave and I wound up spending one solitary night at a Dimapur hotel before rushing back home.
The couple of bottles of fine wine we carried to help see us through the cold Naga nights were now, for all intents and purposes, 50 fluid ounces of space-occupying, baggage deadweight. And the only slug of pleasure we derived from them was in the thrilled expressions on the faces of the hotel staff when we offloaded the booze as contributions to their upcoming Christmas party.
Reciprocating tokens of their appreciation were in the form of a few vestigial items of memorabilia from the recently concluded Nagaland Hornbill Festival.
One of these was a small notepad. It had a wooden flip cover on which was etched an outline of the State borders and a pair of the nominate species of birds.
It was the etching on the notepad that planted the seed for my first project.
The 5 spare days thanks to the curtailed trip and a blank wooden plaque lying around the house that I’d bought some years ago helped see it through to completion.
On an earlier trip to the North East in February 2019 I got the image below of a pair of rufous hornbills sitting on top of a tree. It’s heavily cropped and was taken in fading light at an extreme distance with a 2x converter on a 500mm lens.
The male and female rufous hornbills are strikingly different and both are spectacular in their own right. Together they are a truly awesome sight to behold.
The plan was to trace the image onto the plaque, etch the outline of the birds with a woodburning soldering iron and then paint in the colours.
The tracing and etching was simple.
I was on shaky ground when it came to the painting and I am thankful to the proprietor of the local art and craft store for setting me up, patiently explaining all the various paraphenalia involved.
I must admit, in the store I was like a kid in a toyshop and even now, months later, I enjoy going there and will visit it at a drop of a hat.
From paints and canvases to mediums and brushes it’s a whole wonderful world waiting to be explored, and since I do have a tendency to equate price with quality, it is not one, but two sets of eyes that light up each time I walk in.
When it comes to hobbies we tend to relate to our creations in a manner very similar to how parents relate to their kids. Most parents being convinced that they have the best kids in the world.
(For the record, I honestly do believe that I have really do have the best kids on the planet. Just as I am equally certain of their extreme embarrassment the minute they read this!)
Back to the hornbill plaque.
To say I was thrilled with my ‘creation’ is a gross understatement! The glow on my face outshone by far that of the Dimapur hotel staff when the wine bottles changed hands.
It lasted all of 24 hours. Up until the time I proudly showed an image of the artwork to an artistic colleague at work whose prompt response was: ‘Nice… but very, very obviously amateur!’
Looking back I guess I really needed that reality check.
I was never under any illusion of being, or even aspiring to be, a Picasso or a Souza (although for some inexplicable reason the later does have a nice warm ring to it). But I realised that as of now, neither can I lay claim to being even close to a Satyapurkar or a Pakhade. (If you haven’t heard of the last two, don’t fret. Neither have I, but it’s said that Maharastrians make wonderful painters so adding those names seemed to slot in quite comfortably into this space.)
It’s been two months almost to the day since the hornbills. In that time I’ve completed 10 paintings.
That being said – and with the ‘reality check’ still very fresh in my mind – I’m reminded of a Grimm’s fairytale that was taught to us in school. If memory serves me right it was titled ‘The Brave Little Tailor’ and the punch line was: ‘seven in one blow’.
Those of you schooled in the ISC system of schooling in the seventies may remember the lesson and appreciate the analogy. For the rest of you, a quick Internet search should get you upto scratch.
I’d like to think that I have improved with every painting. With 10 paintings under my belt without a doubt the ‘practice makes perfect’ dictum did kick in. Apart from that I did dip – no, more like plunge – into the huge pool of free online painting tutorials.
Looking back, I noticed a very weird trend…
With each subsequent effort, I experienced the same great sense of elation and accomplishment that I did with the first one. Which I guess is natural and that’s fine.
Now for the weird part. It was around that time that I also began to notice huge flaws in the previous iterations. It was almost as if my brain was programmed to block out the errors to ensure an end result that is guaranteed to make me ‘feel good’ no matter what.
And only when I moved on to the next and improved version did it almost grudgingly allow me to visualise the reality – mainly errors – of the past.
Now I’ve re-read and re-edited the last couple of paragraphs several times to improve palatability but I still wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I’m well and truly on my way to La la land.
In fact, I derive great solace from the fact that the more I delved into the techniques and science of painting the more I realised that I am not alone. We are a species of morons and are totally incapable of processing any information over and above the highly modified and simplified versions that our brains lay on a platter for us.
At this point you are probably convinced that I have completely lost my marbles!
But bear with me…
Let’s take colour. To the average person there are a few basic colours. For instance a crow is black, a brick is red, the sky is blue…
So… when we see this gold-fronted leafbird below we see a green bird. A very few may notice the yellow on the forehead and a bit of black and blue on the head.
But, by and large, all we see is a green bird.
In art basic colours are referred to as hues.
To any particular hue, if you add black you get a shade of that colour. Add white to get a tint. Add grey and you get a tone of that colour.
Let’s concentrate for a moment on the area of the bird we perceive as green.
We would like to paint a canvas of the bird so, armed with the above knowledge we go to the store to buy a hue of green. That’s when the shit starts to hit the fan.
Out of sheer curiosity I searched the website of one of the leading brand of acrylic paints. There were 21 hues of green on offer!! Further, if we add black we get a shade, add white for the tint and add grey for the tone… for each of those 21 hues!
Wait there’s more!
Black is not black (with due apologies to Los Bravos). There are several varieties of it. You get inky black, ebony, cool blacks, warm blacks… to name but a few. The same goes for white. Grey too, (basically a mixture of black and white), is expressed as a percentage and so you can get anywhere between 10% grey to 90% grey depending on the ratio of white to black!
Now you can start doing the math as far as the required varieties of green go. And that only takes care of the green…
Apart from the hues, shades, tones and tints of green, there are several other colours in there that we would never dream could co-exist with green. Like raw umber, brown yellow ochre, grey, violet, blue…to name but a few. These hues though subtle are vital contributions to the overall visual effect.
By now I can tell I’m losing you.
Suffice to say, color is simply the tip of the iceberg. Don’t get me started on ‘value’ and so many other terms and techniques that are essential if we are to completely analyse what we ‘see’.
And remember, we are talking about a still image. In Nature that bird is on the move and since the light hitting it is constantly changing so are the various hues, shades, tints and tones!
We are simply not capable of processing all that information. And so, in a manner very similar to which a child is told that it is a stork that delivers a baby, our brains simple tell us that a beautiful green bird is perched on a bird bath.
A skilled artist will take advantage of this and will often only add the bare minimum detail to a few specific areas, like the eyes for instance, knowing that the viewer’s brains will fill in the rest and fool them into seeing much more than there actually is.
Like I said. Morons. That’s what we are.
But then again, how else would you describe a species that will torture, maim, even kill to the extent of genocide… why?… Simply to prove that their’s is the more merciful God.