We had been touring England for a few weeks by car, and I was looking for new art inspiration without much luck. Sometimes it just goes like that. I had worked on my wave series. I had explored branches. I was hoping something new would hit me on this trip.
We had just come from a disappointing excursion to the east coast of England. It was an area neither of us were too familiar with, and although the purple heather hills of the Yorkshire Dales were spectacular, I still hadn’t found the venue that would give my artistic inspiration a jolt.
And then we went to Bath.
We found a hotel very near the old Roman Baths in the center of town… The Pratt’s Hotel. The rooms were clean, the staff was friendly, but it is a quirky old hotel that did, in a way, live up to its name (“you prat” in Brit speak means a foolish person, sort of a meathead). It was an odd hotel, but it was right in town and we could walk everywhere. We had been driving for weeks, and it was time to do some exploring on foot
My Beloved Brit was tired of touring and wanted a nap and some down time hanging out in our room. I wanted to get out in to the city, and of course the place to start an adventure in Bath is the 2000 year old Roman Baths.
This was fascinating. The site was not even discovered until the late 19th century, and now you can wander through many different rooms and courtyards that weave under the modern street level. It is so enlightening to walk in the ancient romans’ shoes, and the exhibits and artifacts are captivating.
Leaving this major attraction, I wandered around town, and then, finally, back to the hotel room to talk MBB into joining me. I had found the Museum of Bath at Work, which I thought might interest him. It’s a guys’ museum focusing on the industrialization of this area of England, housed in an old 18th century building that at one point was a “fizzy pop” company. It had lots of machines and gadgets and featured the history of industrial Bath, which he loved. I was also engaged by the exhibits. Of course we just happened to pass The Circus, an architectural marvel, and the classic areas of Bath that are soooo Jane Austen, Bath’s most famous resident.
We had a lovely evening wandering around town, had a great meal, and then went to bed early. The hotel was comfortable and quiet, and in the morning we had a big English breakfast in the dining room in the midst of a tour group of Germans.
We spent the morning wandering along the different streets together. Bath is just the perfect size for exploring on foot. You feel like you are in a city but it is not overwhelming. The buildings are lovely, the town is beautifully laid out, and around every corner there is another shop or restaurant to explore. Bath is a World Heritage City nestled in the hills of Somerset county.
We found a Marks & Spencer right around the corner from Pratt’s. How lucky. M&S is a department store, plus they have a fabulous food section with all kinds of pre-made sandwiches and an array of every sort of packaged gourmet treat you can imagine. It’s like Dean & Deluca gone British.
We loaded up our basket, went back to our cozy room, and had a banquet sitting on the bed with our feast spread out before us. There was everything from egg mayonnaise (egg salad) sandwiches, sausage rolls, chicken tikka and sweet puddings. How perfect.
MBB was ready for his nap but I decided I wanted to go out for a walk to work off our major pig out. It was still bothering me that I had not found the art inspiration that I was always looking for.
I wandered in to town along the main street.
There is a park along the river called Parade Gardens that is a level down from the main road. If you are a local, you simply show your ID and you are admitted free. If you are not a Bath resident you pay a small fee in summer. How sensible. I paid my token fee and wandered down the steps and in to the gardens.
When I came back up to the street level and looked down, I paused to watch people wander along the paths and across the grass below.
I walked along. On each side of me were two different worlds. The bustling city of one of Bath’s busiest streets on the one side, and the cool green of the Parade Garden below me on the opposite side, sweeping down to the River Avon.
As I strolled along the edge of the wall, I looked down towards the river through the branches of a tree that had lost nearly all its leaves. It was fabulous. The people below weren’t aware of me at all as I watched them come and go beneath the screen of branches. I was mesmerized. This was it. I had stumbled on a new tableau for my art.
I realized I had left my camera back in the room. I literally ran (or tried to) the length of the park and then the additional few blocks to my room. The light might fade! The people in the park might all go home! I crashed up the stairs (couldn’t wait for the very slow lift) and in to the room. MBB was watching a movie and working on his computer. I was out of breath. “Camera! Got to go back out!” He smiled and wished me well.
When I got back to the park it was all still there. Perfect. I watched and shot for about an hour. And I got it.
I had been working on painting branches for several years. This was new. There were people tangled in the scene. It was a story. I chose this photo to work from but I knew it needed editing so the figures talked to each other, and to the Voyeur (is the voyeur the person in the lawn chair, or the viewer of the painting?).
I started by blocking in the main figures and the tree. The two women walking and talking were oblivious to me and to the person relaxing under the trees. The whole city of Bath was above their heads. The river was beyond the trees in the background. The two women were alone just listening to each other in their private conversation.
The next big decision was how complex to make the tree without losing the figures. I loved the spider web like branches, but didn’t want to lose my stars.
A bigger problem. I was fairly far along with my blocking, and I realized it was too blue and moody…almost menacing. Not what I wanted at all. This was an intimate, golden world. I went back in and warmed up all the branches. Each branch. Then I went in and repainted the green between the branches with more yellow tones to eliminate the blue. Sometimes these decisions are critical at an early stage.
The painting finally had the mood I wanted. Now it was weeks of working on detail without losing the figures that were the center of the conversation.
Voyeur, oil painting, collection of the artist
This was the birth of what I called The Encounter series, where an individual’s surroundings affected them in a unique way, and the viewer of the painting creates their own story based on their experiences and point of view.
You can see a similar extension of this concept in a later painting called Winter’s Tale, which features My Beloved Brit in a snowy scene that took place on the other side of the world from Bath, in Yosemite, on the West Coast in California.
Winter's Tale, oil painting, artist's collection
Small world. A series was born. To see more, visit my website www.patwhitehead.com