Hockney and nature’s canvas

There was a beautiful and revealing interview with David Hockney on Radio 4 over Christmas, which I have only just had the chance to listen to. It was in honour of his forthcoming exhibition A Bigger Picture, the vivid reflections of the East Yorkshire landscape he grew up amongst and has spent the last two years absorbed in. He even relocated from California to Bridlington to complete the project.

As Andrew Marr and Hockney walked the muddy tracks through the trees they discussed the powerful influence of the land over the artist. Most interestingly, the way Hockney felt an intense connection to nature that developed during the project. He has been returning to paint, photograph and sketch the same spot with an obsessive regularity, out in all weathers to try to capture the essence of the place by being present in the myriad variants of weather and light that happen at different times of the day and the season.

Hockney’s ‘excuse’ for being out in nature is the paintbrush, but it could have been anything – carving an elder whistle, making a fishing float from a feather, tracking the prints of animals. The point is that his activity rooted him utterly into the place. This is also a defining principle of our book, Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild; it is physically and mentally rewarding to look deeply into nature. It’s not just how many peaks we cover, but how well we cover them. Time spent returning to the same a hill, fishing the same bank of a river or revisiting a wood to sleep in DIY debris den familiarises us so completely with that patch of earth that we can’t fail to feel linked to the greater rhythms of nature and feel a sense of belonging.

As Hockney notes in the interview, “In April for six weeks the landscape changes daily.” He became attuned to the variants and noted how even the same metre of earth can change radically from dawn to dusk. Hockney even started to relearn the names of plants like the wild carrot or ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ so he knew what he was painting. This prompted in him a deeper way of looking, a sense of scale and understanding of how the miniature landscape constitutes the whole.

In the final chapter (on wild walking) in our book, we set up a tent on the summit of Haystacks after many hours of fell climbing. All day we had been taking in grand vistas and sweeping views of the Lakeland hills, but had also been using natural navigation techniques to determine our bearing: reading the rings on tree stumps, employing the tree-tick principle as a rudimentary compass. This had forced us to look more closely at every aspect of the fells and as we sat with our legs aching in this lofty perch we naturally took in the details all around us.

A few metres before us lay a small stretch of water that mirrored the same colours of the setting sun as Buttermere hundreds of feet below. The heather, twisted and green seemed like a Bonsai forest and the meadow pipits that picked about it, giant winged dinosaurs. We both watched the scene unfurling above the clouds in quiet absorption, the sky framing the stage with changing backdrops of golden, duck-egg blue and pink washes. It was a living landscape painting played out on nature’s ever-changing canvas.

- Rob -
Drawing of a robin

Building igloos

The more astute amongst you will have noticed the initials ‘UK’ in our site address, yet this post is not about dear old Blighty, but the towering heights of the French Alps.

By the time we were fortunate enough to finalise the book deal, the perfect snowy weather that paralysed the country for so long had dissipated, and showed no sign of return. Our deadline is august 2011, so we had to look elsewhere.

Thankfully help was at hand in the form of the fabulous folk at Skiology. They agreed to put us up for a couple of days in one of their beautiful chalets in Les Carroz so we could build an igloo or two. And wow, did we strike it lucky with the timing! As you can see, we found an abundance of perfect snow on and around Flaine, a fantastic mountain under the peak of Mont Blanc. The French army had even been around the previous week building their rather inferior (if we do say so ourselves) snow-based dwellings.

As well as discovering the sheer joy of building igloos, we found out that nothing prepares you for a day on the mountain like a traditional fondue. Or should we say, nothing requires you to climb a mountain more than gorging on melted cheese and wine for a few hours.