“You’ve got this lovely canvas and there’s nothing like putting on this beautiful washy line and watching it spread, and the joy and excitement. …it’s like the joy of youth: and then you look at it and try to rationalise and bring it together.”
Jean talked with Christine Hirst about the making of her paintings:
“The canvas is on the floor…a dampened canvas…a pale creamy tint…even, creamy areas. The next wash is more goldy-yellow…tipping the canvas…manipulating the wash. By this time the canvas is quite moist—the colour will bleed. Then it’s time for definition and for me that means line: I love what happens when you put a line on damp canvas, when the canvas is wet—not too wet—to work strongly, with force—black, and burnt sienna —it bleeds into soft shadowy areas. That gives you soft greys—bleeding, shadowy greys; it dries in waves—organic shapes—lovely gradation of tone from black to pale grey to burnt sienna—tones and waving shapes that move back into your surface tint.”
Jean has come at this way of painting through years of working with inks on paper, letting the inks wash and blur and run and pushing and tilting the colour until it pleased.
“The ink is free-flowing, transparent colour…very organic…it didn’t have my brush strokes…you learn to let go…the ink was a freeing thing; you lose the structure you have formed around you: then it was a question of learning how to do it on canvas.”
Of painting ‘Salamander’ Jean explained
“You know you want a gold background—then you can build up on it—from gold you can go into green or grey…I was obviously in a warm frame of mind; so I built it up with red and black, making small decisions. Then you stop and consider. You’ve got a smudgy, atmospheric, warm, arrangement— the mood is established; then the need for definition comes in—there is nothing to tie it together…something to excite. You pick up a big brush, and red, and paint a line—it’s a big brush—for better or worse—a continuous line and whatever comes, instinctively, across the bottom. I must get my big brush and move across the canvas. I find the bristles of the brush have separated (leaving white lines) and a bit of dark, and once the line has gone across the bottom you felt that was just what it needed. It isn’t always like that; in another case that line might have had to be washed out with turps.”
And why earth paintings?
“I did them because I was trying to be earthy rather than spiritual.”
Were you in your previous paintings trying to be spiritual?
“There is a dimension that I know, but don’t know—a kind of nothingness—and Rothko got it. Rothko is radiance and light. His paintings are so alive with an almighty force of life. Light; that’s the energy. Rothko was the ultimate—he’d got that. You realise that you had to be exactly what you were. Instead of straining at painting to achieve an end, I had just to be me.”