Night Painting at Dove Cottage

It’s 2am and I am mixing snow into a small mound of oil paint… it’s refusing to melt and so I chop the little beads of ice until I have the consistency of slush. It feels gritty on the brush and is too crunchy for fluid marks; but I am undeterred.

Night time sharpens the senses and offers up new possibilities. I take time to slow down, to listen and to watch, allowing the darkness to become normal, investigating the garden as though for the first time. I am alert and aware. Sounds seem much louder at night – the darkness has turned up the volume on instinct. At night this space defines itself. It’s no longer about the view or the world beyond the walls, it’s all about the space within them.

The honk of a late night goose travels across the night air and a few of Grasmere’s revellers stagger home. The lights dim and night settles. This is bewitching, I enter the night and it is spell binding.

I am well prepared. Five layers of clothes, hat, scarf, gloves, a selection of boards and canvas and a lot of coffee. The logistics of painting at night are tricky. I arrange everything carefully so that I can find them in the dark without too much torchlight.

The forecast predicted a cold, clear night and a big moon but the snow is drifting in. As soft flakes begin to fall, tones change and a moonlit brightness highlights the path. A spell is being cast – distances change, shapes morph together, new outlines emerge, scale becomes ambiguous. It is magical. Everything begins to glisten in the moonlight.

I can only see things close up or shapes against the sky, but I can sense a much wider circle of activity. I am alert to noises and movements far beyond the periphery of my vision – a new boundary is created by this internal radar – much wider than my eyes can see. Without daytime distractions, thinking expands. This is a new type of experience where the balance of senses is upturned, time and space seem to fall away.

It’s becoming difficult to make the frozen beads of pigment stick to the canvas… a change of tack is required… I abandon the paint and continue with graphite. Instead drawing on wood with oil paint and graphite powder, the snow settles on the paintings making some interesting effects.

The darkness makes me notice the boundaries of the garden and the trees around its edges. Forms take shape in my mind’s eye. Shadows dance as the clouds move. Paintings become about tonal information, perceived space and movements. It’s all about noticing the gaps and voids. It’s also about the space inside me, the place in my brain which fills these dark gaps. My mind opens up like the aperture of a camera. I’m working at the edges of my perception, new connections are created in the night time, a deeper understanding, deeply personal. All the frosty nightimes I have in my mind – real and imagined – are in this silence. This is a darkness full of promise waiting to unfold.

This painting is a work in progress, currently two canvases painted on two different evenings. I intend to take it back each time I paint at night in the garden. I think it will end up as a triptych, we’ll see. I am enjoying its slow build up. I would like the finished piece to reflect all my evenings spent at Dove Cottage – a sort of amalgamated night on canvas. Somehow night time here is unhurried, as though time is reserved for daylight hours only. I like that this painting is emerging slowly.

My second night painting session was in early January, it was much colder and brighter with a sky full of stars. Sharp, clear and calm. I found myself looking up and along the tops of the trees. Occasional headlights flashed across their branches. As the moon rose, the whole garden lit up. I watched the frost forming and saw the best shooting star I’ve ever seen. I watched a muddy puddle get wrinkles.

Night paintings sit in between representation and abstraction, like fog, or the glare and dazzle of bright sun, the darkness creates a bridge to the world of painting.

Night time changes our focus. On the one hand we can only make out shapes that are close, on the other our gaze is drawn to the stars and infinite space, possibilities, imagining, a broader context for thinking, a new scale for these reflections from a garden.

I am interested in how headspace informs visual perception. Is the landscape you see a reflection of your internal world? Painting at night lays this bare.

I saw an owl on my way home, a reminder that I am a guest in these wee small hours. There is a wonderful buzz about working at night, like skating over deep water, it requires complete engagement may be even courage.

When I told my children what I was up to, one of them asked: “Won’t that be really spooky?” but that is not how it feels at all. It is a rich and immersive, nurturing darkness. It feels like a great privilege to be alone here at night. Wordsworth was right, there is ‘solitude and silence in the sky’.

I spent most of January working outside, quite a bit of it in Dove Cottage garden. It has been a great winter and paintings are now emerging in the studio informed by all of this. I am enormously grateful to everyone at the Wordsworth Trust for all their help and support with this work, not least for letting me into the garden at peculiar times of night!

Like darkness, snow brings a new perspective. A freshness. Everything is turned tonally upside down – what a brilliant thing! I love snow, a childlike enthusiasm grips me and I can’t resist painting in it. These are a few of the winter’s snowier painting moments: