Now that has to be my catchiest title yet! What’s a phosphene you may ask? If you know what they are then why Out of Season? Another reasonable question. A little patience and all will be revealed. Well not all, not the naughty bits, but all you need to know about this title.
I stopped painting about 35 years ago. This is my favourite from that time. As you can see it’s an abstract, and almost monochromatic. There are two stories behind it.
The first takes us way back to about 1966. I was working in London for the John Lewis Partnership and taking Interior Design. I went to the ‘uni’ one day and three evenings a week. They called this a ‘day-release program’. The company received a grant from the government; I received a day off to attend university and had my tuition paid. A pretty good deal, even if it did sound like I was being let out of prison during the day. Sometimes that was the way it felt too…
I had some good instructors, my favourite was Mr. Dimmpler (not his real name). He had a slight speech impediment, a stutter, which could sometimes enrich our conversations.
However, he drove me crazy in our drawing and painting classes. He seemed to know how to get under my skin. One day he set us an exercise in abstract design. He gave each of us a couple of sea-shells. “I want you to paint some abstracts based on these shells”. We had to start by making sketches and developing abstract forms.
I had a hard time with this . All I could think to do was to make designs based on the shells’ spiralling shape. It wasn’t very successful. In fact it was dreadful – and very frustrating. Mr Dimmpler came and looked at the sketches, told me to loosen up – or something like that and move on to the painting.
I thought – loosen up – sure, I’ll loosen you up! What was I supposed to do with a couple of old seashells. I couldn’t even hear the ocean when I put them to my ear. All I could hear was a tiny voice telling me to “loosen up”.
So I set to work, chose a pleasing palette from among my polymer colours and made a few boring and unspectacular squiggles using a discord colour scheme. (Colours used out of their natural order – colours which would normally be darker and more dominant are made pale and the paler ones darkened. At least this is how I use the idea of discord in colour).
Mr Dimmpler came back, went around the lab looking and commenting. When he came to me he said something like, “You, you, you, really need to loosen up”. “Just, just, just relax” I’m not being cruel here in repeating his words, it’s just how he spoke.
But his words did not cause me to relax – they caused me to get steamed! I really had no idea what he was looking for. I didn’t know how to ‘loosen’ up in my painting. He said he would be back a little later to see how we were doing.
Rod had a small melt-down. Well, it wasn’t that small and was actually quite loud. I ranted and raved for a while, ripped up my painting, stomped about, and generally acted my age (two and a half).
I grabbed a beautiful, new, pristine sheet of white paper. I threw it on the floor; i splashed my colour scheme on the paper and then jumped up and down on it. It felt good. “I’ll give you loosened up!” I ranted. “Take that Mr D” I cried, as I stamped a rubber heel pattern across the paper. It was a rather pleasing feeling and strangely looked rather attractive. I applied the sole of my shoe and slid it about a bit.
I pounded the paper with the side of my clenched hand. By this time my melt down had diminished and moved away like a tropical storm.
I peeled the painting off the floor and put it carefully on my drawing board. I had a little smirk thinking about what Mr Dimmpler would say when he saw this.
The rest of the class had enjoyed the break from routine and been amused by my antics. Mr Dimmpler returned! I became a little nervous now – what was he going to say? I waited, growing more tense as he got nearer to my bench. “Nice, nice, nice work Smith”, “Well, well, well done Giggins, you have a great talent here”, “Not, not, not, at all bad Roberts, maybe add a little more texture in these areas”. Then he was at my table. He just stood and looked for quite a while – he looked rather stern. Then he smiled at me and said “Much, much, much better Sprange”, “You’ve really loosened up quite a lot”. I don’t think he meant it was much, much much better – that was just his stutter – but for some reason I felt better, if a little let down that I hadn’t provoked more reaction from him.
The painting I made that day didn’t make it to my portfolio. But I do remember examining the piece and thinking it had some possibilities – then I crumpled it up and threw it in the bin with the other rejects.
About ten years later I was in Canada, and enjoying painting. I remembered my melt-down piece and wondered if I could create something worthwhile based on what I had done that day in the previous decade. The result is the painting I have used at the beginning of this post.
As I was painting I had in mind the amazing patterns and flashes of colour I saw when I pressed my hands against my closed eyes. I could remember spending considerable hours in history classes doing this. I would have a sense of wonder, enjoying these swirling patterns. There is a sense of infinity in what we see with a little pressure applied to our closed eyes. It didn’t do my knowledge of English history much good, and probably neither my eyesight. It’s a bit worrying to think this activity was less boring than our history lessons!
Back to 1976 again. I wanted to capture something of those images in my painting. I liked the palette I had chosen and the painting was getting close to what I was looking for. But it needed more texture – just like Roberts’s effort. I looked around for a tool that would do what I had in mind. I remembered the shoe incident. I checked out my shoes and sneakers. I found that my tennis shoes, put away since summer, had a really interesting pattern of square traction nubs. I used the soles of out of season tennis shoes to create the extra depth and patterns I wanted.
The light and patterns we see behind our closed eyes when we put pressure on them are called Phosphenes. So I decided to name my painting Out of Season Phosphenes. This one I decided was a keeper.
I think fondly of Mr. Dimmpler, he taught me a lot and was a kind man. He was a good teacher – I wish I had had him for English history. But then I may never have discovered the beauty of phosphenes.
With thanks to all those who have helped me to grow and learn.