Virginia Woolf Granite & Rainbow - anatomy of a painting

granite & rainbow 4
Granite & Rainbow.
Portrait of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf died on March 28, 1941 near Rodmell, Sussex, England. She left a note for her husband, Leonard, and for her sister, Vanessa. Then, Virginia walked to the River Ouse, put a large stone in her pocket, and drowned herself. Children found her body 18 days later.

(Virginia Woolf's suicide note to her husband Leonard)

Tuesday (18th March 1941)
'Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.

granite & rainbow sketch build up
Stages 1 - 3

I managed to begin this painting on the anniversary of her suicide prior to reading the Bloomsbury group letters recently on display regarding her disappearance. I began by sketching roughly in acrylics giving the orange halo at a very early stage knowing that I wanted to attempt a beatification in the final stages. With a slight revision to the features & some light washes to even the tones a little I can begin to introduce some chaotic elements by dripping, pooling & marblising paint quickly over the face.It is possible to wipe some areas of this out while it is still wet & retain some of the work done on the earlier stages.If I obliterate all trace of what excites me about a painting at this stage it is possible to lose direction.
granite & rainbow detail stages
Stages 4 - 6

It may not appear so in these shots but more time is spent between stages 3&4 than at any other stage as I tend to stare very intently & try to dream into the painting & pull ideas from the random marks & realise them onto the canvas.This is the most productive & rewarding stage as fragments of ideas may become fully realised here or more tantalisingly the spectres of other ideas may flit through my imagination that cannot be realised here but may prove fruitful later.Here I have reduced the orange tone to a more neutral yellow & brown to allow myself to think. During the process of modelling the face the features have become slightly distorted ( albeit in a pleasing manner ) if I hadn't become fascinated by reading "The Death of a Moth" I may have left the face at that & continued in the way suggested here.

granite & rainbow

The Death of the Moth - an essay
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species. Nevertheless the present specimen, with his narrow hay-coloured wings, fringed with a tassel of the same colour, seemed to be content with life. It was a pleasant morning, mid–September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture. Such vigour came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book. The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience.

The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the window-pane. One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.

Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity. Again, the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.

After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window ledge in the sun, and, the queer spectacle being at an end, I forgot about him. Then, looking up, my eye was caught by him. He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window-pane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed. Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the window sill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.

The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.
Virginia Woolf

"The Death of a Moth" resonated very strongly with me in its description of the futility of existence & the terror at the enormity of the universe.This is the core of a sensitivity that can often only logically end in suicide & it is here that I wanted to concentrate.Also her style of writing in the three greatest novels has always reminded me of light shimmering on water, metaphor upon metaphor dappled with potent memories & even more distant & potent feelings.

granite & rainbow 2
I have softened the features & begun to tie the lace of her blouse to the crashing waves & dragged a hard impasto in the sky area.The colour of this may change as I progress but at this point I am concerned with the texture alone & often use random marks to introduce new elements. I wanted to obtain a push-pull effect in the peripheral vision so that there is a blurring of close & distant space with regard to the water.As if there had always been a calling to the water since adolescence when the spectre of her sensitivity raised itself.

granite & rainbow 4
Now begins the softening of the whole. A white wash over the impasto provides a base for a graded blue wash to remove the hardness of the impasto in the sky & to bring the water more in tune with the rest of the background there is a light yellow/brown through the turquoise. The are a mating pair of deaths head moths in her hair as an echo of her bruised innocence & talisman of fate.These were suggested by the random marks at eye level behind her hair & my reading material.

granite & rainbow gallery view

Exhibition view

As a footnote to this image I painted over this shortly after removing it from the exhibition. I miss the painting but it was necessary to destroy it to cleanse myself of the politics of dealing with galleries & agents & other parasites. I will quite possibly never hang another painting publicly & certainly will not deal with openings or the attendant bullshit in the popularity contest of galleries & shows plus I have to charge twice as much as I would like to pay for someone elses rent & a couple of bottles of wine. Times have changed.

Virginia Woolf - watercolour sketch

Works in progress

Here is a small selection of the canvases in progress in the batcave.

Goat transforming into a cathedral.First pass.
Self portrait with asymmetric cathedral frontis. As an echo of my years painting grafitti the rose window contains lettering based on tracery from some of my favorite gothic masterpieces.

Antelope 2

Sviatoslav Richter

This was for a victorian project that was cancelled. I have made many versions of the classic Lewis Carrol tale as it has been a favorite of mine since childhood. The Tenniel illustrations are still a touchstone for so many & although I can never approach his joyful richness it is still rewarding to riff on the subtext.

the yellow wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper

for her light sketch
For Her Light sketch

for her light 2
For Her Light - Second version

you forget to answer

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You forget to answer

A friend sent some files of detail shots from some 19th century portraits to try & identify. Whilst searching my library I discovered the drawings for this portrait & a large rough version on heavy paper in charcoal.
I didn't manage to find the information that I was looking for ( sorry Begonia) but was inspired to finish this portrait without any other references besides the drawing & memories of looking through dozens of reference books. Nothing happens in an ordered sequence for me & paintings that have sat unfinished for years in the batcave can suddenly catch my imagination & I can finish them. Sometimes only the smallest details of the original work remains & usually there are several drawings under the surface.
If I ever finish anything completely I lose interest in it entirely & generally just destroy it after a day or two. If I really love it I often burn it immediately so the memory can never be tainted by my realising that I missed a mistake. Sometimes burning them gives them a new lease of life for a few moments while the flames transform all those hours of scratching away.

Not that it has anything visually to do with the painting but it is just that the expression of the girls face reminded me of the lyrics to this song by Nico.


Lily of the Sparrows

June Brown


Clarissa Transforming



La Reine Karine