Colour & Perception – Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” and Peter Jacksons’ “They Shall Not Grow Old”

Art is many things to many people. I’ve heard it described as a celebration of beauty, which is a joyous thing. Beauty is something we all need more of in our lives. What we don’t need more of is superficiality – there’s more than enough of that surrounding us already.

Art can be ugly too. It can be difficult, challenging, confrontational, thought provoking, political, religious, irreligious, complex or simple. It can be purely entertaining or deeply profound. It can make an immediate, readily understood impact, or require a major effort of understanding on the part of a viewer. Sometimes the less there is on a canvas, the longer the accompanying label seems to grow.

For me, one way of thinking about art is to understand it as the application of intelligence, technique and creativity to a subject to make you see the truth of it in a new way.  The familiar becomes new. We see something we thought we knew differently and are forced to think about it afresh. Sometimes it can upend our perceptions or make us face something we had not wanted to see. Or it can make us realize that something we barely saw at all is meaningful and worth looking at with new eyes. It seems to me that the best art begins with a strong idea – it is about something.

Image from the movie Roma by Alfonso Cuaron showing a woman and children in a car
Movie still from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma. Photo: NETFLIX

These thoughts don’t just apply to painting, but to all forms of artistic expression.  I am a painter, but I really love film – for me film was the great artistic medium to emerge in the last century. Obviously, it can be a visual feast, but it can also be highly literary. Great films take us into places we may have never been, bring us alongside other lives in ways that are visceral and real and engage our emotions powerfully just as literature or music does.

I was lucky enough to see two films in the past few days – each using the power of colour artfully to make us see something differently.  Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s black and white homage to the maid that raised him, is beautiful to look at. Imagine every great photographer you care to think of contributing a little, frame by frame. You could freeze it almost anywhere and simply appreciate the still image.  

Image from the movie Roma by Alfonso Cuaron showing a woman and child lying below a line of laundry
Movie still from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma. Photo: NETFLIX

Shooting a film in black and white abstracts each moment and makes another, almost nostalgic, reality   of it, forcing you to concentrate on light and composition. It is consciously a look and feel from a time that is past, accentuating that this is art made of memory, in a way.  The performances are powerful too – no wonder this is hotly tipped for an Oscar.  It is available on Netflix.

Image partially colorized from film footage of WWI from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Meanwhile, adding colour to footage that was black white and has left all of us with a collective memory of a black and white war that took place impossibly long ago, when people were grainy and indistinct and moved like marionettes, is a stroke of genius in Peter Jacksons’ “They Shall Not Grow Old”. It brings the reality of a war that is sliding beyond living memory screaming into the present and forces you to confront the living, breathing, humanity of these men and the hell they lived through.

Colorized film footage of WWI men resting behind the lines from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

I remember the old men those young men became, remember talking to my grandfather who went through the entire war and was forever altered by it. It was only yesterday, really, and now they are all gone. This is a film that will show future generations who never knew these men that they were more than characters in a history book.

I can’t quite believe a film of this outstanding quality was screened for just two days, in limited theatres, with almost no advertising. Despite this, the screening we attended in Victoria was sold out and left its audience profoundly moved. Peter Jackson worked with the Imperial War Museum Film and the BBC Sound archives to create a vivid, unforgettable and never before seen telling of the war on the western front by those who were there. The War Museum had asked him to make “something” out of their 100 hour archive of grainy black and white, hand-cranked camera, silent footage. Their only brief was “make it a fitting tribute to the centenary of the war and make it something we haven’t seen before”.

Colorized film footage of a trench in WWI from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Working with his digital processing and effects people in NZ. He first of all took that aging and deteriorating footage and cleaned it up, then corrected all the various shooting speeds to a believable 24 frames a second, before colouring it, so that it lives like never before.  Of course, the original film is silent, so he had actors read the words – captured by lip readers – of those seen speaking and authentic sounds added, so that the mud squelches, the shells whine and explode and the guns chatter and the soldiers laugh and joke with us.  The result brings these men gloriously alive and makes their deaths freshly poignant and senseless…

The film is voiced by a carefully edited commentary from around 100 British soldiers, telling it like it was, the horrors and the humour, the everyday realities, the dreams and nightmares, the camaraderie, the loss, the inability to ever share it all with civilians when they came home. I don’t think there can have been a dry eye in the house. It is a simply stunning achievement and will surely become the definitive telling of what it was like to be a part of that war as an ordinary soldier. There is no history of battles, no attempt to explain what it was all about, no Generals, no tactics, just those voices reminiscing, often with good humour or great sadness – what it was like to join up, train, then live and fight in trenches.  This is how it was. I’ve read a great deal about that war and have a vivid imagination, but this put you on the spot and confronted you like no reading can.

This is art. A masterpiece. See it if you can.

Now, how to make art with a brush that speaks like these films? What a challenge!

The Captive

Portraits can be powerful tools. Think of the endlessly reproduced giant faces of Chairman Mao, Stalin or Hitler that were designed to make them seem all seeing and all powerful. Omnipresence through image. Or the portraits of kings and nobles, painted to project majesty and power – or, perhaps, the gentle faces of all those Madonnas or metaphysically detached Christs, designed to be venerated and adored.

Portraits can be part of revolutions too, remember those glorious proletarian banner carriers of Soviet art, or Liberty leading the people in Delacroix’s famous painting? These images are meant to provoke, or encourage, to reinforce some kind of belief, they were never merely beautiful, although some of them undoubtedly are. Sometimes a face can focus us on a cause, can give a recognizable personality to something that seemed impersonal and remote. Putting a human face to an issue can make all the difference in how we engage with it.

Most of the time my own work does not aspire to such lofty ideals, the everyday life of a portrait painter is about celebrating the love or admiration we have for one another, either on a personal level or in recognition of more public achievements, but every now and again I am given the opportunity to paint something that seeks to make a difference. I can look back gratefully at the group portrait I made of Haitian orphans that was part of a fund-raising campaign that rebuilt their orphanage, or the portrait of a Hausa King that has helped open doors to aid and relief work where none was possible before and be glad I could help in some small way.

This past week I was at my studio away from home, in rural Connecticut, when I was asked if I would consider painting Leah Shabiru.

In the Connecticut studio (photo by Lee Cantelon)

Leah is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who was kidnapped in a raid by Boko Haram, Nigeria’s terrifying Islamic militant group, back in February of this year. Many other girls were taken with her, but they have all been released. Leah alone remains captive because she refuses to renounce her Christian faith. Unlike every other instance where Boko Haram have seized the headlines by kidnapping girls, this time we have a name. All those other girls, numbering in the hundreds, taken over the past few years and subjected to every imaginable indignity and trauma, remain largely anonymous – especially to the outside world. The suffering of all those girls has been terrible and many of those released have been left physically and mentally scarred for life. Only their families and those who work to bring help to them know who they are. Leah could be the face for all of them – a face to build a campaign around perhaps. But there is only one photograph of her and it does not tell the story that needs to be told. I felt I had to try to make a picture that did.

Looking at that one picture of Leah, taken in happier times, dressed in a white and yellow turban, glasses pushed high on her forehead, and a vivid silk shirt – I saw a snapshot of a pretty girl enjoying life – innocent and lovely. Thankfully it does not hint at her present condition. I did not want to simply copy someone else’s picture of a girl I have never met, but to find a way of portraying a brave girl in an unimaginable situation, a girl whose faith is all she has to cling to.

The first painting underway (photo by Lee Cantelon)

For two days I worked on a small painting in which I changed the colours of her clothes and reimagined a setting, trying to make something new, that would be my own, out of the limited reference available. At the end of the second day I felt that, whilst a picture was taking shape, something was missing, it wasn’t telling the story I needed to tell. I went to bed anxious and uncertain, knowing that Peter Fretheim, the missionary who had hoped I could make this painting, would be here the following evening, eager to see what I had done. It didn’t help that Lee Cantelon, my good friend who had introduced us, had told Peter a picture was taking shape and had emailed pictures of work in progress enthusiastically. It was a night of uneasy dreams.

I awoke early with a clear vision of a very different painting in my head. I hurried over to the studio and looked at the picture I’d spent the last two days on. Could it be altered to fit this new vison? I made a few tentative strokes and realised that last night’s paint was still too wet to take the massive alterations I had planned. I hesitated, there was so little time. I went back into the house and made some tea. What to do? I had a painting that could be completed, but I was now certain it was not the painting I wanted.

I had missed what I was aiming for. I had to trust the vision I had woken with, to try and get what I had seen out and onto a fresh canvas in just a few short hours if I wasn’t going to disappoint everyone, including myself.

Luckily, Leah’s face was now familiar to me. The struggles I’d had with painting her colouring had begun to resolve in the first portrait and I began again with all I had learned in mind, knowing both what to avoid and with a clear idea of where I was going. I painted hard and fast, closing my eyes occasionally to see the painting inside my head more clearly. Three hours later I had the sense to stop. As I sat back I heard the sound of a car pulling up outside. Lee came in moments later. “Did you finish it?” he asked. I pointed to the new painting on the easel. “Wow, you’re kidding me” he said, ‘that wasn’t here this morning. Where did that come from?” I could only point upwards and smile.

Leah Shabiru, Captive for Christ

Yes, it is a sketch, it isn’t beautifully finished, and yes, some of the modelling in the face could be further refined, but the painting, loose as it is, tells the story. Leah Shabiru, Captive for Christ.

Peter and his wife Miriam, who know the Shabiru’s, were thrilled. They felt this was an image that they could use widely to raise awareness of Leah’s story and give a face to what is happening in that troubled region. I can only hope it helps make part of the difference they are trying to achieve. I’m just glad to have had a chance to do this, glad that sometimes paintings can make a difference and thankful for the vision that came with the morning.


A Tale of Two Kings

David sketching in Jaipur
The Beginning – Sketching in Jaipur

It’s New Year’s Eve, there is snow outside my window and the lake is still and cold, the kind of marrow chilling grey that makes you appreciate central heating. Half a world away there will be fireworks, colour and music blazing into a night peaking just as my day begins. I was there, in Jaipur, just nine days ago, putting the finishing touches to the second of my Kings. Which just goes to show, you never can tell what a year might bring.

I began 2017 in Jaipur too. I had gone there, ostensibly, to help my good friend Lee Cantelon make a film. I know just enough about such things to be useful in a small way and we had a very small budget – none in fact- so anything I could add would be something. I had packed all my portable art making gear as Lee had suggested shots of me sketching and painting might give our documentary a narrative twist. Our film was intended to highlight a project that brings water, medical care and, above all, education and hope for a future to some of the poorest of the poor in Jaipur’s rag-picker camps and slums. Like all such projects, this one needs funding and the film was intended to help.

Sketching in Jaipur, India

So, it was no great surprise to find myself in a sprawling encampment, crouched in a home assembled from tarps and found objects, sketching an elderly, tattooed, tribal woman bedecked in bangles and blankets, just two hours after stepping off the plane. Nor to be drawing the beautiful faces of the school kids over the coming days, between camera work and planning our next moves. What did come as a surprise was that Jaipur had a new King – His Highness, The Maharaja, Sawai Padmanabh Singh – and that the Christian community in Jaipur had been in touch with the palace and would like to commission me to paint him as a gift bridging the two communities, if I would like to do it.

Like to? Are you kidding? What an incredible honour! Two days later we bundled into a taxi, cameras and light gear in the trunk, on our way to City Palace, Lee now acting as my assistant and a second cameraman along to record the meeting and photoshoot with His Highness in preparation for his historic first official portrait as Maharaja.

With only days to go before I had to leave for home and His Highness for England to begin the polo season (he plays professionally), live sittings were out of the question, so this portrait would have to be made from photographs. We arrived early to set up equipment and experiment with pose and lighting, before His Highness joined us, generously giving us an hour of his time to work with him – a chance to commit as much of him to memory as I could and to get a feel for who he is. You can shoot a great many pictures in an hour, and each of them tells you a little more, each adding vital information for later use in the studio.

The shoot took place in a magnificent room, decorated as only a palace in Jaipur could be – gilded surfaces, floral patterns, marvelous ornaments, historic pictures, golden chairs and a magnificent silver throne, complete with armrests in the form of prowling lions. To compete with such a setting any subject would have to be equally splendid- the Maharaja undoubtedly is – six feet three and movie star handsome, dressed in a magnificent regal uniform and carrying a bejeweled sword, he commanded the room.

His Highness the Maharaja of Jaipur by David Goatley

Back in my studio in Canada, it was time to turn the dream into some sort of reality. I experimented with a standing pose before settling on the seated one you see here, which seemed to say so much more. I drew the whole complex composition loosely in charcoal initially, just to make sure everything would fit, before tightening the drawing in sepia paint. Next, I blocked in the major shapes in colour to develop an overall sense of the whole picture before starting the long process of bringing it into focus piece by piece. You might think you’d leap straight into the head in a portrait, but I need to see it in context- every piece of colour affects not only the thing next to it, but the overall tonality of the picture- you see red more strongly played against green, for example, light sings only in contrast to dark, and so on.

Painting the Maharaja

There is over a week’s work in that throne, days in the jewelry, many, many, hours in the head -to which I returned again and again over the two months it took to complete the portrait. Finally, I felt it was ready, and sent photographs to the palace for approval. A little tweak here, a touch there, and it was ready to ship to take its place in the Royal Collection. I was sorry to see it go, it had been a presence in my studio for a long time and had given me a great deal of pleasure.

Coming back to Jaipur in December I was less sure what the focus would be. Certainly, there would be more work to do at the school, newly made friends to catch up with, possibly more footage to shoot for the project begun months earlier and always more sketches to make, thinking of the exhibition of paintings I have been planning in support of the work there, but working with Lee there are always surprises.

How would you like to paint another king?

Lee had just returned from Nigeria, where he had been persuaded to meet with a Hausa King and his tribal council who were seeking to build bridges with people who might be able to help them develop the resources they so desperately need. It is no secret that there has been a great deal of conflict and uncertainty in the north of the country, some of it fueled by religious extremism, and the meeting was a courageous first step.

The meeting went well, a bond was forged, plans for further talks made, and the King wished to meet Lee again in the new year. The idea of a portrait to give the King as a gift cementing the new friendship was something I readily agreed to.How often do you get to paint a picture that could literally save lives? If we could build a bridge between these two communities, it could be a game changer and the good will generated by this painting could be a real factor in that. Of course, I had to work from Lee’s photographs rather than from personal experience of the man, something I would normally only ever do for a posthumous subject, but the chance to do some real good with a picture was unmissable.

The painting had to be small enough to carry back to Jos over rough roads, tough enough not to damage and done quickly enough to be dry and framed before I left to get back to Canada for Christmas. I decided on an oil sketch on panel and set about finding equipment in the Pink City, having brought only a sketch book and charcoal on this trip. Buying artists materials in a shop stacked from floor to ceiling with thousands of small boxes, many of them unlabeled, was an adventure in itself. Somehow all I needed appeared from the chaos, accompanied by much smiling, it was wonderful. I was in business.

Working at the school I had a constant, enthralled audience of excitable children. The noise was deafening but joyful. Perhaps by watching they learned a little from me – I hope so, I certainly learned a lot from them.

Working small, fast and loose and combining elements from three or four shots I managed to make the picture you see here over a frenetic few days. Of course, I’d have liked more time, of course it should be bigger, of course I would have liked to control the lighting and to have met the man himself, but you play the hand you’re given.

His Highness Sulaiman Yakubu, Sarkin of Miya

In 2017 I was given two kings. It doesn’t get much better than that.