Apart for the brief 10 days or so when this painting ‘Firelight’ was exhibited as part of my solo show at Adam’s in October 2005, it has been a permanent fixture in my sitting room.
It’s large painting 122x92cm oil on canvas, and depicts 2 female figures playing chess infront of an open fire. This painting for me is all about composition. It’s the second painting that I did with this subject matter, the first ‘Firelight’ was in a square format and finished with the top of the fire surround, so this was the second composition and a lot more contrived as a result. I am not always so obviously aware of picture construction as I was with this one, but for this reason I can genuinely discuss the buildup of this painting, without any worries that I am reinventing after the event, as after all painting is a dynamic process where a lot of the decision making happens in the moment of the paint hitting the canvas and all previous ideas and concepts get sidelined in the pure action of the front line of painting.
For me the centre of a painting is where the eye naturally first rests, so here I have intentionally taken advantage of this phenomena and placed all the action centrally. This, I feel, creates more perceived energy within the painting and heightens the sense of visual drama for the viewer. So from the top of the painting in central position I set the clock, which I use in an obvious way, simply to help define the moment, a way of illustrating time in a pictorial way, which in turn, helps to illustrate that snapshot moment when a memory is retained, captured and treasured. Then the eye moves down to the dynamic flames in the hearth, and then onto to the middle of the chess board, where a game is in progress. All the attention from the figures is focused on the chess board, where one is about to move a piece. I then shift the emphasis away from the central action, and direct the eye around all the areas of the canvas by using compositional devices of either mirror imagining paired objects (as in the figurines on the mantelpiece), or obvious diagonals transecting the central line, as in the wood grain of the table. This helps to direct the viewer’s eye outwards to all corners of the canvas. Hopefully giving the painting a sense of balance like weighing scales.
On hind-sight, this painting brings to mind, for me, that effect of when you scatter random blobs of wet paint on one side of a piece of paper , then fold in on itself and press, to then open out and reveal a complete balanced integral shape like a butterfly. There is something very satisfying and calming about this form of symmetry, it feels so right to look at, like some primal patterning that represents the origins of life.
The reference points for this painting, would be Matisse’s ‘The painter’s family’, which I have known and loved so well all my painting life, and which he painted in 1911. There are such obvious links here with my ‘Firelight’, as can be seen with the central fireplace and the intimate feel factor of Matisse’s sons playing out the action of the game across the chequered board. Matisse so cleverly uses hot reds and warm earths in his palette (more reminiscent of Vuillard’s work) to reinforce and heighten the depiction of warmth and intimacy of the family scene. On a more personal note, ‘Firelight’ is a homage painting to TCD’s senior common room as it was in the 1980-90’s. On the few occasions that I visited this area of the common room, there was always a fire blazing in the grate, newspapers ready to be read, well-worn leather armchairs, chess tables with games half played out, walls lined with glass fronted bookcases, and the ticking of a clock, with a scattering of Persian rugs criss-crossing over the coir matting, with their jewel like colours of cadmium reds and viridian greens. For me, that room had that timeless elegant appeal of Georgian functionality.
'The Painter's Family' Henri Matisse 1911