How to Paint a Ditch by Hugh Dunford Wood


My morning looks promising – stepping out into the early light of day with an innocent eye, expecting nothing, noticing everything. I am alert as a fox, dragging my handcart of painting materials, an old Globetrotter suitcase of paints, brushes and rags, my folding easel and the camera tripod to record the progress every half hour.  I carry a large canvas tucked beneath my arm.


Here are stones across a drive; there’s a branch broken under the weight of rain on the night leaves. The sky falls into the rutted puddles. I am leaving behind the children’s chatter and the barking dogs of the summer village; slipping into the unpeopled shade of trees and track I am led to where I can stop, and wonder.


Magpies chortle, spiderwebs lace my lips, and my gawp finds the tracery of branches laden in green, with crab apples and sycamore keys and bramble pluck. A little box-shaped wren stitches through the hedgerow and darts into a damson tree at the sight of me. Ooh, I can smell sheep – and there’s the sound nearby, like the heavenly flock, their baa overhead from the high bordering fields that look south to the sea.


The track moves along to where the lane sinks further beneath the trees. I have heard of this place, directed here by friends only last week. I dump the handcart and fumble for the easel. I am amazed at the under-leaf light and the lovers’ token scratchings on the sandstone walls that rise to meet the ceiling of green.


The English countryside is so bloody green.  Everything is green.  So how can I describe this place in other hues?  I gaze at the overarching canopy and ask myself if it could not be green, what other colour describes what I see. A cobalt blue, overlaid, not mixed, with Indian yellow?  A thrush calls out his assent. I have assistants hidden about me.


It is cool, damp and smells autumnal.  The trees are braving it out into space, clutching at right angles back into the cliff, with a few loose useless roots hanging empty handed below.  There’s a reckless air with the evidence of recent rockfalls scattering boulders and pebbles into my path.  I have to be equally cavalier in attempting to edit all these details into one lively image.


Mechanically I open my easel and peer about. I peg the canvas to the banks with guy ropes to withstand my wildest work. From the belly roll of brushes in my handcart I choose a stubby stick of charcoal; its soot black lines trace the skeleton margins of the track, catching the rhythms of twisting trunks, and laddering ferns that launch from the lean of the lane. Then an over generous brush washes a wave of Prussian blue in seas of shadow revealing light pouring to the floor by what is not painted. Another hog-hair brush streaks with mixing and muddle. Transparent hues lay a ground for an over-layer with finer calligraphies, each outlining branches, leaf forms and stony ground.


I see these sandstone walls are a palimpsest of carvings from former times. Trees embrace from either side, fifteen or twenty feet above me forming a mother church of gothic greenery. This is a contained world. I feel held. But it is a world of farewell. No one stays here, we all pass through, for a Holloway is not quite of this world. The air hangs still and heavy. A great loneliness inhabits this gully with the absence of every man who passed along the way. One can almost hear their trudge up the track and into the light. I am solitary. Everyone has left this place, hikers under their backpacks, lovers hand in hand with their hopes, drovers with their cattle, whose steaming bate still hangs in the air, generations later.


These imagined presences only accentuate their absence. This vacuum fits the Holloway like a foot fits a boot. It fills this huge drain from wall to wall. This is both spectacular and empty, a damning and a blessing, like the chill dark of the badger holes in the cliff and the hottest lights that burn through the leaves above to burnish the floor at my feet.


When I was an art student, I was taught to draw a chair by tracing the spaces in between the legs and the spindles with my pencil. Description by absence. Now my brushes draw this deep ditch with coloured marks and lines, crosshatching and dabbing, scratching, streaking, scrubbing, and stroking, teasing out a presence by describing absence. Painting is a corralling of impressions, hemming a handful of light into a definition of feelings. At first it is a shyness, a modesty at my cheek in the face of such unfamiliar grandeur. A squirrel chitters a challenge. My brush moves warily, hesitant, approaching such magnificent space with a formality.  I am like a blind man tapping his path. The naked canvas blushes under the brush. My fit is the space I want to describe. This is a constellation of colluding memories with others who passed this way. These marks are my personal Holloways leading me in parallel to my painting. They need travelling over again and again to remain open and unhindered by brambles, stones and fallen branches.


Remember, keep this way open, some whisper. Others do not. They have no wish to come back, and remain silent.


I am disappointed when eventually the way forward on this canvas is blocked with tumbled trunks.  My fist of brushes is arrested by the hook and scratch of thorny briar. Moving elsewhere in the picture and picking an easier passage to paint, I gather energy as a Prussian blue brush moves from stiff outline to a random and daring scribble of cadmium red which describes everything overhead and nothing in particular. Slowly the painting comes into focus again as the eye drags definition of depth and detail onto the canvas. My graceful rigger dips into crimson alizarin and persuades the trees to bend. A filbert hatches purple shadows and beats out the rhythm of the leaves in their thousand. Such are the names of brushes. Ivy clings to trunk, the teeth of ferns make blue trills in the pit of undergrowth. This is a revelation of several hours with constant outsqueezing of paint onto palette.  A harvest of twisted tubes lies at my feet.


Gesture trumpets meaning in its cavalier stride, taking the painting from its literal source to an imperative demand of its own making. This is the moment that the painting takes control of the day.  I alter the colour of some leaves and the branch jumps on the canvas like a grasshopper.


No longer conscious of my surroundings, I am lost in this labyrinth of painting itself, its insistent marks speak directly to my eye and hand. The particular logic of this work bewitches me, in balancing this passage with that colour there, echoing movement and unrepeatable patterns of colour and texture and mad making. Memory and moment lose me in my own forest interior. Such concentration blazes for long withholdings of breath as I dissolve into this painted dialogue. What a cacophony, speechless and breathless.


Suddenly I can no longer see. The vision is over. I am stunned back from the abstract edge to the sensuous summer lane.


The sun sieves through the overhanging mass of leaves to create glowing tears of white at my feet. They are stepping stones over a pond of purple shadow, a path back to the present. These variegated patterns deceive the eye. The day at the end of the Holloway is so bright it draws out any detailed reading of the shade. It is so positive, beckoning me out, siren like, erotic and undeniable.


But then, pulling myself away, panting, I land on the other side of the making. I have made the painting. Its revelation is held. All spells are broken. Stoop for a rag, wipe those brushes, look up, bewildered, not understanding what is before me on the canvas. It will take time for this painting to reveal its secrets. For now all judgement has fled. No more looking as I bend into the routine of gathering up, folding the easel, loading the handcart and stumbling back down the lane and out of the landscape and into the raucous life that rattled on all afternoon despite my encounter with mystery.





Hugh Dunford Wood is an independent artist-designer. A graduate of the Ruskin School of Art, he paints landscapes and portraits, and designs textiles and wallpapers, often drawing inspiration from the natural world. Always keen to demystify the arts he co-founded the first Open Studio Weeks in 1983 and the Lyme Regis ArtsFest in 2003. He is a member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and an Artist Member of the Royal Western Academy. He has been an artist in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Globe Theatre and The Museum of Bermuda Art. He runs occasional workshops in lino printing, handmade wallpaper design and a drawing weekend. He lives in Bridport with a front door to the street and a back door to the countryside. Read more about his work on his website,  and follow his new work unfolding on instagram.

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