In a word, the painter must not aim for the likeness of any thing; the material sense should never be transferred to canvas: more than anything else trees have superb rhythmic tendencies: inspired by these, he should paint a rhythmic picture.
William Kiddier, The Profanity of Paint 1916
At the end of May I went to see an exhibition of paintings by artist William McKeown at Inverleith House at the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. The paintings were hung by Callum Innes in the light and spacious rooms on the upper floor. In the lower gallery was Agnes Martin’s film Gabriel. When I entered on the ground floor there was a collection of old photographs of trees, with dissolved areas of sky caused by deterioration of the images over time.
William McKeown’s paintings are painted in a palette of pale greys, blues and green. Can you imagine taking a piece of sky and painting a dark brownish brushstroke along its upper and lower limits and then further brushstrokes at each side to contain it? The roughly brushed lines do not meet at the corners, but are just enough to prevent the sky from floating away. His paintings are like a soft mist. Some are very large – you could float into them. Some are small and have a bright patch of colour along the lower edge. They invite you into their enveloping mist.
If you move from the first room into the second and turn to look back through the doorway, there is a magical moment that occurs through their careful placement. Hanging beside the doorway in the second room is a small soft grey painting. It is similar to the large painting that you can see through the doorway – a small mirror image. Now the large painting has changed with the distant viewing, as it does with the changing light that comes in through the long windows. Reflected softness.
The paintings pull you back and into their interior. More paintings, then a small pale green painting hangs between two windows. You cannot help but move from the green contained in it to an adjacent window to look out at the trees and grass in the gardens outside and then back again. The positioning invites this to and fro movement; pale green haze to trees and grass. It is hard to leave and I return later.
The next morning I find that same grey mist. On a rainy day, walking across Holyrood Park to visit an artist friend who lives in the city I pause to turn and look at the rocky peak of Arthur’s Seat and there, enclosing its upper part is the soft grey mist. Below it lies the fresh green of grass and trees. No sky, just soft grey.
Over coffee we talk about my friend’s paintings and those at Inverleith House. As I am about to leave, to walk back across the park, he stops me to show me some other small paintings he has been making. Small squares have been masked off on watercolour paper. They were painted a neutral brown tone and then several layers of thin white gesso with a soft flat brush. When the tape was pulled back, a soft mottled grey remained with a bleeding dark edge. As a parting gift I am given my own soft grey painting, which I take back across the park and onto the train out of the rain-soaked city.