A Ricefield Canvas
My girlfriend and I have a certain inner core that claps at the same bell. This is no different, I suppose, from any other couple. To say that we have a lot in common is not understatement, but certainly misleading; it is not necessarily activities that we enjoy together (she views horses with a keen agony, whereas to me they are countryside installations; I play Dungeons and Dragons, and video games, and to her they are a fascinating but ultimately untroubling phenomenon, like an iridescent insect on her shoe) but more of an aesthetic. I’m not sure, if we ever sat down and really talked about it, we could pinpoint exactly what it is that we share, but we could formulate a vast astrology of interconnected chips of culture and art and music that sets that core running in both of us. I suppose, when I think about what the world looks like using all four of our eyes, there are certain expressible elements; we see the world both in a painterly style, where trees and fields take a precedent, where the city is a wonderful tap that runs brown after a while, where quiet mixes with cacophonous engine noise and belches of flame from a very old fire. There are television programs, films, pieces of music, that evoke slivers of the whole mythology, but which never quite latch onto it fully. We both know when something “has the right stuff”, and we accept it into the fold as if it had always been there.
I had told her about the Studio Ghibli films before. She knew of them already, of course; with the success of Spirited Away the “Japanese Pixar”, a national treasure in that country, had spread itself into the United Kingdom with unsurprising ease. Miyazaki and Takahata both adore the West, subsuming it into their own shared core, and converting it to sit alongside Japanese mysticism and romantic poise. All of their films have something of the Weald about them, a rolling openness interspersed with dark natural intimacy that is distinctly European. In Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki was directly influenced by the landscape of Wales, the philosophy of its miners, and its healthy respect for innocent community. Everything they produce has a solid column of environmentalism running through it, an advocacy for appropriate silence and appropriate cacophony (each in their own time), and a love of nature that is so pure it has been mistaken for childish nostalgia. I had loved them for many years, and I knew that she would, also. She began to watch them, with a friend of hers, and both of them became enamoured, as I had been. 2012 was the year in which she caught up on the oeuvre, and in our speech and interactions we began to emulate what we saw on screen, in the best way possible. We were quiet, contemplative, prone to brief but beatific exclamations, watchful, and above all, open. And so, when Christmas lay its belly on the cold ground, and neither of us had much money, I knew what I would be making her as a present.
I’m not sure if many people know that I can paint. I’m not that good, and I often work with artists on projects, preferring their more refined, professional vision over my own self-doubt. I have always been more comfortable with words. I never painted flat images in any great number, but I did paint an extensive array of miniatures. I was a Games Workshop acolyte for many years, rarely actually competing but amassing figures in the tens and hundreds, painting them with an increasing degree of precision. I recently sold my entire collection for nearly £600. I have neither the time, money or inclination to participate these days, but my knowledge of colour, my steady hand, and my homesickness for the smells of acrylic and burning hair in the glare of the Anglepoise drew me back, to my mother’s paints and a gifted canvas, to try again.
I knew that she would adore my efforts, even if they were terrible. I chose Totoro, the gargantuan wood spirit, because of all Ghibli’s films his evokes most purely the miniature wanderlust of youth, of straying too far when too far is only a meter or three into the briarbush, and what you can find there if you just slow down and look. It evokes my own childhood so strongly that I can rarely watch it without crying, and I knew that my girlfriend is a fan also. Totoro has a nice symmetrical shape, and with a couple of sketches I pinned him down for painting. I did not think about the composition too much, or mistakes at all; I just ploughed in. This turned out fairly well, especially in the case of the potentially agonizing fur. My steady hand didn’t do too badly.
As I moved onto the colours (mixing that distinctive grey and yellow was difficult, but with a couple of tries, and the forgiving nature of acrylics, I managed it) I realised just how simple Ghibli’s process is, how refined and elegant. Almost all of their films are hand-painted, and so the sheer work that goes into each is unfathomable. The characters are distinctive yet cohesive, easily drawn by one who knows how, and the colouring is perfectly complimentary, with even garish tones fitting in a way that I struggled to replicate. With only simple shadows these characters are given depth, and as I ran a slick of Titanium White into the pupils of the wood troll’s eyes I saw instantly the picture transform. I fell in love with painting again.
I did change the colour of his umbrella from my reference picture, and this is the only part of the painting that I was not entirely happy with. I would have added a little more depth to those patagiums, if I had had time, but this painting was barely dry when I wrapped it and, fretting over the rain, caught a train across the Midlands to see her, to exchange presents. I had no idea what she was going to make me; she knew what I liked, could quantify it herself in her own head, but I was excited for her to see what her cack-handed boyfriend had managed.
She loved it. She was amazed that I had kept my painting a secret from her, when really I had given up on it completely, until both her and Ghibli had inspired me to take it up again. I had insisted that she open her present first, and so now it was my turn. What did she make me, cooped up alone in the middle of a flooded river valley, an accomplished artist with only this shared core between us?
She sewed me my own Totoro, out of an old jumper of hers. We had barely talked about Christmas, or presents, each terrified that we would disappoint the other. For this to happen, for ideas to fall into place like this, has sent me back to London in a whirlwind. A few more Ghibli paintings, and then I’ll try my own designs, mapping my own core, our core, onto a canvas that makes the brush jump as if on the contours of a ricefield.