The pathway of the Camino Francés was paced out by the feet of humans and beasts. The N120 highway follows the same geography, following the path of least resistance. We often saw it running parallel, at some distance to the foot-path.
Except in Villafranca Montes de Oca. Here the Camino, the highway, and Main Street converge. In this medieval village, the highway blasts right through.
We were among the hungry pilgrims hovering on the doorstep of the village supermercado, anxious for the 5 o'clock re-opening, with 18-wheelers and refrigerated semis barrelling past, practically scraping the doorway of the little store against which we all flattened ourselves. I wonder what it's like to live there with the village split in two.
We stayed that night in a habitación at the El Pájaro just off the highway. The next morning, after breakfast and a chat with a pilgrim couple from Holland, we hoisted on our backpacks and began our day's walk. I stopped a few minutes to take some photos of the early morning stream of trucks.
Back home in my studio I knew an image of a truck had to be part of my piece.
Sifting through my Camino snaps I found a great truck photo but it was missing its back end. I had shot it out of frame. I started hunting the web for a picture of a truck with a compatible back-end that I could patch on. I also needed to pinpoint the placement of the truck on Painted Steps. Using the elevation profile in the striped band I plotted the location of Montes de Oca, a little over half way through our journey, right on the edge of the second (left hand) sheet.
And it struck me! The 'endless' truck problem had created a perfect rationale for the diptych format. I hadn't been sure about using two separate sheets of paper as the substrate for the painting. I might have, perhaps, wanted one long sheet. But I liked the colour, absorbency and texture of the Somerset and the pieces together made a satisfyingly elongated rectangle. Now I could see the diptych form was exactly right, how the split space between the 2 sheets would serve to heighten the 'barrelling out of nowhere' experience of the truck.
I now needed a truck image with no back-end.
I now needed 2 sheets.
Two wrongs sometimes make a right!
Among my 'rules of engagement' defining the figure /ground relationships in Painted Steps is a decision to not put the little pictures in capsules or bubbles, not to paint "vignettes'. I want my images to sit plainly on the 'ground'. The middle band of Painted Steps is the land.
But I don't need to be rigid about the rules, just respectful. The truck will need a road, some landscape around it to show the action as well as the object, the heavy truck barrelling towards a sharp curve.
Gradually I've moved forward, painting in the scene; a bit of tarmac, a white line, more grey tarmac curving up the hill, more descriptive white lines, more hill with bushes, trees, signage, bit by bit, trying to keep on this side of just-enough.
The image begins fairly flat against the frontal plane. Then the added angles, overlap and perspective create the illusion of 3-D space and depict the truck driving into the painting.
The truck is a complex object, with the rounded hollow cab, the huge hard-edge box and the doughnut rounds of multiple wheels. The British term articulated lorry expresses the complexity well. The object is also in extreme perspective... difficult. Painting and re-painting has taken a lot of time.
I go back to the source photo. Does my painting need the crash barrier to prove the sharpness of the curve? I resist, then paint it in. Does it need the rooftop to show the narrowness of the highway? I paint the rooftop into the study, find it works, then add it into Painted Steps.
Does it need the rooftop to show the narrowness of the highway?
Is clarity more important than rules? Is purity?
Pictorially in Painted Steps I am working with the cardinal points North South East West,
top, bottom, right, left. I want to create the sense of westward movement from right to left, mirroring the westward journey of the Camino Francés.
To achieve this I've had to flip some of the source photos to get the desired orientation. In the photo of the truck it was already facing the right direction, ready to paint from. But once painted into Painted Steps the geographical truth and the pictorial truth contradict each other. Anyone familiar with that landscape would know the truck is 'really' headed back towards Belorado not west to Santiago.
But it looks right for Painted Steps. Here, to me, is another aspect of 'mediation' from experience to picture, fictionalizing the truth to reveal a truth.
The beautiful Somerset paper of Painted Steps has had its own journey from east to west. Milled in England, shipped to Montreal, trucked across Canada and ferried to Victoria, it lay on my shelves for 35 years, waiting for the right moment.