Dark Thoughts: The Meaning Behind ‘The Seventh Gate’ Part 2

If you missed Part 1, Click Here. Approximately two years ago, I started this series of paintings to visually show how depression has affected me. This experience of mental illness is unique to me, but from reading around the subject there is a lot of crossover with other people who have suffered and who are suffering with depression. But before I launch into the meaning of the last painting let’s have a little recap on the story so far.

For my post on the meaning behind each individual painting just click on the relevant title.

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Depression is something that I’ve suffered with on and off since I was in my late teens. I can be feeling perfectly well mentally, and then something, I don’t always know what, will trigger the illness and my mood will start to head downwards. This first painting in the series is a reminder to me to always be on guard and do my best to keep myself mentally healthy. (For some tips, Click Here.) I haven’t had an episode of depression in the last four years despite having some traumatic life events. Some of the thought patterns associated with the illness have crept in at times, but fortunately I’ve been able to counteract them. I know all too well that I will keep returning to the tree pictured above, and I know the consequences of allowing it to take a hold and drag me down. But what are those consequences?

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One of the first subtle signs that something was wrong, was a desire to cut myself off, to isolate myself. When I am beginning to get depressed, it is a very seductive idea. I have always been able to justify this need  to myself, and sadly, it has resulted in the end of many friendships. The illness uses this tactic to divide and conquer, to get me on my own so that it can continue to work on my thoughts without the chance of being disturbed.

The Insidious Whisper

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It took me a long time to work out that my thoughts weren’t my own. The illness enlisted the helps of ‘The Whisperer’ who has an incredible knack of hiding and passing off unhelpful thoughts as perfectly natural. I was thinking the thoughts in my head, so they were my thoughts, obviously? I didn’t realise how my healthy thought patterns could be changed with the sole aim of making me feel worthless. But depression does this with alarming ease.

Stiff Upper Lip

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While ‘The Whisperer’ worked on my thoughts, the illness puts another safeguard in place to protect itself: the ability to put on a brave face. It didn’t want me telling people how I felt because that may get me the help that I sorely needed. So I smiled and hid my emotions. Over time I learned to let some people in and share what I was going through. But depression had got this covered too.

Skin the Shine of the Rain

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Telling people how I really felt just opened the floodgates. Because I was feeling so terrible, it led me to say and do hurtful things: destructive actions designed to wreck relationships. If you know that I’m suffering with depression, to say that I’m difficult to be around is an understatement. Breaking any ties that could potentially help me is the modus operandi of the illness.

I Will Walk Into Your Parlour

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Its arsenal of destructive weapons doesn’t stop there. The next step was to make me want to see just how low I could go. I actively wanted to become more depressed. Yet again, this was a seductive idea. It was a massive effort to get out of bed and even when I did, I spent a lot of time lying on the floor. My aim was to melt into it and achieve some kind of safety. I’m not sure how that would have worked, but that was my thought process. Lying on the floor was a way to escape the insufferable mental pain that I was in. But as the depression had correctly calculated, it just made me worse.

The Seventh Gate

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And so we reach the final painting.

After all of the above, you may be thinking: I know where this is going. There is only one way this story ends. You attempted suicide.

But no. I didn’t.

The real end to the story is equally as dramatic but not in the way you’d expect. I’ll explain…

You would be partially correct: my thoughts certainly turned towards death. When you’re that far down, it’s pretty much the only way to go.

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I’ve touched on vicious circles before because depression is a jumbled mass of vicious circles all spiralling down. Here’s one of them for your delectation:

I often had the thought that I wanted to die. I wasn’t going to commit suicide. I had made a promise not to. Even without the promise I’m not convinced that I would have done anything. But during periods of depression I tend towards obsessional thoughts, and this was one time it worked in my favour. I became obsessed with the promise, and that was the thing I held onto tightly.

And yet I wanted the pain to end. I spent hours in bed wishing that something would happen to me in the night, some bizarre medical incident resulting in me never waking up. My other fantasy was that a button would appear in my bed, a small red plastic button in a polished metal surround. The button would be set into the mattress. I knew if it appeared, I would press it without a second thought. The purpose of the button was to erase me completely from history as if I’d never been born. A cliché maybe, but thoughts don’t have to be original to be real and agonizing.

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Before I carry on, I’ll point out that I don’t have this impulse now. The thoughts occasionally pop into my head, depression will always try to gain a foothold somehow, but I dismiss them instantly. The thoughts appeared natural when I was suffering from excruciating mental pain. But now I’m not under that level of pain, I can remove these thoughts easily. They are poor attempts at usurping my more positive mood that I’m not going to let creep back in.

But what about the vicious circle? Well, these thoughts of death preoccupied me. They were in my head so often that they became routine. They made me feel worse. They made me feel that death was my only way out. And as I felt worse, I thought about them even more. A vicious circle. This is the point where obsession conspired against me: I became obsessed with the idea of death. I think the reason why it comes back into my head even now is because being obsessed with these thoughts was a way of life for me.

Imagine this scenario: you are locked in a room and have no water. One of the walls of the room is made from thick unbreakable glass. On the other side of the glass is a two litre bottle of water, and you can’t get to it. As time went on and you became thirstier and thirstier what do you think your thoughts would turn to? Yes, you’d become obsessed with the one thing that is going to release you from the pain: the bottle of water. So it’s not really a surprise that I became obsessed with my perceived solution.

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But aren’t these thoughts of death selfish? It is hard to describe the mental agony I was in. I could compare it to a 360 degree vice constantly crushing my head. Or a thick black fog surrounding  me and only me that exerts a tremendous pressure on my psyche. Or living at the bottom of the deepest ocean in the murk, with disturbing creatures encroaching on my territory while everyone else is in the sunshine. But it doesn’t touch on how bad it was. And I just wanted it to stop. I don’t think that’s a selfish thought. Being selfish is nicking all of the best chocolates from the lower tray of a box of chocolate before the top layer has been finished. Wanting to escape extreme misery and pain is not selfish.

But eventually, I found a solution that didn’t involve an imaginary red button, and it was by accident: I left teaching. Gradually the depression started to lift and I was able to start helping myself to get out the negative thought patterns. I’d done some work on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in the past, and at the time it hadn’t work in the slightest. But in my new state of mind I was able to put some of the ideas into practice and climb out of my depression.

Now we get to the dramatic ending that is laced with a huge dollop of irony.

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A couple of years after I’d been at my lowest point of my life, things were going really well. I was happy. I was enjoying my new job as a gardener; I’d always had a healthy lifestyle and working outdoors, getting loads of exercise really suited me. I loved being active. I was in my early forties and felt like I was starting a new life, one where I was physically and mentally fit.

Then I had a heart attack.

I only fitted into one of the risk categories, family history, and that was enough.

I had an angiogram that revealed I had a severe blockage in one of my arteries and also lurking around in that area was a blood clot. I knew it was pretty serious because that night I was rushed to another hospital ready for having a stent fitted the next morning. Then something happened that showed that the situation was probably even more serious than I’d originally thought. I was in one of the hospital beds opposite the nurses’ station. They were going over the patients’ notes in turn, discussing the care that each person needed to receive. Then it came to my name. And their voices dropped to hushed whispers.

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Oh dear, I thought, or words to that effect.

So I came up with a plan. I’d read somewhere – and this may or may not be true – that a large percentage of people died in their sleep at about 4am. As this idea came into my head, I instantly decided not to sleep. There was no way I was going to die that night. I was going to stay awake and fight. Okay, it was more like stay awake, and desperately try to keep my eyes open, but you get the idea.

The phrase ‘dripping with irony’ perfectly sums up that last paragraph. Not long ago, I had spent a whole year of nights wishing that death would come for me. Two years later, when this could have become a reality I fought for life. I had been through a full year of hell and made it out the other side. There was no way I was dying that night.

So the plan worked and I made it through to the next morning.

The next morning I had a stent fitted and things were back to looking rosy. The consultant told me at a later date that she was worried about me and things could have been very different. I like to think that I managed to prevent that very different outcome from occuring. I probably just made myself tired. But it’s a good thought.

This little tale goes some way to illustrating that no matter how bleak things seem, it is possible to get through periods of severe depression. At my lowest, I couldn’t see how I would ever have any positive emotions again. I could only see one way out. If you’d told me then that two years later I would be fighting for my life – the exact opposite of how I felt at that time – I would have laughed in your face.

I’m not going to pretend that the entirety of my life consists of happy happenings, happily happening through every happy happiness filled day. Life isn’t like that despite what people would like you to think from their posts on social media.

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Life is certainly a mixture of good and bad experiences, and now I feel more able to deal with it. My paintings have helped me deal with the unhelpful thought patterns that arise from depression. I catch myself thinking a particularly negative thought about myself and ‘The Insidious Whisper’ pops into my head. Or I think about becoming isolated, and ‘Welcome’ appears in my mind’s eye. Or perhaps, my mind drifts to thoughts of death. I remember that ‘The Seventh Gate’ is not perfectly symmetrical. There are other options to pressing the red button. Look for the asymmetry.

What is your interpretation of this painting? I’d be interested to read any comments you have.

If you are currently being affected by any of the issues above seek advice from your doctor.

Useful Websites

http://www.samaritans.org/

https://www.mind.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

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The Meaning Behind ‘The Seventh Gate’ Part 1

Normally in these posts, where I look at the meaning behind my paintings, I first write about my own experience and then detail how this fits in with the piece of art. For this final painting in the Seven Gates series, I’m going to do something different: I’ll start by looking at the various elements in the image and then I’ll talk about my experience in the next post to see their relevance.

Probably the first thing that you’ll notice about this painting is the red circle. If you’re familiar with the rest of my work, you’ll know that the worlds I paint tend to be lacking in colour. Most are grey, to be exact. So this splash of red may be a surprise. I’ve composed the image so that this red circle is the focal point. Wherever you let your eyes roam, they will always return to this point.

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Just as the viewer is drawn to the red light, so is this small figure in the lower area of the image. Although he is not immediately apparent, the contrast between him and the red platform will eventually draw your eye to him.

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The pose of each creature suggests someone reaching out for a welcoming and comforting hug. Yet the twisted nature of the torso and head hint more at being smothered and crushed like a Boa Constrictor would. I designed the creatures with the idea of obsession forefront in my mind. I worked again with free association in the planning process and the words that repeatedly appeared were ‘tornado’, ‘whirlpool’ and ‘black hole’. So I used the idea of two curved lines continually twisting downwards as the basis for my design. I also played about with the location of the ribs and pelvis to suggest that the bones are moving fluidly within the creatures’ bodies and constantly shifting.

Some other common themes that were evident in the free association phase were: hospitals, needles and scalpels. In keeping with this, the building is based on architectural elements from Doncaster Royal Infirmary.

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I based the ends of the spikes on the building on the exact shape of scalpels.

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And the main tower was also based on two parallel scalpels.

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One feature of the building which probably won’t be apparent is the use of the golden ratio. This idea comes from mathematics but is often used in pieces of art. Its use gives objects and images a visually pleasing aesthetic. I wanted the building to be a contradiction between a place the viewer finds appealing and something disturbing and oppressive. The golden ratio made it appealing and the colour scheme, size and shapes gave it the other qualities. This is all well and good, but it was a pain to plan all of this out using the golden ratio.

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The last visual element – and again, it was a complete pain to work like this – is the symmetry of the image. I wanted the composition of the painting to focus the viewer towards the red light. The symmetry makes it feel as though there isn’t another option than looking at the centre.

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And yet, it’s not perfectly symmetrical. But more on that next time.

So those are the main elements of the image. I’ll let you consider the meaning of the painting. What would happen if the figure walked on to the red platform? What is the significance of the medical imagery? Why isn’t the image perfectly symmetrical? I’d be interested to read any comments you have on the subject.

See you next time where the meaning will become clear.

The Making of ‘The Seventh Gate’

The genesis of this painting started a year ago when I was originally working on the fourth painting in the series. It was going to be called ‘Don’t Think of Pink Elephants’.

Did an image of a pink elephant pop into your head just then?

I’d be surprised if not because it is pretty much impossible to tell yourself not to think about something. The painting was all about obsessional thoughts and the difficulty one has in controlling them. I wanted to paint an image of 365 creatures that were all identical. As I’ve written before, the repetition necessary for the meaning of the painting to have an impact gave me severe hand pain. So the project had to be shelved. But for the first time here are some photos of from the development of the idea:

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The set-up taken from a different angle
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Creating toy soldiers with four arms
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The fully lit mock-up of the four armed soldiers
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A test version of the painting created in Photoshop
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Again in Photoshop, ensuring the correct perspective of the figures for the final piece

The design of the creature was based on the idea of a whirlpool constantly twisting around on itself. Here are a few shots from the iterative design process to show you the subtle evolution:

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For the first time, here is a photo of how far I actually got with the painting:

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As you can see I only managed to paint the bottom left hand corner, about 20% of the image, before my hand gave way. During the painting process, I thought it would be great to render the creature at a larger scale. Really great. But this thought went away for a while…

Leaving obsession, I decided to work on other things. I completed the paintings ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, ‘Skin the Shine of the Rain’ and ‘I Will Walk Into Your Parlour’.

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But eventually, when I came to the final painting, obsession reared its little head again and I decided to resurrect an old creature. Finally I was able to paint it at a much larger scale.

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As usual, I started with some free association and from there I decided on the best location in Doncaster to visit to gain inspiration. In this case it happened to be the Doncaster Royal Infirmary. I set off armed with my camera and went looking for interesting architectural features.

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Okay, maybe they aren’t the most interesting architectural features for the general public, but they suited me just fine. I decided in the end to work with three main aspects:

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The columns on the front of the main building
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This repeating triangular roof
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And this repeating triangular roof

I also wanted the final image to be symmetrical forcing the viewer to the centre of the composition. This also brought the series back full circle to match the (almost) symmetry of the first painting:

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So with these elements in place I set to work in Photoshop planning out the main composition:

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One feature that I included in the final plan that never made it into the painting was the crowds at the bottom. I liked them because they showed the scale of the creatures but didn’t quite fit in with the overall theme. So I ditched them. I also corrected the perspective on the creatures in the final image.

The next stage was to decide on a colour scheme.

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I knew I wanted the red light in the centre so that was fixed from the start but I was open to the colours surrounding it. These are the three colour schemes I thought about and even from this small test, I preferred the middle one; it was the most unsettling. Even so, I tried out a few colour schemes on my plan. Suffice to say, the middle one was still the best.

The painting process was fairly straightforward for this painting. The main problem (and it was a huge one) was the symmetrical nature of the image. The boards I work on are 76cm long. So when I was painting, I was constantly pushing the board from side to side: a few brush strokes on this sides, slide the board over, the same few brush strokes but mirrored on the other side, slide it back and repeat. And repeat. I’m surprised the board didn’t set on fire from the friction with the easel. I was glad when I got to paint the centre of the image. It meant the board could stay still for once.

The other problem with the symmetry was it hampered the fluidity of my painting. I couldn’t spend an hour or so on one side, seeing where the paint took me, and then replicate this on the other side; it would have been too different. So I had to paint in a very disjointed and methodical way. Not my favourite experience and one of the reasons this painting took longer than normal.

Another decision I had to make was the perspective on the creatures. I wanted repetition in the painting but should every creature look identical as if the image was taken with a very long lens? Or do I have the viewpoint right in amongst the creatures and have them in the same position, but painted from a different perspective? I went back to the theme of the painting and the viewer definitely had to be right in the thick of the action. Cue lots of reference photos of my wife stood on a step-ladder doing the various arm poses. She had to be raised up to give the right viewpoint and make the creatures look huge.

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The only other real problem was the painting of the black tower. I had to gradually change from a dark red, blending all the way through to black and then subtly head towards red again at the bottom. Seems tricky, but not too bad. Mmmm. An hour’s work, make a small mistake, try to correct it by remixing a previous colour, find out this is stupidly difficult, find out that the blending isn’t smooth enough, and it’s back to the start and time to try again. Repeat this six or seven times for a fun-filled experience.

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And that’s the creation of this series done. All finished. It’s been a long job but I’ve enjoyed the ups and the downs. I’ve learned many, many things from this series of seven paintings and I’m looking forward to starting my next project. Thank you very much for reading and I’ll be back soon with the full meaning behind this painting.

If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the box below. I’d love to know what you think about this painting and the process I went through. See you next time!

The Desire to Go Deeper Down: The Meaning Behind ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’ Part 2

In my last post – Click Here if you missed it – I detailed how depression led me down a path where I actively tried to see how depressed I could get, to see just how far I could go down.  Now I’ll look at how this all fits in with my painting ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’.

Firstly, let’s look at the title: it’s fairly obviously a reference to the Mary Howitt poem ‘The Spider and the Fly’ which has the first line:

‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the Spider to the Fly.

In the poem, the spider eventually charms the fly to a dinner party where the delicacy on the menu is Pie and Mushy Flies. Munch, munch. In my painting, all of the charming and seducing has already been done and I’d reached the point where I would willingly enter the spider’s abode. I actively wanted to seek its slathering maw. The composition echoes this idea of a spider’s web with the lines of the descending walls converging on the centre of the eye.

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There are lines bisecting these converging lines that complete the web-like structure.

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As I’ve written about in a previous post, the walls were inspired by a location in Owston Ferry that had terrified me as a child. I dreaded the thought that I would fall into the water and be consumed by the darkness.

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Last time I also detailed how I would lie on the floor for extended periods of time in a misguided attempt to escape the severe mental pain I was suffering. The walls in the painting represent pain. It took me a long time to choose the colour that best felt like pain to me but I was happy with this cool blue-green that I finally mixed. At the bottom, the walls are melting and flowing down into the eye. This is exactly what I was trying to achieve by lying on the floor. I thought that I could dissolve into the floor and get away from the pain. Funnily enough, I never managed this superhuman feat.

Something that is easy to miss in the painting – especially looking at it on a tiny screen – is the small figure in the upper lefthand corner:

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I don’t want my paintings to reveal all of their secrets at first glance – after all depression heavily guards its secrets and intentions – so the man walking down the stairs was intentionally kept small. By this point, the depression was almost fully in control and there was very little left of me. My thoughts almost exclusively belonged to the illness. The tiny part of me that was left was being guided to a false safety. What will the man do when he reaches the bottom of the stairs? In my mind, he steps off into space without a single second’s pause. We’re back to the title again…

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In each of my paintings, I’ve included a creature. For this one, I wanted a creature so huge that only a small part of it would be seen: the eye. You can imagine the rest for yourself. The idea on which I based the creature was safety. That is what I thought I was going to get by going deeper into depression. I used my usual process of free association in the planning phase of the painting and a number of interesting words came up that somehow related to safety in my mind: ‘creation’, ‘start of life’ and ‘many animals’. At the time, I didn’t consider how they were related but on looking back I wondered whether this was a desire to restart the world, to move away from the pressures of modern life and begin again.

Everyone will have a different view on what the pressures of modern life are, but for me they revolve around an endless cycle of working too many hours and having no life just so that you can buy stuff or do things to make you happy. The only thing is, the initial high of purchasing new stuff wears out incredibly quickly and the next ‘must have’ pops into view. All of these purchases and expensive experiences are then posted on social media for all to see, get envious about and work even harder (or take out loans) to then pay for even better stuff and experiences. None of this made me happy. For me the opposite is definitely more true, spending time with people I care about engaging in simple experiences makes me happy. When I think back to my childhood and the favourite of my granddad, it’s this: walking home from school with him, talking about what we’d done that day and eating some fresh strawberries that he’d just picked from his garden. The cost? Hardly anything. How much was it worth? A stupid amount of happiness.

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I recently watched a documentary about a woman dying from cancer and someone said to her that no-one on their death bed wishes that they’d bought more stuff or had more expensive experiences, they wish they’d spent more time with loved ones and I think that’s very true. So for me, this creature had to represent a return to simpler times, although not necessarily a return to some rose-coloured glasses past. This would be a fresh start with less work for everyone, a lot less stuff and less of a focus on image and more on enjoying the experiences we have in a mindfulness type fashion. This is my idea of safety from the modern world.

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Many animals were used in the creation of the creature: Sea Anenomes, Wolf Fish, Fangtooth Fish, Regal Horned Lizards, Leaf Beetles, Blue Poison Dart Frogs, Common Vampire Bats (for the creature’s nose – as an aside if you want to see some really strange noses, search for bat noses, they’re very impressive) plus I added a few slug-like tentacles as a garnish (I couldn’t resist!). All of the constituent parts swirl around towards the centre as if in a whirlpool; vicious circles are a huge part of depression and I wanted to show this visually. One of mine – there were many – went something like this: I lay on the floor because I was depressed, this led to more feelings of worthlessness, so I became more depressed etc.

I gave the creature a cataract to blind it. This was to show that the depression didn’t treat its attack on me personally. It was the same as any other illness. It went about its business without ever seeing its victim, it just got on with the job of making me depressed.

And if you think I’ve made up the iris of the eye because it looks too intricate and gorgeous, here’s a photo of a magnified eye:

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It’s almost stranger than bat noses.

Depression took me to some very dark places. The idea that I went there willingly scares me. But now, if I ever found myself back there I hope that I would be able to spot the spider’s web that I am diving into and take steps to avoid it.

If you have your own interpretation of my painting, please let me know in the comments box below. I’d be interested to read them.

For my interpretation of the final painting in this series, ‘The Seventh Gate’, Click Here.

The Desire to Go Deeper Down: The Meaning Behind ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’ Part 1

Depression plays the long game. It doesn’t have to rush. Gradually chipping away at a person’s defences is its modus operandi. Its long-term strategy against me was so effective that as it reached its ultimate goal it actually enlisted my services. I’ll explain:

If you’ve read my previous entries in this series then you might have guessed that by a certain point I was deep into severe depression. What you might not have guessed is that I was enjoying it. Yes, enjoying it. And so we reach the meaning of this painting:

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Now this is not the sort of enjoyment that you may get from seeing your favourite football team score against local rivals, or from eating a really gorgeous sprout covered in mustard and gravy, or indeed the pleasure derived from blaming a sneaky trump on a small child and getting away with it.

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No, it was an odd, perverse enjoyment. The key to this enjoyment comes from the foundations that the depression had patiently built up over time.

Let’s imagine a scenario: Bob lives down the street from you. He seems like a nice enough fellow, pleasant to talk to and is good to his mother. Terry is another of your neighbours, a trustworthy type of guy. Terry often talks to you about Bob. “Often” is an understatement. He talks to you about Bob constantly. If you’re not distracted by something else, Terry’s there, popping up and telling you all about Bob. And what Terry has to tell you is not good. Bob is a bad chap. He’s worthless. Everyone who knows him hates him. Bob is the lowest piece of scum that ever dribbled off the underside of a rancid hummus machine (is there any other type of hummus machine?). Terry tells you about Bob constantly for months and months filling your mind with his vile invective.

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But the logic is simple: Terry is trustworthy – you believe that completely – therefore Bob is evil.

The next step is to pretend that all human compassion has been surgically removed from your brain. Okay? Done that? Then let’s continue.

Now imagine the pleasure that would be derived from watching someone as completely irredeemable as Bob suffer. How delicious that would be? Mmmmm…

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Back to reality. As you have probably guessed, Bob and Terry were parts of my psyche. Bob was my self-perception and Terry was the depression taking control of my inner monologue and constantly telling me how bad I was. The depression also removed any form of compassion for myself. It’s not that surprising to find out that I enjoyed my own suffering.

Now let’s take another logical leap: if I enjoyed my own suffering then surely going even further down would give me even more pleasure. It makes sense. In an odd, perverse kind of way.

And so I set off on a journey to see just how deep I could go, to see just how severely depressed I could become. What does this look like? How can you envisage this mental process? Well, for me, it had a physical component, one that was visible to anyone with a secret drone spy-cam. I would lie down on the floor. Anywhere on the floor. It could have been in the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, living room or even in the smoking room.

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Okay, I don’t have a smoking room. That was a lie. A fantasy maybe. If I smoked that is. Anyway, you get the idea. I would lie down wherever I happened to be and just lie there. For a long time.

Some people may think that lying down on the floor for long periods of time doesn’t sound that bad. On its own, it’s not. But it was accompanied by severe mental pain. The best way to describe it is as being surrounded by a thick fog that exerts tremendous pressure on your mind accompanied by constant repetitive thoughts of how awful you are. The mental pain was different to the worst physical pains that I’ve felt which have tended to be sharp and unendurable. This pain was dull, ever present and intense. It was also unbearable.

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“We don’t even ask happiness, just a little less pain.”
― Charles Bukowski

There was another component mixed into this: the depression told me that being on the floor was safe. It would relieve the pain. If I could sink into the floor, let myself dissolve away, everything would be okay. In reality, all it did was make me suffer even more. It gave me no escape route. I had no inclination to do anything that may give me positive pleasure or even distract me from the pain. Lying on the floor as an escape was a dead-end that served only to take me further down, which is exactly what the depression wanted.

Yet miraculously, I still managed to get myself to work without fail. I think there was a small part of my brain that was fighting for me. It knew that if I had a day off work, I would spend the majority of my time on the floor. I would never go back to work and that would be the end of me.

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In writing this, I’m trying to unpick what was happening in my brain during these times and I’m making everything sound logical and neat. But in reality, everything was a huge gloomy mess. Making sense of what was happening while I was deep into depression was impossible. Even with support from a ninja depression master, I don’t think that I would have worked out what was going on in my head. If everything was clear it would be easier to fight and depression doesn’t want that. It’s got an end-game like many other physical illnesses and this will be explored in the final painting of the series.

I’ll finish on a positive note. During the times detailed above, I never thought that I would get better and yet I haven’t partaken in any floor-hugging antics in the last four years or so. As I’ve written before, this doesn’t mean that I’m cured – I’m going to be on my guard against depression for the rest of my life – but it does mean that I’ve taken steps that have helped me. If this extreme mental pain returned I would at least have some knowledge of the depression’s methods and aims, that might allow me to fight back. It’s a bit like fighting a boss battle in one of these new fangled computerised videographical games: the first time you go up against it, you’ve got no idea what’s happening and it hammers you into submission, the next time you enter the battle armed with information and a chance to beat it. And in hopeless times a chance means hope, which has to be a good thing.

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In my next post, I’ll look at how all of the above fits in with my painting ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’. See you next time!

I’d be interested to know whether this post has developed your knowledge of mental health issues or whether you have had a similar experience. Let me know in the comments.

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The Making of ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’: Part 2

Last time I looked at the planning process behind my latest painting ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’ (if you missed it, Click Here). In this final instalment, I’m going to delve into the painting process.

Eye Crop

The eye was the first thing that I tackled. I looked at references of different magnified eyes and also cataracts for the milky pupil. I used a similar technique to painting hair for the background of the eye. I initially painted it all black and then overlaid very fine white lines radiating from the centre. This looked a little odd, but there was a lot more work to be done. The next stage was to add washes of different colours – although they were predominantly blue – all over the eye, following the directions of the lines. The lines were darkened around the pupil and the edge of the eye.

Eye Crop 2

The next stage was to work over the top of this background to build up the surface of the eye using successive transparent layers that allowed the previous work to be subtly seen. This was where the reference photos came in incredibly handy. There are some strong white highlights to define the shapes but also some small but strong areas of blue. These were added fairly late in the painting process along with numerous thin blue washes to increase the saturation of the eye. I’ll explain why I did this through a little bit of colour theory:

Colour theory 1

Have a look at this simple abstract image. Which appears closer, the rectangle or the square? Fairly obviously, the square. And there are four reasons for this. One, it’s larger. Larger objects appear closer to the viewer. Two, it overlaps the rectangle, hiding part of it. Three, the square is a warm colour (red) and the rectangle a cool colour (turquoise). Warm colours appear closer to the viewer. But most importantly for this explanation, the square is a more saturated colour. It is closer to a pure colour, whereas the rectangle is heading towards grey. The more saturated a colour, the closer it appears to be.

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Something strange happens when I change the saturation of the colours. The size, warmth and overlapping nature of the square tell your brain that it’s closer but the saturation tells you that the odd turquoise shape (see below) is closer and floating somewhere in front of, but perfectly aligned with, the square:

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This creates what is called a push and pull effect originally developed by the German abstract artist Hans Hofmann.

With this in mind, I added more saturation to the eye to subtly create this effect, making it appear as though the eye is pulling the viewer into its centre. You can see from the finished painting that the shapes overlapping the eye tell you it is further away and yet the saturation suggests that it’s closer. The effect isn’t as blatant as my example above but I wanted it to work on a more subliminal level. Oh the fun and japery you can have with colour theory…

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Colour theory malarkey 2: the colour scheme. It’s nice to know some art rules. It’s nice because then you can break them. Breaking rules is cool. Unless it’s the rule about not nicking other people’s Marmite. Breaking that rule would be uncool, bordering on satanic.

Where was I? Oh yeah, art rules. I set out to use a certain colour scheme. It’s called a split complementary colour scheme. Let’s take a step back and just look at a complementary colour scheme:

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Here’s a colour wheel and it is a simple way to find complementary colours. Take red, for instance. All you need to do to find its complementary colour is to look at the colour opposite it on the colour wheel, in this case green. When red and green are put together they make each other seem a lot more vibrant.

Red Green

Poppies by Claude Monet is a prime example of the use of complementary colours in a painting:

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All well and good, but I wanted to try a colour scheme that was a little more complex:

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And here we have a split complementary colour scheme. Rather than pairing red with green, it uses the two colours either side of the complementary. With this idea in my head I set off painting.

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For a while I liked it. But only for a while. The green was coming too far forward and overshadowing the eye. I could have desaturated the green to push it back but it all felt a bit too pleasant for my tastes. So I broke the rules and went for an unorthodox colour scheme.

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I kept the red and added two harmonious colours: blue and blue green. This created the atmosphere that I was going for. It’s great to use established rules as starting points but it can sometimes be better to deviate from them to create a specific look.

That’s it for colour theory stuff. What fun thing am I going to talk about next?

Perspective!

Oh good grief.

Don’t worry I’ll pep it up by showing you a photo of a quality board game expansion.

Erm, woo?

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This lovely expansion to the excellent Legends of Andor is going to stand in for one of the many walls that make up the huge “well” that leads down to the creature’s eye. I wanted to use one-point perspective in this painting with the vanishing point in the centre of the eye. This means that all of the parallel vertical edges of the walls will converge on the centre of the eye. This leads to the walls looking like this:

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Ah, the sides of the box can’t be seen now, making it look strangely 2-dimensional. What about if the wall is coming from the top of the frame?

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Same problem. Surely it will look better coming in from an angle:

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Erm, no. It still looks very 2-dimensional.

I had a problem. All of the walls would look like flat rectangles showing not a whiff of their third dimension.

The solution came to me by accident.

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Take another look at this photo from Owston Ferry (see last instalment for more details). In the planning stages I took sections of my photos and overlaid them on to the walls.

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Look in the bottom left hand corner and you will see a wall that looks something like this highlighted section of the previous photo:

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What are actually metal girders appear to be sections cut out from the wall:

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I ran with this idea, and cut out lots of areas from the walls, some large (as above) and some small.

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Problem solved! It’s surprising how many times my paintings have been improved by accidents. It’s a case of spotting the good accidents and capitalising on them. It took me a while to spot this one though and yet it’s so obvious now. Let’s move on to the final element.

I wanted to have a secondary focus in the painting to balance out the enormous eye. Human figures have a lot of visual weight in compositions plus it would fit in with the theme (more on this next time). Initially I was going to have the figure descending on a platform. But when I experimented with this idea in Photoshop it didn’t feel right.

Then I swapped to having the figure climbing down one of the walls. But how do you show that the figure is climbing down rather than up? Tricky considering the small scale of the figure.

Finally, I went with the idea of a staircase cut into the wall and the figure walking down it:

Figure Crop

The figure had to be small to increase the scale of the rest of the painting and I was quite happy for it not to be seen straight away, but I still had to add in little clues to help the viewer find it. I achieved this by increasing the contrast of the figure, lightening the area around him, plus I made his top a dull red. In addition, I used lines in the composition to lead to the figure:

Will You Walk Into My Parlour Lead in lines

And I’m afraid that’s it for this look at how I created this painting. I’d be interested to know what you think about the composition and use of colour within this painting, or whether you’ve also experienced happy accidents. Let me know in the comments box below.

Next time I’ll be looking at the meaning behind the painting. See you then!

 

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The Making of ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’: Part 1

I’m very pleased to reveal my new painting ‘I’ll Walk Into Your Parlour’.

To tell you about the creation of this painting I need to go back in time, back to when I was a young 8 year old whipper snapper. Every summer I went to stay with my Granddad in a small village called Owston Ferry that’s a fairly lengthy ride from Doncaster in a permanently dusty bus. One of the highlights of visiting him was going out for long walks. Well, they seemed like long walks at the time but now are barely a stroll. We would wander along the River Trent picking up stray beetroots that had fallen off the lorries and generally pottering around a bit. The highlight – albeit a dark one – was reaching a low wall, that when leant over revealed a huge pit that went down for miles until reaching the darkest, murkiest water I’d ever seen. It filled me with such dread and I’d often think of it just before going to sleep, thinking about falling into that hole and being taken down into the depths never to reappear…

In actuality, it is where the Warping Drain meets the River Trent. And it’s not that deep at all. In fact, when I went back to take reference photos for this painting I was distinctly underwhelmed.

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Admittedly the water was higher due to it being the middle of winter, but even so. Imagine it from the perspective of a short 8 year old though and you can probably see the disturbing allure of this location.

For this painting, I wanted to represent the same feeling that I experienced as a child but in an adult form. This led to a desire to ramp up the height dramatically and add a malevolent presence at the bottom. I knew that I wanted to work with one-point perspective, with the vanishing point at the centre of the creature’s eye. So I started with some thumbnail sketches to develop the main composition.

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Once I’d played around on paper for a while, I started using Photoshop to refine the composition a little more. I worked first on the negative space left by the walls – the black section in the image below – getting it to look good in this orientation plus when reversed and turned upside down. This process often shows up any problems in the composition.

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The next stage was to collage together elements from various animals to create a small section of an enormous creature.

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I created a repeating beetle pattern to fit into the composition. The position of this changed over time.

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I then began to find textures from my reference photos taken in Owston Ferry and add them to the vertically descending walls.

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It’s hard to say when this happens, but I generally reach a point where I need to go back to pencil and paper. I find it a lot easier to draw on paper than a tablet. It’s all to do with the feel of the paper. Anyway, I worked more on the design of the creature, including as many different animals as I could while maintaining the appearance of a credible animal. I planned the elements around a whirlpool pattern to suck in the character and the viewer.

original-drawing

You’ll notice in the next plan (see below) that I’ve flipped the composition. This was for two reasons: to fit in with the compositions of the other paintings within The Seven Gates series and also to add to the meaning. In the West we read from left to right, and we do this with paintings as well. Our eye travels easily from left to right. So I wanted the small figure – not yet present in this plan but would eventually appear in the upper left corner – to be descending from left to right from our point of view. It is easy for our eye and it is easy for the character.

This flipping caused me major hassles when I had to draw the creature on to the final illustration board. I had to draw a reflected version of what I’d created before. Mmm, fun…

Another major change is the colour and brightness of the walls. I wanted to represent pain so I decided on a molten look to the walls particularly at the bottom.

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There was one problem that I hadn’t yet solved: how to make the walls look three-dimensional. From this viewpoint the sides of the walls wouldn’t be seen so I couldn’t add depth that way. They just look like flat rectangles. I actually came across the solution by accident but I’ll give you more detail on that next time and I’ll also look at the painting process. See you then!

For part 2, Click Here.

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