10 Steps to Painting at a Jazz Festival
This year the Malta Jazz Festival celebrated its 25th edition. The standard of music was outstanding on each of the four nights and I was lucky enough to be there to try and capture the atmosphere in paint.
It is held at Ta’ Liesse, the fish docks on the edge of Valletta’s spectacular Grand Harbour. On one side of the stage, the Mediterranean reflects the twinkling lights of the Three Cities across the harbour, and the fireworks from the various festas. On the other, Valletta’s massive bastions built by the Knights of St.John in the 1500’s stretch upwards, the golden stones glowing with what feels like pride. As the sun sets, the lights go up and what must be one of the most amazing locations for a jazz festival gets into full swing.
The festival was the brainchild of renowned local percussionist Charles (City) Gatt, and back in the 90’s I asked him if I could try painting there on the spot. For a while there were four of us artists, but now it’s just me, and I really look forward to it every year.
So, how do you paint on the spot like this?
1. First step is to draw obsessively for about 50 years until you can do it almost automatically. Draw from reality, not from photographs so that you can translate 3D to 2D. Draw and sketch as much as you can.
2. Experiment with different approaches and materials until you know what works for you. When I am painting dancers I like to use wet media, such as gouache (a more opaque version of watercolour) and soluble crayons. For me, this combination captures a feeling of movement as the water dissolves the colour and gives everything a sense of freedom.
For jazz painting I prefer acrylics as the colours are stronger – I can see them better in the poor light. I also have longer to work on each piece, as I’ll explain later.
3. Prepare your materials. I like to work on gessoed paper, as the surface is then quite resistant and not too absorbent. I also like to have a dark background when I work at night. This is similar to the way the musicians are stage lit against the darkness and I like the way that the light and sound fuse them with their instruments and with each other.
Mix your paints to a consistency that will flow easily. Keep them to a minimum – eight at most. Make sure that they will combine well if you need some different tones or colours.
4. Make sure you can pack everything into a manageable – and moveable – size. I may look a sight dragging my shopping trolley and wearing a huge portfolio with paper, board and clothes drying rack in it, but it works for me!
5. On site, make a space that you can move easily in, and protect it as best you can – people will walk all over you if they possibly can. Most really don’t care or have any respect for what you’re doing. They won’t appreciate that you actually need to focus and concentrate to work this way. Maybe others can, but I find it hard to talk and paint at the same time; I’ll talk in the breaks between bands!
6. When the band begins to play, watch them carefully until something strikes you as a repeated movement. Dancers just keep moving and to paint them in motion it is necessary to take a visual ‘snapshot’ and then get it on the paper before it fades from your memory.
Musicians have certain, individual ways of playing, of holding their instruments. That’s what you’re looking for. Once you have found this, you have several chances of capturing it, and so painting musicians can be a slighter slower process. I think I currently spend about ten to fifteen minutes on each one.
First, I draw whatever I register with a brush full of one colour. This year I used bright blue.
7. I then add more colours, looking for local colour, light and shade without worrying too much about it being too exact, as it’s more about the flow of colour, light and sound.
8. I peg them on my clothes dryer as I go along, so that they dry a little and don’t stick to each other. Later have to pack them into the portfolio, so as soon as get home (usually about 2am) I peel them apart and leave them to dry. This year I had about 10/12 every night.
9. Next morning I see the pictures for the first time in daylight. The colours are usually distorted by the artificial lights, so quite often I have to adjust them. Some pictures just don’t work at all, the drawing is wrong or they just aren’t good enough to keep, so I recycle the paper and resurface it with gesso.
10. After all this intensity, the last stage is slowest, and probably the most difficult. Some paintings don’t need much doing to them at all, which surprises me – how does that happen? It seems like magic to me.
I have to be really careful with the other paintings because if I start trying to make them too ‘real’ they easily lose the flow and immediacy. That’s where I am at the moment, poised between a pile of potential new jazz paintings and knowing that I could easily ruin them all!!