Dai’s Backstory

“A backstory, background story, back-story or background is a set of events invented for a plot, presented as preceding and leading up to that plot. As a literary device backstory is often employed to lend depth or believability to the main story. The dramatic revelation of secrets from the backstory, as a useful technique for developing a story, was recognized as far back as Aristotle, in Poetics.” Wikipedia

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My back story is the story of why I create the art I do.

With a very few exceptions, I paint scenes of places I have visited. I want to be responsible for travelling to a location, recognising a composition, capturing an image, manipulating colours and contents, and painting the picture on return to my studio. While it would be delightful to paint “en plein air”, sitting in front of an easel for several hours in an exotic location, the practicalities are too difficult. The light changes, the weather is often unpredictable, and as a tourist I am continually on the move. My fellow travellers are impatient to move on since it is highly unlikely that they do not appreciate a scene as I do, nor do they place any emphasis on my viewpoint. Besides, they are cold, hot, hungry, tired, the parking meter is about to expire, the bus is about to leave without us, or any one of a number of other reasons for moving on to the next point of interest.

So, I use a digital camera to take “reference photographs”. Readers will appreciate the advantages of digital images over film – a photographer can capture an ephemeral scene in a series of quick “snaps”; storage of a large number of images is simple and cheap; and post-processing using image manipulation software such as Adobe Photoshop offers many options to improve an otherwise lacklustre photograph.

The Danube in autumn
The young Danube River at its source in Donaueschingen, Black Forest, Southern Germany. Oil on canvas painting by Dai Wynn

That said, I must admit that, while I may come home after a 5-week overseas trip with one thousand images, a vanishingly small percentage are poor photographs. Although some are a little dull, or have too much light and shade contrast, or are a little colourless, the vast majority are reasonably well composed and frame an interesting subject. I must say that I appreciate great photography and the skill of a photographer in his patient pursuit of a stunning sunset, cloud formation, rainbow, or play of sunlight on an early morning or late afternoon landscape. Famous photographers will say that they wait for hours, days or even weeks for the right conditions. I could indubitably improve my images given more time, better weather, a more expensive camera, a tripod, and better training but given the time constraints elucidated above, it just cannot happen.

It seems that my photographs are carefully precomposed, even though I understand that I am not limited by cost or image storage from simply pointing and shooting many times in the hope of striking it lucky at least once. Setting aside the formidable skills required in the processing of a digital image, at this point the photographer has completed his task. However, the painter has merely assembled one or more reference photographs as a starting point for his landscape in oils or watercolours. I would like to think that my reference images contain an element of composition which is slightly better than a random “snapshot” in which I point an automatic camera in the general direction of the subject.

Why do I paint the scenes I do? Readers who are familiar with my paintings would recognise landscapes and streetscapes of places in Western Europe – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, England, Scotland, and Wales. Clearly the scenes I paint evoke fond memories of places I have visited and, I would hope, would do likewise for others regardless of whether they have also visited those locations. However, I hope that my paintings are not perceived as simply photo-realistic records of places I have visited in my peregrinations. They should exhibit the qualities of fine art using techniques used by artists over centuries. Ideally they should depict ephemera – something quite out of the ordinary which occurs briefly and demands to be captured for eternity.

Admittedly, while choosing the subject matter for a given painting and during its execution, scanning, posting on various online sites, I relive my original experiences in that place and time. An indulgence that a majority of people cannot afford. A cynic might think it rather suspicious that anyone could derive endless pleasure from his “work”.

Chez Gerard restaurant, Tours, France
A half-timbered (colombage) building in the old part of Tours, France. Watercolour painting by Dai Wynn on Arches paper.

I strive to interpret a scene as a juxtaposition of textured surfaces – wood, glass, stone, brick, tiles in ancient buildings; grass, trees, rocks, water in landscapes. Lately I have been using a small palette knife in my small oil paintings to add a third dimension to the medium. Colour is essential and I try to accentuate colours in the elements of the painting, where a casual observer might see only a series of dull hues on a cold and overcast day.

I am as comfortable painting in pencil, ink and watercolours on heavy Arches cotton papers as I am in oils on canvas. Clearly, the watercolour painting can be completed in a few hours, but so can an oil painting of a similar size. The difference is that oils take several days to dry and several weeks to harden.

I can achieve wonderful textural effects with watercolours albeit in two dimensions, whereas the textural effects of oils applied with a palette knife are truly three-dimensional. Sadly, I suspect that society in general regards watercolours as inferior to oils. This may be due to the belief that oils will last longer and retain their colours indefinitely. It may also be a reminiscence of peoples’ own experiences with painting at kindergarten or school where watercolours are safe media – easy to wash out of clothes, non-toxic, cheaper than oils and dry quickly. Given this association with youth and amateurism, the worth of watercolours is diminished.

Many watercolour artists strive to complete their paintings as quickly as possible, given their lower intrinsic value. To capture the fleeting light of a simple landscape, the watercolour artist uses a series of learned techniques – paint washes applied by an armory of specialised brushes, dry brushing, wet-on-wet, and various techniques to keep colour from certain areas of the paper, including sponges to remove paint. These devices work together to offer an overall impression of a composition in which there is very little actual detail. It has been said that there is as much skill required to remove paint from a surface as there is to add it.

I admit that I simply paint what’s there, and I take as long as is needed to achieve a satisfactory result. The simulation of textured surfaces may take many layers of paint and many hours of work. There is detail if that’s what makes it a better painting, but I don’t “paint by numbers”. This essentially means I could never teach painting to others, because I have not properly analysed how I do what I do.

A recent stocktake of the contents of a storage unit revealed several framed watercolours formerly belonging to relatives. Some were signed, others anonymous. The quality of the painting was minimal and I can only assume that they were painted by friends or perhaps inexpensively bought from a gallery in a holiday resort. The point to make here is that the painting, while never pretending to be a masterpiece, represents a relationship between a collector and the artist, albeit sometimes tenuous.

Judas Tree blossom in Chinon, France
A Judas Tree in Spring on the chalk cliffs above Chinon, Loire Valley, France. Oil painting by Dai Wynn on canvas panel.

The majority of my artworks are small – watercolours are A4 in size and oils on canvas panels are slightly smaller. This means that I can paint a larger number of finished paintings in a given time, suggesting to visitors to websites hosting my artworks that my production is prolific. The size of paintings makes it easier to offer inexpensive original artworks for sale online, and shipping and postage costs are very reasonable. Logic says that selling artworks online is the contemporary sales channel with the least cost and greatest appeal to a potentially huge audience. The small size guarantees low cost delivery via parcel post, and my hope that an inexpensive artwork may one day lead to a larger and more expensive commission. A small artwork lends itself to offering as a wedding gift or a special occasion present. Hopefully it also encourages a collector to buy an original artwork despite not having been recommended by a curator at Sothebys or Christies. The amount of money ventured is relatively small, should I not turn out to be a celebrity artist after all.

I am especially fond of painting water. Perhaps the innate reasoning is that I live in the world’s driest inhabited continent and water represents life. Perhaps the challenge of painting reflections in mirror-still lakes and rivers is something I crave. If I analyse all of my artworks over the years, a vast majority of landscapes will contain water. Inland waterways are placid and calming, tranquil, cool and inviting in hot weather, and promise refreshment to the trees and grass on their banks. If one thinks about it, most of the world’s inhabited areas are to be found alongside rivers, lakes and seashores.

Given the remoteness of my chances of achieving fame through my art, I should like to appeal to a small number of collectors who appreciate my artworks. How to find these people? The internet offers vast opportunities to reach an audience of half the world’s population. However, I must remember that the competition is fierce and that a majority of artists enjoy some sort of online exposure. One has only to look at the “Art Sites” tab on my website at www.daiwynn.com to see that my work is represented on a number of international online art platforms.

I have had very limited success on eBay as a self-represented artist. eBay promotes itself as “the world’s biggest garage sale” and, as such, does everything it can to drive prices down. Given this expectation, and eBay’s advice to set starting prices low to encourage bidding, I cannot expect to make a lot of money via this forum. However, the statistics on numbers of viewers and watchers do offer a window on the popularity of different paintings of mine. I need to remind myself that eBay has a huge world-wide audience.