I’ve been thinking a lot about Uzès recently – walking, looking, taking photographs and looking at photographs. But there’s been more time spent staring at canvases on which I’ve tried to capture something of the essence of the town.
From my studio I can see the Duché, the cathedral and its tower, tiny above the roof of the village church and across the hills and forest. On a clear day it gleams like a jewel among the dark trees. But it’s Uzès from the inside that currently interests me most – what it looks like and what it feels like; its colours, its atmosphere; and how the two combine and collude.
Uzès in summer is beautiful – there’s no doubt of that. Its trees, its fine Renaissance buildings, its busy streets, its markets and its quiet alleyways are all a constant delight for the resident’s or tourist’s eyes. But try to catch that beauty in a photograph or painting – it’s like trying to take a decent picture of the Duché with its high, forbidding tower and walls. You can’t stand far enough back. Everything’s on top of you – the trees, the buildings and the sky.
And it’s the sky that’s key. Wander through Uzès in summer, or through any southern street, however narrow, and you experience everything in the context of the sky – a vast and radiating block of hot blue above you. Every experience, every painting begins from this. And it’s with this that the painter’s problems start.
The artist knows that blue is a cold colour. So how can you paint a sky that’s both blue and hot? How do you make blue warm? Well, you can fiddle with the blue. You can, say, put in splashes of purple ultramarine. But the sky itself will remain resolutely and solidly blue, often without a trace of purple. Sky is stubborn like that. So you might as well just stop tinkering and paint the whole sky in hot colours – in blazing reds or yellows. That would be one hallowed route – the Van Gogh or Fauve route. But there are other routes too.
Blue’s complementary colour – its opposite in the spectrum – is orange, and there’s warm orange in the shadows and in the stone of the buildings. This orange separates into the yellow of the leaves and pink of the pavement. And against this orange, the blue sings out all the bluer while its heat is felt indirectly, through the city itself warmed by the sun.
But this is to get ahead of myself. I began with the sky and, as I’ve said, you experience Uzès in summer sky-first. Standing in the Place aux Herbes, you see it supported on trees as if on columns or on spread fingers. The trees’ leaves in turn form a colander of light, through which the sun’s rays spread bright, coloured patterns on the walls and pavement underneath. In the trees you see acid greens, purple shadows and golden yellow where the leaves are shot through with light from above. There are oranges and even dark reds to complement the green. Here and there appear upside-down puddles of glowing blue sky.
And then there are the buildings – the fantastic pale, worn, shadow-splashed facades, and the shutters in Uzès green, blue-grey and even a deep maroon. Below these are the dark semicircular arches, relieved by highlights on restaurants and on shop-fronts with their lines of dresses set out on mannequins in the sun. In the light, the stone is yellow ochre or raw sienna, with something a little redder round the edges: in the shadow, it’s a riot of colour – purples, blues and reds. But in the Place aux Herbes, the buildings draw themselves back from the trees and fountains, even when they’re in full sun. The ochre or sienna needs a hint of blue to pull it in.
And then there’s the pavement – pinker than the buildings and daubed with a complexity of shadow to daunt the eye, the pencil or the brush. And the people – more complex again, of course – in an infinity of poses and colours, shapes, sizes, costumes and accessories, all picked out by the same mobile lacework of light.
Watching the people in the Place aux Herbes – strolling, shopping, eating, taking photographs – it’s as if all the colours we’ve met as we move down the canvas have separated and mingled together again in a seething solution at its foot. And, to my mind, there are only three possible results of a mixture like that. One is a frenetic kaleidoscope – which is maybe the truest result representationally, but hard on the eye. The second, all too familiar to the suffering painter, is what is known in the trade as “mud”. And the third, if it’s coloured light you happen to be mixing (and who wouldn’t want to be mixing coloured light?), is no more or less than a brilliant white – which equates in painters’ terms, of course, to empty canvas. Which brings us back to square one. No wonder we try so often to lose the people among the shadows!
So Uzès is a hard nut to crack – but that’s part of its beauty and part of the game. Cézanne occasionally threw his canvases out of the window. Sometimes I know exactly how he felt!