The Artist’s palette

More often than not I am so absorbed by the minutiae of gardening – what state the soil is in, are vulnerable plants drying out, have the snails eaten my seedlings – that I all but forget the bigger picture. Sometimes, however, I am captivated, full of wonder.

So it happened last weekend:

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Travelling back from the Red Sea coast after a couple of days of walks and yoga by the sea, we crossed the wide open space of the desert around 5pm and stopped to watch the luminous grace of a spectacular winter sunset.

An artist’s palette of colours stretched across the western horizon, illumined here by the sun’s last rays, thrown into shadow there as the light gradually withdrew. We could only marvel at the range of colour and tone in this superb natural show, reflecting that, if any artist were to use it on canvas or paper, it would be accounted the vision of a surrealist or of an impressionist run riot.

Out in the desert, tens of kilometres away from the pollution of Cairo, there is a crystalline quality of air that undeniably emphasises this extraordinary beauty. I feel it is about the closest we can now come on this damaged and misused planet to the Artist’s original design.

Such a quality attracted the early European photographers – Francis Frith, Maxime du Camp et al – who came to the Middle and Near East to hone their skills in the region’s remarkable light. And painters, such as David Roberts and Edward Lear, who dabbled in and then perfected the art of picture-book paintings and prints to satisfy the growing interest in “other lands” in the C19 drawing-room.

I have never been able to grasp, let alone analyse, the depth and range of colour in the sky or in water. Perhaps the human visual process is inadequate. Sometimes, Claude Monet used a surprising amount of flesh tones in working up these elements. With apparently chaotic brilliance of colour, JMW Turner may have come closest to what we sometimes see in Egypt. But it is actually John Constable whose skyscapes arrest my attention time and again for their amazing energy and depth – witness his work on Hampstead Heath in London.

One last photograph, taken with a mobile phone as we set off for Cairo again. Lesson learned: never leave the camera or iPad behind!

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