Spring Offensive

The second realisation in oils of a series of paintings inspired by the poetry of Wilfred Owen. ‘Spring Offensive’ describes the awful moments of waiting for battle and then the horror of the blood sacrifice, as a regiment of young British soldiers of the 1st. world war, charged at their enemy.

Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
Carelessly slept.
                               But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.
Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.
Hour after hour they ponder the warm field—
And the far valley behind, where the buttercups
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.
Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle. No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste—
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun,—
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.
So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

Reading the poem as a 12 year old for the first time made a deep, lasting impression on me, perhaps because I’m English and realising that if I had been born into a different time, it could have been me. The words are leaden, I find nothing uplifting in them, they are a stark warning to those who might love life.

Those young men were conned into believing that they were serving their country, in fact they were disposable, their deaths serving only to settle disputes between the corrupt monarchies and politicians of the day, (nothing much has changed).

This painting is my second triptych, this time on hinged wooden support panels, onto which I glued, aluminium painting panels, the outer panels are hinged to fully close, so two paintings in all, the closed front panels showing a seated Wilfred Owen, in his Captain’s uniform. The abbreviated letters of the title of the poem painted in blood red and asking a question ‘SO?’, what now, what have you done, why the vile carnage? The panels once opened, reveal the poem to the right and left and in between them, the central panel with its scene of battle and the hands (my hands) open to receive the fallen, remembering and immortalising their sacrifice – for us. These images are photoshop ‘sketches’ and are used as my guide to realise the idea finally in oils.
So to technical matters –  here’s the aluminium panel fixed to its marine ply support panel, I was excited to paint on this material, it is a relatively new thing for these panels be commercially available and affordable. I believe that this material maybe the future of panel painting, it is easy to work with and once prepared the painting surface is super smooth. I’m going to prime with two coats of lead white, with a touch of chalk and sun thickened linseed oil, this will provide a little tooth and aid drying, very important for the first few layers. The panels are available from here

8.11.17 –  I’ve been making steady, calm progress on this triptych, realising Wilfred Owen’s seated portrait in oil from the poor photos that exist of him is proving difficult, however I think that I’ve managed to get his expression and the rest is now falling into place. Some work to do on the shadows and values generally. I’m considering ‘sepia toning’ the finished item with a thin glaze of burnt umber to mimic a period photo. If so  I’d do the same for the inner central painting

The central panel is going to take a lot of work to bring to completion, once I’m happy with the achromatic grisaille (under painting in grey values) I’ll start to add transparent red paint to the heart, the hands and the poppies. Colours will include Venetian red, vermilion, cadmium red, alazarin crimson, burnt sienna burnt, and raw umber, vandyke brown, yellow ochre, ivory black and of course my favourite paint, lead white. Anyway here’s progress as of 9.11.17.

The following photo shows the extra pieces needed to realise the triptych’s support, the hinges, the beading that surrounds and protects the panel’s edges and of course the poem ‘Spring Offensive’ printed on canvas, at a local printers and glued to the marine ply panels using rabbit skin glue.


Some further progress 14.12.17 on the grisaille for the centre panel before I add the first transparent reds to the heart, the poppies and the hands.

Progress as of 10.2.18, the two outer panels are looking more like the finished thing as I add further transparent coats of paint, invent a few new details and refine established ones.

progress on the centre panel, 12.2.18 All day I’ve been adding to the hands, velaturas of Venice red, lead white, antimony, yellow ochre and a few complimentary colours. My new Nikon camera is helping represent the paintings much better.

Further progress on the centre panel, 28.2.18 I’ve added some veins to the heart and continued to glaze the hands, I’ll add more details to them next and I’ve integrated the heart more into the background with some soft cloud detail on the left of the heart. I’m also thinking of ideas for my final painting in this Wilfred Owen trilogy, I want more red, ghostly figures, the canal at Ors and perhaps his gravestone. I intend to visit that place one day, if you read the story of the battle and imagine that you have been commanded to cross the canal under heavy fire, you realise the madness and the ‘badness’ of war in an instant and also the ‘pity’ which Wilfred Owen was so keen to express.

Almost simultaneously I’ve been steadily adding details to the two outer panels, the red of the poems initials, painted in cadmium red with a little burnt sienna. The the fine coats of translucent cad’ red are faintly illuminated from the rear painted in white, then light pink. Details like this are the difference between a good painting and one that really ‘pops’.
The background scene further envelops Wilfred Owen as he sits there in his rather tatty uniform. I’m painting him from old photos, found in books and on the internet, none of which are in a good state of repair, so some invention is called for and of course, artistic licence.
After the whole is complete I’m considering an overall glaze of burnt umber to give a sepia effect, the sort found in old photos.

The painting finished and the beads attached.

I’m very excited by how this all looks now, below is a photo of the opened inner panels mounted on the wall. I’m very happy with how the text printed, the material is a contemporary canvas material that was stuck to the wooden panels with R.S.G.