Workshop 2012

Peter Schunter:
In Search of Lost Time - Peter Schunter’s Lamu Sketchbooks

“What we see is not what’s really there.” Peter Schunter

Yellow palm trees, bright as stars, amidst a haze of green foliage. Purple palm trees dancing in the breeze, stems flying like arms at a rave. Blue palms leaning towards the ocean as if to whisper their devotion. Palm leaves pinked by the setting sun. Palm trees like windmills, like lampposts, like women with hair blown wild by the wind…. In Peter Schunter’s Lamu sketchbooks this tropical tree is a recurring motif, beautifully symbolizing the meshing of memory and technique that characterizes the sketches.

When Peter Schunter got to Lamu, he hadn’t painted en plein air for almost ten years. Jürgen Leippert was determined to change this. “For me, Peter’s plein air work is his best work,” says Juergen, who’s known him since they were both students at the Berlin University of the Arts in the 1960s. In Lamu he pushed Peter, as only a good, old friend and colleague can, to resurrect his latent talent. “He wanted me to paint again in a looser way, the way I did years before on our first study tour of the Netherlands,” Peter reveals. And so he tried this, working mainly in a small format (most of his canvasses measuring 18x24cm). He enjoyed the experience, but admits, “I couldn’t quite get that looseness in the way I wanted.”

Peter began doing aquarelle studies in his sketchbook partly as an exercise to relax his painting style. He’d first worked like this in New York in 1981, doing postcard size aquarelle sketches to catch the multiple impressions thrown up by the city. Over the years he developed this technique, which he clarifies is not “about painting exactly what’s there, but what I like.” In Lamu, Peter sketched outside with a ballpoint pen and applied paint to the page later when he was indoors. This was the best part for him, wetting the page and then adding the colour: “The interplay of chance and intuition in this method really appeals to me.” He uses traditional aquarelle paint which is less brilliant, so that the work has more of a washed out quality. His aim is to achieve an amorphous image, smoothing out the distinction between any figure and its surrounding, so no single shape stands out.

His sketches depict various scenes of Lamu life, from dhows on the ocean, to views across rooftops, to waiting donkeys. “I was attracted to everything,” he says. Yet he reveals that the palm trees had a special hold on him, especially the ones in the Peponi garden: “When they were swaying in the wind they were telling stories, and it was always a different story.” It reminded him of childhood days when he used to skip school and went instead to a farm where he climbed onto the bales of hay and lay there for hours, watching the trees moving above….

“I’m fascinated by the fact that what we see is not what’s really there, because there’s a delay between what our consciousness grasps, and what we actually perceive,” Peter explains. “In my painting, I’ve always wanted to overcome this somehow, to eliminate the delay.” It looks like he managed this in the Lamu sketches. The works have an instant quality, a sense of movement and an intimacy of colour suggestive of a very particular moment caught in a timeless manner.