Ever since I can remember painting and drawing has come naturally to me. My earliest images were paintings of the cliffs along the coast from where we lived in Paignton. These grass-topped brick red sandstone headlands are striking against the blues of the sea and the sky, and they became an obsession, easy to paint again and again as vertical pictures in big bold patterns. I can’t remember painting anything else, apart from steam engines. Above the cliffs runs the railway from Paignton to Newton Abbot; in my childhood the trains were all hauled by steam engines, so of course these became a central interest in my life. I spent hours sitting beside the track taking down train numbers and making detailed drawings of engines. It kept me out of the way of my folks work in the hotel.
In my early teens I became very interested in building and painting plastic kits, especially aeroplanes. It wasn’t the fighting aspect of planes that fascinated me but their camouflage and markings. I have always loved the intrigue of camouflage, the manipulation of colour to conceal or deceive, which is precisely what trompe l’oeil painting aims to achieve. And markings are almost contrary to camouflage, designed to shout out individual differences and identities – a paradox: on the one hand, wanting to conceal an identity with camouflage, and on the other, needing to clarify an identity. I loved the graphic colours and patterns, and mysterious combinations of airforce lettering of all nationalities, each one having its own very different and distinctive character.
I never lost my interest in railways, although when I went to art college in Portsmouth at the very end of steam, looking at old technology was thought to be very retrograde in the new world of ‘white heat’ technology. It was an almost unspoken influence to look forward to the bright new age of a primary coloured pop art world and abstraction in art. Dirty grimy old metal machines and wooden architecture had had their day and were only fit for museums. Industrial archaeology and heritage steam was only in its infancy.
Instead, at art college I concentrated on the Space Race which was at its zenith in the late 1960’s. I made a trip to Canada and the USA in 1969 where I saw the great capitalist system for the first time and was instantly seduced. I visited Cape Kennedy in Florida where the immensity of NASA’s Apollo missions was dazzling in every way. My diploma work at Portsmouth was based on this phenomenon, although I’d be the first to admit I struggled in interpreting my experiences and I didn’t achieve a great result for my diploma.
Since my college days I’ve been drawn to old buildings and vernacular architecture. The first building that made me aware of the vulnerability of architecture was Deller’s Cafe in Paignton. This beaufiful art nouveau inspired building was the centre of social life in the town and much loved, but in the way of things in the sixties Tesco bought the sadly defunct building and had it demolished in 1965, an appalling act of vandalism. My friend John and I managed to collect a few bits and pieces while it was being torn down, and eventually I painted a watercolour of it for my parents which I had made into a private edition print.
I used to paint in gouache and acrylics at college as I was easily seduced by the texture and colour of the new paints from the USA which were far superior to anything equivalent in Britain in the 1960’s (Cryla colour anyone?!!). Eventually I explored the classic paint mediums and learnt to use oil paint, and from the 1980’s I used this, and watercolour and egg tempera. I find each of these mediums very sensuous in their own way and despite my very objective way of painting, I enjoy the nuances I can achieve with oil on linen, watercolour on heavyweight NOT surfaced paper, or egg tempera on gesso prepared board. I’ve always thought that as the great masters’ works could last centuries, my own work ought to be worth the effort of using long established materials with good technique.
I now use linen on tulip wood stretchers, primed in gesso, made for me in London. To prepare the surface for oil paint I use egg tempera as an undercoat which dries quickly and makes a good foundation. I tend to use oil paint richly in particular colours and tones, blocking in areas before finally adding detail. I rarely use glazes as I like the richness and density of straight oil paint. I obviously love bright primary colours but I love too the subtleties of colour greys which I find in distant landscapes.
The brands of paint I use are various, as each company’s range, balance and viscosity of colours differs considerably. I like best Oude Hollandse Olieverf colours from Scheveningen, Holland. They have a huge range of pigments in their oil and watercolour ranges, in many subtle colours. Their very individual earth colours are ideal for the pink sandy coloured forts and landscapes of Oman, and their light blues are excellent, especially their dazzling turquoise which is beyond compare. When I worked in Munich, I discovered the German paint brand Schminke which again has a wide range of lovely pigments in oil, watercolour and gouache.
I used to use ox hair brushes for large areas of paint on canvas, and kolinsky sables for detailed work in both oil and watercolour, as they are beyond compare for sensuousness and springiness, but as I don’t trust now how these natural hairs are collected, I use man-made filament brushes exclusively, usually Cotmans which come in a useful range of shapes and sizes; they approach but don’t surpass kolinskys. For the very largest of my paintings I’ve resorted to using diy paint rollers which give a wonderfully seamless finish to skies!
For watercolours I have discovered that either Saunders Waterford or Arches NOT papers suit my needs. I find hot-pressed paper too smooth and ‘naked’ whereas Rough paper is just that: too rough for my detailed work. The largest watercolours I painted were a commission of three views of Muscat, Oman for the one of their Royal Yachts. These were approx 36” x 60” painted on whole sheets of the largest Arches watercolour paper made. I carefully stretched the paper on contiboard (a coated chipboard) and left the paintings in situ and had the picture-framer mount the frame directly around the board; the paintings were too large for conventional card mounts.
I prefer my watercolours to be mounted in off-white museum grade card (with archive grade mounting tape if at all possible) in simple pale wood frames. Likewise, for my oil paintings I prefer the simplest of wood trim. I hate ghastly great mounts and frame profiles. Less is more.
I have always used a camera. When I was younger used to process my own black and white films, sometimes using photographically prepared watercolour paper, so you could paint directly onto a photographic image. My feelings for colour eventually took me away from black and white photos to colour, although I could never afford colour transparency film so I made do with the more inferior colour negative film. I always felt I could compensate for deficiencies in a photographic image when I translated the image into painting.
Some painters of interest
Winslow Homer Edward Hopper Charles Sheeler Barnett Newman
Caspar David Friedrich
Paul Nash Graham Sutherland John Piper Edward Wadsworth Algernon Newton Eduardo Paolozzi
and my friends Ian Southwood, Paul Nicholls and Caro Seaward
A word on the artists whose work I’m intrigued by. Obviously as a realist painter I find the works of the American painters Homer, Hopper and the precisionist Sheeler fascinating in their freshness and directness. There is an uncompromising clarity of vision in all their works that is rare to find in British artists. Perhaps I cannot approach them from a European artist’s perspective as I have become acquainted with the American landscape first hand over the years, and no longer have that delighted innocence of discovery that I had on my first visit to the country in1969. At that time their works were relatively unknown and rarely reproduced in books, so it was often an electric shock to this naive young student to discover their works on their home territory .
For less obvious reasons I am attracted to the vast canvases of the abstract expressionist painter and sculptor Barnett Newman. His huge colour field paintings constructed with stripes across large areas of colour are at once both straightforward and mysterious. Their imposing scale is as unforgettable in its own way as the landscapes of the USA; his work is so different from that of contemporary Europen artists.
Christen Købke is a remarkable 19th century Danish artist who painted unconventional views of his homeland. His compositions were sometimes very odd with views of empty landscapes and big skies that appear at first to be unbalanced but seem to have a 20th century manner of perception. His sense of colour was very acute and he knew how the atmosphere of his country’s landscapes changed through the hours.
Monriaan’s work appeals to me in much the same way as Newman’s in that pure abstract, almost pantheistic, vision.
Caspar David Friedrich was both a realist and a Romantic and his vision of the world was transcendent. I don’t share the visionary ideals that he achieved through his precise perception of German landscapes and atmospheres, but I can’t help but admire his wonderful translucent painterly technique, which is the envy of many artists, I’m sure.
Paul Nash’s subject matter has always interested me as I came across many of his English landscapes in my travels, particularly Dorset. I’m always puzzled why he chose to use such a muted palette in his work when I find England such a colourful country. Why did he choose such a remote and understated palette? But I do like his colour greys and the mysteries of landscapes that I would find impossible to achieve.
Likewise Graham Sutherland’s paintings are a very private vision of the world, spiky, with barely concealed angst, portrayed with a distinctive colour palette, full of wayward tints and hues. If you can get ‘earworms’ from listening to music, I’m sure you must get ‘eyeworms’ from looking at Sutherland’s unforgettable images.
Paolozzi has long been a favourite artist though I’m still not sure why. I think it must be the combination of his source material and his choice of colours and the unpredictable results in his collages. His work is a kind of science fiction with allusions to robots, space travel and IT. I’ve always liked his printed works and have collected a few examples of his prints and posters. In 1970 I had the opportunity to buy a set of prints from his publisher Editions Alecto but it cost exactly the balance of my (small) student bank account, and to my lasting regret I wasn’t brave enough to spend the money. I made up for it a decade or so later when I bought a set of serigraph prints for the Tottenham Court Road tube station murals.