Your works are almost photographic when you see them in a photograph yet in the flesh they are painterly. How do you create this effect?
The initial reaction to the painting is really key. I want the viewer to feel that there is a link with a photograph. Photographs allow us to record a memory or a special place and the paintings act a little bit like memories or snapshots. Garden photography and film has changed in recent years as well and has become much more painterly rather than merely showing the viewer plants and flowers. The paintings align with this and I like watching films of gardens and how creative filmmakers can be with their responses. But of the course they are paintings and once that initial suggestion fades then they become paintings on canvas in oil paint in the most traditional sense. The soft depth of field is exaggerated using thin, dry layers of paint and often pixilated areas where the paint is more opaque with sharply defined edges. Each painting and the structure of the planting appears out of this initial background layer without any initial planning. As the space within the painting settles then I will consider which plants will sit right in the focal depth and will contrast with the softness of the background. Once this is achieved then the depth of field becomes clear. Finally, the front layers will be added, these are often out of focus so you look through them to the focal points and then beyond. The range of possible marks and speeds of painting mean that paint can be used in a versatile way which adds variety to the surface of the painting when the viewer is up close.
As you teach do you find your students inspire you?
Yes, a lot. I teach painting, drawing and more recently I have returned to teaching photography in a dark room. The pupils I teach are really excited by the subject and have a wide range of backgrounds and interests. The challenge is to teach in a way that is relevant to them and the time they are growing up in. This means visiting a lot of work and reading. You have to be generous with your ideas and work closely with all the students but a great deal of what is taught is in direct reaction to them. I also see what art can do for confidence, appreciation of the world we live in and how teenagers can react to particular issues they are dealing with or find important. Lots of my ex-students are involved in the art world and it’s wonderful to see what so many of them have achieved after leaving school.
What inspired you to paint gardens and where do you find such wonderful gardens ?
I decided around 12 years ago to work from gardens but to have a photographic suggestion. This was in reaction to a series of photos I took in my garden where my children who were very young then, had helped me to put in the plants. The fact that I had photographed them and the plants made me realise that the subject matter was important and suggested time, growth and family. I also like the fact that so much time, effort and expertise goes into making a garden and celebrating this in painting gives in a substance and grounding. I also like really plants and gardens which in many ways is I guess the key to it all.
It is rare that a painting will be of or from one particular garden. The subject matter is from a wide range of sources from famous, beautiful gardens, through to roundabouts and hanging baskets in Normandy to path ways on the Island of Portland. I watch programmes about gardens and gardening and read journals and look at designers Instagram pages. I look for planting trends as well for plants that could be used in a painting. I look repeatedly at sources but will never work directly from anything. When I am in the studio I do not have any notes, images and don’t look directly at the subject matter. I need to separate myself from the original so that I can capture the essence of the memory or the plants and translate them into paintings. If a painting needs more or I feel that there is too much repetition then I return to the source and try and generate new memories.
Do you paint from photographs or plein air?
Neither, only from memory.
What are your plans for the year ahead ?
The new garden I have planted outside my studio on the Island of Portland will, I am sure, effect the paintings this year. I have started a new series of work from the coastal pathways where I walk a lot and want to try and see some of those through to a conclusion. Introducing big lumps of Portland stone has been interesting but they are a way off being shown anywhere just yet. As I teach for long periods, getting in the studio is precious. Every time I work on a painting, I have ideas for the next one and so on. I just want to keep doing more at the moment but would also really like, at some point, to spend time in amazing garden as the plants change from spring to autumn. A few ongoing conversations with some designers may lead to a project and a collaboration which could be really exciting. It would be good to really get to know a garden and then respond to it, in the same way the best portrait artists know their sitter before they respond to them.