A Ride Around The Country…
Wales has been a continual source of inspiration, refreshment and recuperation for over ten years now. Happily, having kind friends has enabled me to visit frequently over that time and paint the countryside, particularly around mid-Wales and the Dyfi valley, extensively.
Most recently, I took a trip to the mountains of North Wales around Snowdonia. Since I had first seen them the year before, when returning from a trip to Ireland, I had been completely taken by their beauty and determined to return as soon as possible.
My first stop was near Llanberis, just inland from Caernarvon. Cold and grey it was when I set out, which given the proximity of Llyn Padarn set against the Snowdonia mountains gave me just what I needed for the first painting of the day – ahead the lake narrowed to a vanishing point, the surrounding slopes looming in, their peaks often shrouded in swirling mists.
When the weather set in too flat I’d draw instead, taking a welcome opportunity to study the composition of the bigger landscape as I rendered it in tone, rather than being distracted by local colour – in practice, this could also mean trying to steady the bike parked in a narrow layby, the wind roaring down Llanberis Pass, the sketchbook flapping around like a pigeon and me trying to draw the enormous rocks tossed and scattered down the slopes of the mountains opposite, as much as sitting comtemplatively in the peace and quiet of an Anglesey churchyard surrounded by previous parishioners and surveying the view across the Menai Straights after an agreeable lunch. Both the elemental and the sacred gave me inspiration on the trip.
Generally, my days start at dawn to the nearest location to where I am staying. Walking’s preferable, certainly the first morning, while the day wakes and fall of the light can be at its most magical. Besides, I preder to find out how theneighbours like the sound of me warming up a 1000cc motobike first thing, get the lie of the land alright.
Maentwrog was my next stop. A tiny village just off the main road. Aklthough I was near the coastal attractions of Pwllheli and Portmeirion I tried to keep to my initial brief and get involved with the mountains. Mostly mountains. And the odd castle. Or two. Harlech was near by. Just across the main road though I stood on the first morning, cars and goods lorries whipping past regularly, close enough to flap my clothes in a freezing silvery dawn, while the sun rose slowly, oh so slowly, picking out the hilltops opposite me in pink and orange – I hung on down in the shadow of the cold valley trying to mix the paint before the light changed resenting the sheep for at least being able to move about a bit.
In Maerdy, I stayed at a farmhouse near the top of a hill – there I’d walk The Circuit in the morning: once around the hillside, down to the valley floor, then back again, a drop of around 900ft, before returning home – my favourite spot gave me a view across the valley floor to the distant hills. Going out on the bike later in the day, I’d sometimes just catch sight of something and it would lead to a result. Other times, I’d head off in search of some noted landmark, usually a ‘falls’ as marked on the map, never find it and potter around cross-country while the weather closed in around me. Trawsfynedd though was one of those that gave me a complete change of approach after the first visit. Although unprepossessing in a whippy overcast morning it gradually revealed its stark beauty, light shifting behind and across the peaks surrounding me, changing colour every minute or so.
Still, on days off so to speak I’m a sucker for a castle. Sometimes, like Caernarvon, Harlech and later Conwy, they are just too big – too close for comfort, a quality they are often most bereft of too, but when knocked about a bit, preferably perched halfway up a hill, backlit by the rising sun to terrfy the locals in previous days, I’m up for it. Usually the map and I are in closer accord on the castle question.
In Machynlleth, the river flows past the town, and in winter I might set up on the bank in darkness to the occasional grunted greetings from passing farmers and dog-walkers. The regular visits have not only enabled me to see how my friends fare as opportunities arise, sharing in their successes and commiserating when required, seeing their children as they grow, always a pleasure even if I can’t keep up, but also to stay in touch with the seasons, the governing cycles of the agricultural countryside. For practical reasons I tend towards Spring and Autumn for my trips, so am often painting during the lambing season or the shearing time.
Sheep and telegraph poles, sheep and telegraph poles, these are recurring motifs in the Welsh countryside where I stay. There are times where I’ve stopped on top of a hill to paint a distant reservoir far below, then having decided that picture was rubbish, turned away, packed the bike, looked up….and there is a hillside, a couple of sheep and a telegraph pole leaning over to one side, the picture just waiting for me – why this should speak to me in the way it does, I have no idea, but it seems to have something to do with Man’s puny efforts to adjust the countryside to their will, to impose their presence, a tiny lopsided triumph in a huge landscape, though everything will pass in the end.
Mountain roads plunge away, falling off the edge of the world, giving views over mysterious hills and valleys, with the odd tower or turbine providing a sense of distance into the yonder. As dawn comes up over the Dyfi, an orange glow rises over the far hills slowly lighting the blues and mauves of the misty banks.
Bullocks graze within thirty yards of where I stand, trying to paint without startling them is the trick – although they soon become curious again and before long a rhythmical chomping of grass can be heard. creeping closer and I am confronted by a semi-circle of tall ruminative quadrupeds, contemplating the new object in their field. I have been assured that they aren’t threatening if they don’t have calves and because they lead such supremely boring lives cattle find anything interesting. Me, I wasn’t so sure the first time I encountered them and since the few pieces of advice I faintly remembered about conduct in the wild included such contradictory approaches as Stand Very Still, Run about Waving Your Arms, Punch Them on the Nose (or was that sharks) and Do or Don’t Wear Red, I forget which, I decided to talk to them instead – giving them a brief history of art to date and the approaches that I took in my end of the game. Sure enough, that bored them back into their normal state and in a few minutes they had wandered off again. So, to the previous list you can add Talk to Them About Art, though of course, other subjects are available…
The original pochade panels for the Dyfi rocks series were painted under the lugubrious gaze of these local bullocks, while I stood perched on the river bank playing the artist, arm outstretched to the easel in the approved manner, whilst describing my approach to colour theory…
Sussex and Kent
I had the good fortune to spend several years painting regularly in Hastings and along the Sussex coast. With a working beach fleet, the town always provided me with opportunity, especially at first light. The sea has a wonderful range of expression and colour, varying from dawn to dusk: sunlight glinting on home-coming boats in the purple pan of the sea, deep green of a clear Spring day or that lovely colour-reversal where the sea is lighter than the sky and a storm is loomimg.
Many a painting trip in first light has ended up with me hauling home a load of fresh fish, bought from the fishermen of the beach fleet. Most of their catch is off to markets and restaurants, but the smaller fry can be sold off, with many of their customers local Chinese and visiting French and Spanish. ‘The English only eat cod,’ said one fisherman stoically at his hut. ‘Really. Plaice, some mackerel, but a lot of cod. All the rest we can’t export fast enough…’ .
On another day I got talking to a young Polish lad angling from the breakwater with a mate – I asked what he was fishing for. ‘Mackerel‘, he told me and then, plucking a couple from his full bucket, gave them to me. I thanked him, he shrugged: ‘We catch enough to fill everyone’s freezer in the street at this time of year!’
Living close to Central London as I do, ‘landscape’ painting there has a necessary limitation, as opposed to ‘cityscape’ work; so painting outdoors in the country especially by the sea is always invigorating. The countryside around Rye not only provided me with some excellent subjects, but several years of enjoyable sales with Pat, of Turtle Fine Art in the town. Her shop was always a fresh display of artists both local and from further afield, new and established, mostly landscape but wide ranging in styles and influences. I always took care to visit regularly, updating and replacing paintings that hadn’t shifted, so that she could always present something new to customers.
Most of these pieces are single, stand-alone paintings, either from the pochade box or sometimes canvas-and-easel, but a few exceptions have crept in: a panel triptych of the Rye countryside and series of ‘double’ paintings where one panel is divided into two ‘super-landscape’-format pictures – initially these were to solve a problem specific to the larger pochade box, solved by drawing a line straight across the centre. But each half was completed at the same sitting using the same colours, as already laid out mixed on the palette and usually ‘found’ by simply turning around on my seat for an opposite view. Proving unsaleable in that format though, I later cut them into two separate pictures, but kept them displayed and sold as pairs.
Brighton has been an enjoyable stopover for several years. Usually these trips allow me to grab a picture or two over a weekend, before heading back to London. For a while this could be frustrating as I’d never really developed much beyond that, but a series of small pochades painted as a storm crept over the distant breakwater and headed towards the pier finally gave me the opportunity to work something up onto canvas.
The best of the rest…
Painting trips out of London have also taken me to Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Herefordshire on the motorbike. Norfolk is once again represented from earlier excursions too.
Tramping the hills that rise above Malvern has sometimes been as frustrating and exhausting as it has rewarding. Though fairly fit, I can live without unnecessary hill-climbs, but when there is no other way to do justice to the surroundings, the only way is up. Of course, when it floods, it’s back to working on the flat again.
And then of course, there is always London. These are mostly skylines, particularly of Canary Wharf. I had the good fortune to work from a studio in Limehouse with this unique view of the Isle of Dogs, so took several opportunities to render the sight. Winter further enhanced the view when snow covered the rooftops, likewise, as the nights drew in, the surrounding towers began to sparkle like Christmas trees – this produced a couple of mini-triptychs, one of which went on to become a full-size work on canvas…
These pictures will be added to as I travel further afield…