Tag Archives: painting en plein air

The joys of George Rowlett’s work and the mysterious case of the menacing fell runners

George Rowlett catalogues

catalogues at rest

My George Rowlett catalogues are here and I have already spent quite a bit of time looking through them. I only discovered this superb painter relatively recently, although I have now realised he has been exhibiting his work since the 1980s. I also had no idea that he was taught by the renowned British painters Auerbach and Uglow. Maybe that explains some of my attraction to Rowlett’s work, because Auerbach was taught by David Bomberg, one of my heroes. So, there is a direct thread running from Bomberg through Auerbach to Rowlett.

I admire Frank Auerbach’s work, which can be seen here but Rowlett’s work appeals as much if not more because it seems to be more about colour. I have not seen any of Auerbach’s more colourful work for real, however, having only looked at pictures in books and, looking at the page I linked to, I do like that painting of Camden Palace.

Rowlett’s paintings are wonderful, thick, sumptuous arrangements of paint on board while at the same time being incredibly clever, accurate and skilful representations of a real scene. All paintings are arrangements of paint on a surface but with Rowlett’s work it is easy to see the pictures ‘just’ as paint and enjoy them in the way that someone who gets excited about big thick colourful strokes of glistening pigment likes to do, while another bit of the brain appreciates just how much like life they are, in much more than a sterile, copying kind of way. The drawing in the paintings seems very true when you stand back and look at them in a structural way, so they are in no way casually done, and there is also real feeling in there, of gusto and glad-to-be-aliveness.

I don’t think that copyright law allows me to show images of Rowlett’s paintings here but I think it is probably OK to share how the catalogues look waiting patiently on my table. Rowlett’s pictures can be easily viewed on the website of his gallery. There is more than one page about the painter himself, but the main one is here and if you scroll down to find the link to his 2011 exhibition and open it there are a couple of videos there showing his painting process.

I was fairly staggered to find out that Rowlett only paints with what look like big trowels and huge pots of paint in the three primary colours plus white. How does he get that feeling of abundant colour into his work? I have read that he adds the occasional extra tube, such as Alizarin Crimson, but – even so – to end up with such a wonderful riot of hues working with just red, blue and yellow seems almost impossible. When I go out with a limited palette the results tend to look quite harmonious but rather – well – limited.

oil painting of head, 9"x12"

thoughtful head seen from the front, oil on canvas, 9″x12″

Back at the drawing board, my adventures in self-portraiture have continued this week with a strangely jolly effort with daubs of paint, a thoughtful front-on view and an oddly severe kind of modernist attempt that I quite like because it feels more like the inner me!

oil painting of punkish head, oil on 6"x8" canvas

head, three-quarter view with a slightly punk feel, oil on canvas, 6″x8″

I ventured out of doors a few days ago to paint in the remotest spot I could find as the light was fading and the cold air drawing in. On reaching the critical part of my painting I saw a stream of runners appear, racing down the almost vertical valley wall and seemingly zeroing in on me. With increasing amazement I wondered why they were aiming for the one path, out of the many they could have chosen, that I happened to be sitting on. They approached at full speed without deviating, quickly becoming recognisable as pupils from the local private school led by a man all in black.

oil painting of head, slightly modernist, 6"x8" on canvas

head with a modernist feel, three-quarter view, oil on canvas, 6″x8″

When they were close enough that I could see the whites of their eyes I decided to abandon my painting spot, throwing my brushes and equipment into the bracken so that I could scramble off the path. At the last moment their leader moved away from me to take an alternative path (unfortunately by then it was too late for the painting – my brushes all in disarray in the undergrowth, the light changing fast) calling out a cheery and frankly rather blasé “Sorry to have spoiled your peace”, as if I had just been sitting doing nothing in particular on that track at the bottom of a remote valley (and even if I had, it would have been nice to be able to carry on).

A few seconds later, as the stragglers who didn’t bother to deviate thundered over the spot where I’d been sitting, peering nosily at my painting kit as if I was some kind of mildly diverting sideshow, I wondered what, if any, are the rights of plein air painters? And, having just written the story down, it does sound rather like I dreamed the whole thing.

Paintings are painted with paint, not with ideas

This isn’t so much a blog post but more personal musings about just where my painting is going.

oil painting of Duirinish coast

Duirinish coast, Skye, oil on 16″x20″ board, image itself around 13″x19″

Some paintings have more or less drawing in them than others. Sometimes, as in the picture above, mine are mainly drawn.

I’ve been thinking about the kind of painting I want to do, about the way my work is developing, and looking at the artists I admire such as Bomberg, Nolde and – a new favourite of mine – the Berlin plein air painter Christopher Lehmpfuhl. Another painter I like is the British plein air artist George Rowlett, whose pictures I saw being exhibited at Brantwood, Ruskin’s house on the shores of Coniston, in 2012.

There are big differences between these artists in the ways that they approach painting. Bomberg and Lehmpfuhl prioritise drawing in their paintings it seems to me, with Lehmpfuhl (examples of whose work can be found here) using colour quite sparingly, while Bomberg glories in wonderfully rich colours in his later work, using colour to make painterly marks as well as to draw the lines that tie the picture together. Many of his works are now on the BBC’s “Your Paintings” website.

Another one of my paintings which contains a lot of drawing is this one, of a view from the fells:

oil painting of Settlebeck Gill

looking down Settlebeck Gill, oil on board, 14″x18″

Rowlett doesn’t seem to draw so much in his paintings but he appears to see incredibly clearly the tones and colours in front of him and recreate them in accurately yet freely realised shapes so that everything is just where it should be and glowing with wonderful hues. I’m about to order a catalogue of his paintings from the gallery which represents him in London, with pictures from London, Kent and the Lakes.

My own paintings aren’t consistent in that some have relatively little drawing in them:

oil painting of clouds

cloud study, oil on canvas, 6″x8″

Nolde is at a distance from the others really, although elements of his style, such as frantically applied strokes building wind and waves, I think I can see in Lehmpfuhl’s work. I recently bought the catalogue that goes along with this exhibition and the pictures show Nolde revelling in colour and seeming to throw caution to the winds, allowing his paintings to form imaginary scenes that should be far too crude to work but somehow seem powerful and exotic instead.

He is the most difficult one to get to grips with of all of the painters I admire – it seems impossible to understand how he gets away with it. All I have worked out so far is that the compositions tend to be arresting to begin with and he manages to make his colours appear extremely vivid without cancelling one another out, using some kind of magic I can’t follow.

I have tried to add my own memories, mystery and feelings to my work and this painting is one which had a slightly mystical atmosphere, I thought:

oil painting of Neist Point lighthouse

Neist Point lighthouse, Skye, oil on card, image approx. 10″x12″, card around 13.5″ wide.

Being able to paint from the imagination and succeed in creating powerful work is something I can’t do, although I know every painting is really partly “made up” even when it’s a plein air or still life. There will always be some of it that comes purely from the artist’s mind. You could also say that all paintings are made from memories as well, even if that memory is only a fraction of a second old as you look from subject to canvas.

So, in paintings there are drawing and colour, imagination and memory. All of these can be prioritised to greater or lesser extents. I know I love the depth that drawing can add to a painting – that solid, three-dimensional, spatial quality that allows you to feel you could fall into the picture – so I don’t think I want to give up drawing in my work. Getting drunk on colour is also something I relish and I’m constantly attempting to increase the use of colour in my work.

Imagination and memory haven’t been major considerations for me so far but I’ve found that filtering work through more than one medium (painting a watercolour on the spot then translating it into an oil of a different size later) can allow unexpected qualities to creep in to a picture. Returning to the same subject and making many studies, and having a strong emotional pull towards it in the first place, can skew a finished painting so that it becomes more interesting, with more of the mind in it and less sterile objectivity.

In the wake of these artists I admire, all of whom have painted en plein air, I will flounder joyfully and veer between drawing, colour and imagination …