You grew up in Dorset, then studied at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. Did you study Drawing and Painting at art school?
No, Illustration. When I went to art school I really wanted to do Drawing and Painting but I thought, if I do graphics, maybe there will be jobs at the end of it, which was absolute nonsense.
I always wanted to paint, that’s where my interest was. From early on, way back in my foundation year, a tutor said to me, you’ll never do this, you’re a painter, you’ll end up painting. Of course, he was right. At the end of my first year’s graphic design I was asked, ‘where’s all your graphic design’ and I didn’t have any. I loved life drawing and I had a big portfolio full of drawings.
As a wee boy in Dorset, I would go out in the countryside on my bike with my easel and paints, I thought I was going to be the next Constable. I absolutely loved it.
You say that you paint whatever gives you a sense of visual excitement. Do your subjects have anything in common?
Some artists paint the same subjects throughout their lives but I like to paint different subjects. Essentially, if something looks really fantastic, you want to paint it. It’s usually the light, the way the light falls, the way the colours and the shapes look. I think you approach different subjects differently which is why you can end up with slightly different styles.
Your paintings of France and Italy are full of joy and sunshine. The weather in Scotland is much more unpredictable. How does changing light and weather affect your painting?
Yes, the weather in Scotland can be problematic. As you know we came north in the Spring to do some painting. We woke up on our first morning in Aberdeenshire and the ground was white, a late snowfall — it was so beautiful, everything was black and white with just a wee spot of colour. Then the weather just turned grey and murky. It was challenging, a struggle to get as much done as I would have liked.
Other than in your still life, buildings and architecture almost always feature in your paintings. Around every corner in Venice there are grand buildings, not so much in rural Scotland. What characteristics of buildings make you want to paint them?
In a lot of pure landscape paintings, there is nothing man made — no straight edges, no form. I need a structure in my paintings and I find the buildings form that underlying structure. It’s almost like making a grid underneath the painting holding it all together. There are true horizontals and true verticals beneath all the slap and dash. It’s not that I’m particularly architecturally aware, to me it’s the structures that make the painting. I like that a painting can be loose and very painterly but it’s all held together. You get that same structure in a different form behind still life painting.
You paint almost entirely in oil paints on Belgian linen. Why these materials?
Belgian linen is just beautiful, it’s the weave of the cloth. Canvas has a very even weave on it, linen has a more irregular weave it’s just lovely to paint on. It’s very expensive but worth every penny. I have tried canvas and other surfaces but I aways come back to linen, I’m absolutely spoiled now.
How do you work? Do you take photographs or do you work from sketchbooks? Do you work mainly in the studio or on the spot?
When we are away, I do drawings and watercolours and little acrylic paintings. I also take lots of photographs for reference, I sift through it all and try to find something that reminds me of what it is I am trying to capture. The best paintings are the spontaneous ones when I feel I have to get the paint down, to block in a composition.
I do most of my paintings in the studio rather than from life. it’s great painting from life but always a bit rough and ready. If I find a quiet back road I’ll go and set up but I can’t paint with people looking on.
In the ones from life, there can always be an element of disaster. In lockdown, I was painting on Barassie beach, the tide was coming in and everything was sinking, the whole lot went over into the wet sand. It was a bit fraught but I did manage to rescue it later.
Did you find your approach to painting changed during lockdown?
Yes, the weather was sublime in the first lockdown, and the second was good too. In the first lockdown, confined to the garden, I started painting subjects I wouldn’t normally paint — flowers, flower pots, tables and chairs. I absolutely loved it, being able to paint in a much more spontaneous way. I feel it made things flow.
I dusted off the plein air stuff, headed down to the beach or along the road. It’s a different experience painting on the spot, a real buzz. It’s either a disaster, or it really works. You see everything differently. With a sketch or photograph everything is once removed or twice removed.
Have you been influenced by any particular artists?
Ken Howard is the obvious contemporary one, the biggest influence, and all the other artists who paint in a similar way, the New English Art Club type artists including Bruce Yardley and John Martin. They’re very observational. I’m not very good at imaginative stuff. There are landscape painters who paint red fields and blue trees, I love that but I couldn’t do it myself, it’s not an honesty for me.
Looking further back, Sickert is an inspiration, it is fascinating to learn how his techniques kept changing. And Cadell is another. He worked in a very broad painterly way but his draughtsmanship was sublime, underpinning each painting.
Paintings may be quite loose and quite abstract but it’s all down to observation. You try and stretch colour but it has to be believable, it has to be rooted in some sort of reality of drawing.
Has your work changed over time? In what way?
Yes, I think it changes over time. Sometimes I use much broader strokes, with broad brushes, sometimes I feel like using smaller brushes, really spending time drawing into buildings or other details. I’m sure it has evolved.
Any artist is on a kind of a quest to produce a half decent painting eventually.