Stanley Spencer (1891 - 1959)
A master of the extraordinarily-ordinary British landscape painting
I've made the pilgrimmage to Cookham, Spencer's birthplace and home, and the delightful museum there, where you can see many of his paintings of the British landscape first-hand. Whenever I see his work displayed, I'm always drawn to it.
His gift is evident in what I call his 'extraodinarily-ordinary' landscape paintings. It is 'sight': consisting of his ability to spot the extraordinarily-ordinary in the first place and then secondly, his ability to 'see' why the subject is extraordinary, be it texture, shape, position or some other feature, or combination of features.
The painting which most obviously illustrates what I see in his work is of a patch of nettles. Yes, nettles, weeds. Most people would not even register them or if they did, they'd tut-tut at their presence at best. Few would think to create a fascinating, richly beguiling landscape painting of them.
All of Stanley Spencer's paintings possess this quality of the ordinary made extraordinary, sometimes the extraordinary made ordinary! I study his gift because the world on our doorsteps is extraordinary.
Eric Ravilious (1903 - 1944)
Daring compositional imagination and physical perspective
Ravilious is a relatively new fascination for me. My fascinations change as I develop as an artist. They are a point in time. In a few years time, it's possible I might have a different set of influences.
While Stanley Spencer lived till 68, Eric Ravilious died at just 41 when an aircraft he was in was lost over the seas near Iceland. He'd been flying with the RAF as a war artist – a hero in more ways than one. During his relatively short life, he produced landscapes which have never been surpassed in my view.
He was a watercolourist and an usual one because he appears to have not used flat washes. Flat washes are the mainstay of most watercolour painting. He rejected this in favour of cross-hatching with paint instead. A distinct and unusual technique.
It does not matter that he used a different medium to me, because his gift, as far as I'm concerned, was his sense of design and perspective. He was brave in his choices of viewpoint and scale. His landscapes appear to have been bent or straightened, and exaggorated, in order to boil the elements into a concentrated, and physical, sense of place. Despite his meddling with reality, the places are utterly convincing – and arresting. The British landscape in Ravilious' hands expands in to the breathtakingly epic.
I've been to and explored the Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire, UK, shown in Ravilious' painting here. So I can see the ways in which he's addressed the fact you can't actually see the white horse like this, from anywhere on the ground. His painting is completely convincing though.
I often describe myself as using 'buckets of artist's license' in my art. Perhaps not the most graceful of phrasing, but it sums up very clearly a distinct aspect of my own paintings. I've observed 80% of representational artists (haphazardly quantified), seem to stick with reality, applying minimal artistic license to their work. Ravilious was many steps beyond me in his use of daring compositional imagination, so he's most certainly a hero I've begun referring to during the early stages of making a landscape painting.
I'm planning a series of the Wolds in East Yorkshire which will beg a Ravilious eye.
Romanticism (1800 - 1850)
Yes, I know. This is not a 'British landscape painter', but many landscape painters. I've cheated!
I'm currently studying British Romanticism and haven't alighted on any single artist, as of yet. Romanticism was quite radical at the time, with it's foregrounding of nature over human stories. I'm often gripped by the composition of, and distribution of tones in, classical Romantic paintings and this is why I've begun to pay more attention to them recently. I'll possibly add more to this section as I become more familiar with the topic.
My art 'Summer on Wigginton Road' reminds me of some of the romantic paintings I've encountered. I've only seen this affinity since completing the landscape. While working on it, I was not consciously trying to emulate Romanticism.
So that's a few historic painters who inspire, what about the living?
There are many-many living artists who catch my attention for all sorts of reasons (perhaps too many?).
There are lots of reasons why I might stop and ponder an artist's collection or single artwork. I often study something very particular, like a way of applying paint, a use of certain marks, a mix of a colour, a specific way of painting branches on trees, or a facility with certain lighting.
I try figuring out how they've done what they've done, and why I see merit in it, because the more knowledge and insight I have into what works and different approaches, the better artist I'll be. I may consciously experiment with what I think I've figured out. It's not that I want to adopt their way, and do as they do. It's entirely driven by an insatiable desire to improve my own way of painting, and I have no rules about where I find learnings.
The list of these artists is very long and while they are probably heroes, they're not my painting heroes. There are a couple of living British artists however who are heroes with gifts I greatly admire and two of them are highlighted below.
Nicholas Hely Hutchinson (1955 - )
Nicholas Hely Hutchinson is a Dorset based artist painting atmospheric landscapes in oils.
When I discovered Hutchinson's art, I fell off my chair with the shock of it. I'd happened by chance on an artist who sees with similar eyes and was painting the paintings I was trying to paint. My problem until then had been a lack of self-belief in my own landscapes. Finding someone else working in a similar way, helped me give myself permission to paint my way – it gave me the confidence to pursue my own aesthetic. This is why his paintings have been a great influence on my own. His is a path already travelled, that lights another path, to my own achievements.
Hutchinson's gift is complex, because there is no 'one-thing' that defines it. It's the sum of many parts. It's an overall look and it's why his art is so distinctive. Some might call it 'style' though I don't like that word because it suggests a shallowness. He creates idealised, possibly romantic, landscapes which nevertheless have a reality to them. In creating these paintings, he articulates my own artistic purpose.
I'd already begun to develop some of the elements evident in his paintings, but had not appreciated or put them together until I saw his work.
So when I encounter a problem I need to solve while painting, there are a number of things I do, depending on the problem. One approach is to ask myself: "So what would Mr Hutchinson advise me to do now?" and I examine his landscape paintings to see how he's solved the problem before me – "Why reinvent the wheel?". I don't necessarily adopt his solution entirely or at all. Knowing why his approach is not appropriate can point the way to what is!
It's important to understand that though I'd be complimented if anyone likened my art to Hutchinson's, I'm not trying to create paintings which could be mistaken for his – my quest is for my own superpower.
I've studied Hutchinson's paintings extensively, so feel I know his way of working intimately. I know what I like and don't like about his approach and it's helping me see my way forward, in my own quest for artistic excellence.
There are several ways in which his and my art already differ. For example, I never apply the oil paint on to the canvas using a sponge, where Hutchinson regularly does, often extensively (The painting shown here has some sponging in it, in the cloud and the foreground hill, I think). Sponging is how he achieves oil paintings which often have the appearance of pastel paintings. I used to use sponging a lot while an illustrator as a quick way of creating a sky, filling-in areas and easily producing graduations of tone or colour. It's not that sponging paint onto a canvas is bad, it simply isn't something I find rewarding. I expect my art will increasingly move away from his as I develop and other influences add to shaping my paintings.
Hutchinson's Dorset paintings are popular and his works are at least a third more, double, even triple the price of an equivalent painting by me. A small painting, about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, like the one above, cost in the region of £2,250 in 2015. His website: https://nicholashelyhutchinson.com
Simon Palmer (1956 - )
A place of character
There are a lot of places where I feel as though I've walked into a Simon Palmer painting. He paints the Yorkshire landscape and I live in Yorkshire, so this might be why!
Palmer's paintings often have a surreal aspect to them. There's a theme to the artists who influence me isn't there: real, but enchanted and romantic; epic and also ordinary. All of those words certainly describe Palmers watercolours.
His gift is his ability to create bold compositions without resorting to simplification. Simplification is often espoused by artists almost as though it's a mantra. I understand why – it's a formula which is almost guaranteed to work, and that's precisely why I admire Palmers work. He flies in the face of this and proves it is not the only way. Palmer's paintings are almost overwhelming with complexity and vertical scale. His Simon Palmer trees tower over everything, dominating the canvas. Yet his paintings don't feel to be about the trees, because he creates a narrative which while secondary (I believe), ensures his landscapes hold attention and fascinate.
I've been an admirer of Palmer's work for a long time and have a feeling I will gravitate to bringing something of his art into mine when I develop beyond Hutchinson. What the combined outcome will be, I cannot visualise at this time! There will be much experimentation inbetween. While I doubt I would ever adopt Palmer's subdued and sepia colour palette, his expertise with scale and complexity fascinate me… and it's your fascinations which shape you.
I have a number of paintings in my head to make which place trees at their heart, and feel they'll be best if given character in some way that Palmer points to.
Heroes are human
I'm not uncritical of my heroes. I don't accept everything they've done or do. This is why I don't copy them or blindly do as they do.
In reality, I'm perhaps more critical of them, because I study them so closely I understand enough to see their faults clearly. At risk of repeating myself: my aim above all is to paint in my own way. This is why…
It's as important to know what and why you don't like something, as what/why you do.
Despite being a willful and wayward apprentice, I nevertheless love my heroes' gifts. If I develop my very own superpower as a result of studying their work, then a happy kid I'll be – whooshing around the supermarket hyped by the marvellous capabilities I dreamt of as a child…