When did you realise you wanted to become an artist and what inspired you to paint?
I began painting the Scottish landscape using watercolour in my late teens and am a self-taught artist. I was inspired by the landscape around where I was brought up and where I live. For me I believe that a lifetime of painting is to be found within a few miles of home. For me ‘home’ is the Mearns & my work is firmly ‘located’ in and inspired by this area. I never tire of it: the furrows and field patterns, the September light, the Winter when snow clouds loom over the Grampians, the beauty of a late Autumn afternoon when the hearst is under way and clouds move across the land under a constantly changing light. It’s a unique place – bound up as it is for me with so many memories.
It just seemed the natural choice for me. I was encouraged by a local watercolourist and guided by him in my choice of medium. I had no formal art training and still don’t. He showed me how to get a start and I took it from there. He painted local landscapes and always worked on the spot believing that in doing so the finished work was more closely connected with the landscape. I followed his example, worked outside in all seasons & embraced the spontaneity that is, for me, the essence of working ‘on the spot’.
Watercolour responds in a uniquely sensitive way to the atmosphere in which the work is created. I quickly discovered that working in the drying wind on a hot July day was quite different to painting in the dying light of a soft October afternoon as the haar drifts in from the North Sea into the Howe. The rapidly changing light also forced me to work quickly – to take risks. Later I learned a good deal about the Scottish tradition of painting on the spot and simply followed: W G Gillies and Joan Eardley were early influences.
Has your approach to watercolour changed over the years?
Yes, it has. When I took early retirement from teaching in 2009 in order to paint and exhibit more widely, my working method changed. My work is now mostly studio-based. I find I can explore aspects of the medium that were impossible when working within the constraints of painting in the landscape. Now, my watercolours are the product of a much slower process of development; they are less ‘spontaneous’ but, I hope, reflect similar preoccupations. I now work from sketches & digital images which act as references and provide source material to be worked on. But the real source is visual memory & my aim remains to get as close to the original experience of being in the landscape as I can.
What is the starting point for a painting?
The changing seasons and the Mearns landscape, seascape and shoreline continue to inspire me. I tend to work on a series of paintings on the same subject or theme at any one time then move on. The starting point might be a visit to St Cyrus or a walk in the countryside near my home. The light and the time of year is important to me. I don’t have a routine and I don’t go into the studio every day – or even every week. Recently, the area around Denlethen Woods to the south West of Laurencekirk has provided the inspiration for the series of Autumn and Winter landscapes.
Can you describe your technique?
Yes. I start with a detailed drawing to establish the composition. Then I work quickly to cover the whole area of the paper with a series of washes to ‘kill the white’. It goes without saying that I am a tonal painter – not a colourist. The tone establishes the mood. I use a number of papers: Bockingford 200lb, Saunders Waterford 200lb, Not and HP – always stretched on board. Recently, I have experimented with Saunders Waterford 200lb High White HP.
I employ a limited palette of quality pigments, mostly very traditional ‘earthy’ colours such as ochres, siennas and umbers. I am not a ‘purist’: I like to mix pigments with Chinese White. However I try to adhere to Hockney’s dictum by applying a maximum of 3 or 4 washes to any one area to avoid overworking. I use a lot of masking: often layering areas of wash, then repeating the masking and working from light to dark.
How do you know when a painting is finished?
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when to stop. Sometimes areas become ‘dull’ or ‘muddy’ and there comes a point when the work simply must be abandoned. A work is ‘finished’ when it gives back to me the essence of the experience that gave rise to it. Certainly, a painting must do more than replicate a scene. It develops over time and can never really be ‘like’ a photograph. The process of producing a painting is quite different. A photograph is the record of a moment frozen in time; a painting develops over time...hours or days. The finished work must bear witness to the act of seeing itself while remaining true to the impulse which gave rise to it. Above all, it must connect with the artist’s emotional response to the landscape. If it succeeds in this, then it will have made its mark.
Andrew Wyeth wrote: It’s the moment I’m after, a fleeting moment but not a frozen moment. My own work is an attempt to capture such fleeting moments, to create ‘reminders’, if you like. And to record and celebrate the natural beauty of the Mearns landscape and shoreline as it changes with the Seasons.
D E Johnston RSW