James Hawkins: Making the Landscape Sing

1 Nov 2011 in Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

APPROACHING James Hawkins’ croft at Rhue, near Ullapool, the crests of waves are streaking the water as a gale hurtles onto the shore of Loch Broom.

INSIDE the studio and gallery space, big landscape paintings celebrate such drama. I am surprised to find James seeming serene, his voice quiet, his explanations lucid and even. His studio is tidy, the garden ordered, the house immaculate, yet on the walls the paintings are rampant with energy – huge, vivid choruses of colour that belie the soft-spoken man before me.

After a while, behind his calm, I start to sense a coiled spring, vivacity held in check with tremendous discipline.

James Hawkins

James Hawkins

The first thing I am drawn to in James Hawkins’ paintings is their potent use of colour. Although the views he depicts are large scale, they are dense with what he calls “the colours of the microcosm”.

“Every morning,” he says, “I go up the Rhue hill for a walk with the dogs, and I just look at what’s under my feet and absorb those colours. That constant immersion, zoning out and letting it fill my subconscious, is essential. I have to make that contact all the time.”

He uses what he absorbs to bring his paintings to life. “Look across that loch today, what colour is the hill? Gungey brown! If you use that colour it’s not a very exciting painting. But if you were on that hill, the details of the flora and fauna would be extraordinary, you’d have bright scarlet moss, and all those crazy greens the lichens go.

“All those colours are there but what’s happening is an optical mixing, just as if you put all the colours into a bucket and stirred it up. Very early on I realised if you want to paint this landscape as it really is, and make it sing, you need to use all of those colours.”

James Hawkins - Beinn Airigh Charr from Aird Dubh

James Hawkins - Beinn Airigh Charr from Aird Dubh

There is enormous movement in his paintings: rivers in full spate, trees tossing, waves on the ocean, ripples on lochs. “The landscape itself is not static,” he says. “You can take a snapshot of it, but in our interaction with it there is always light changing, winds blowing, rain coming, and it’s good if you can get that into the imagery.”

Technically, he achieves the sense of movement through colour. “I have hotspots of different complementary colours in different places around the painting. The aspiration of that is that complementary colours vibrate against each other so, say you have green and red in the bottom right hand corner, you have this push-and-pull of colours interacting there.

“Then in the mid-left you might have blue and orange, and this means that the painting itself is almost animated and the viewer is looking around, trying to resolve these flickering things, and so in a sense they’re animating it by moving around within the space of the painting. So, that’s one deliberate plan to try to energise the paintings.”

James Hawkins - Allt Lochan Ghiubsachain

James Hawkins - Allt Lochan Ghiubsachain

Another deliberate plan is to accentuate the feeling of depth and distance. Many of the pictures have an almost uncanny 3-dimensionality, defying the eye to believe it is looking at a rectangle on a wall. “When I see a canvas I don’t see a flat thing,” says James. “I see a hole that I can go and play in.”

There is technical wizardry in being able to create such powerful illusions of perspective, and for this he credits his intensive training at the Ruskin School of Art, at Oxford University, and years of disciplined assimilation and digestion of what he learned there, after he moved to Loch Broom in 1978 with his wife Flick.

“I’m really glad I had all that training in single vanishing point and double vanishing point perspective, because I don’t have to think about it any more. It’s great that it was drummed into us. When you’re working on a piece you don’t want to be thinking about that physical structure and how to achieve perspective. You want to be able to focus on aesthetic decisions about how your colour’s working, how the composition’s working, how this thing is feeling.”

James Hawkins - The Cuillins from Sleat

James Hawkins - The Cuillins from Sleat

Each painting is thus far more than a technical exercise, and he is reluctant to take commissions that are prescriptive or go over old ground. He tells how once a London gallery took orders for ‘repeats’ of paintings that had already sold in an exhibition, but he swears never to do so again.

“For starters, it’s unfair on the person who bought the first one, because they thought they were buying an original work of art. But it also completely misunderstands the creative process.

“You have an idea when you start a painting of what you want to do. Very, very unusually, you go step by step from A to Z and everything works out fine and you finish the painting. What usually happens is you get to stage C or D and it all goes horribly pear-shaped, you have a big crisis on your hands, you have a great big fight and then you come out the other side somewhere new and unanticipated and it’s great. It’s a painful and enjoyable process. That’s creativity. You can’t repeat that. You can’t set it up to order.”

James Hawkins - Liathach

James Hawkins - Liathach

The role of the unexpected is crucial to his practice. Each new painting involves the potential for new discoveries about process or materials. “Chance is a great teacher,” he says. “If you let the material suggest things you’ll grow forever.”

He performs endless experiments with acrylic. “As I’m painting I’m deliberately trying to make a mark or a texture I’ve never made before, go somewhere I’ve never been before. Acrylic paint is never going to disappoint me, I could live to 500 and it would still have a surprise in the box for me!”

Embracing chance, he has developed techniques that allow the paint to behave in unpredictable ways, and some of his distinctive effects, like his multicoloured ‘wiggly water’ marks, are the result of him allowing, and even encouraging, accidents to happen as he paints.

The effect of this is that, just as in nature, unexpected combinations of colours emerge at the micro scale, within the overall relative order of the macro landscape. “You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and every so often you do a mark and it’s fantastic.” He grins. “You live for that moment.”

James Hawkins - The Rough Bounds of Knoydart

James Hawkins - The Rough Bounds of Knoydart

Each new response by the paint generates further exploration, inventing new tools if necessary to push the boundaries. One method he uses is to build up layers of paint, then sand it down to uncover the colours within.

“You don’t know what it’s going to reveal but it throws up some beautiful things,” he says. “It’s that idea again of discovering something accidentally.”

He chuckles at the suggestion that this is somewhat like archaeology. He has written about it himself as akin to the grinding down of rock by a glacier. “Yeah, you can go for lots of bullshit analogies like geological erosion, but really I’m just interested in the process – what will the paint do for me, what can I do with the paint?”

As well as paint, he has worked extensively with video, in collaboration with various people, including Flick, both on semi-abstract art works and on ‘V-J-ing’, creating music videos for bands. He describes video as “a very fun game to play”, but has drifted away from it at present.

Acrylic has reclaimed his attention and his latest work involves cut-outs: large landscapes painted on paper, which he then takes a scalpel to, ‘drawing’ a unique irregular shape for each picture, “like a treasure map”. He is exploring ways and materials that would enable him to avoid having to frame them, thus breaking away completely from the square picture. “I am really excited about these,” he says. “It’s nice when you know you’re onto something.”

At a recent London exhibition these new works have sold well – the latest in a history of successful art sales. James sees the art world moving increasingly to “the merry-go-round of art fairs” and internet business, and he is disparaging about the mainstream art gallery system. “It has ripped me off so many times, so Flick is my gallery now.”

Flick Hawkins works as his agent and promoter, as well as for a select group of other artists, including Helen Denerley and James Lumsden, and she is launching a new exhibition space at Rhue next year. As well as direct income for artists, there is a wider benefit to the rural economy from this initiative.

“I know when my clients come here, they hire a car from the airport, come to Ullapool, stay in a hotel, eat nice meals in restaurants and go shopping, as well as buying a painting. I know that happens, and that’s good for a lot of businesses,” says James.

Rhue Art is supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and it is refreshing to hear that there is recognition in such institutions of the contribution made by art to the economy of the Highlands.

Though of course, it’s not really about money. It’s about celebrating the awesome reality of this landscape, and making it sing.

© Mandy Haggith, 2011