A Life in Landscape

by Clare Blake Exeter Living - Autumn 2010

Clare Blake talks to Alan Cotton, one of the most significant landscape painters working in the UK today.

Alan in the Garden at Brockhill Studio

Clouds scud in torn ribbons across a stormy sky while shocks of white spray explode as breakers hit rocks and foam around knobbly striations of dark stone, like the partially submerged backbone of a fossilised dinosaur.

Most people have stayed indoors, but Alan Cotton is enjoying the tussle with the elements, ignoring stinging eyes and fingers that grow steadily colder as his pencil flies across the paper, capturing the scene before him in fluid lines and scribbled notations.

Hartland in North Devon is one of Alan's 'special' painting landscapes that fire his creativity. It is a place that he visits time and time again in all weathers and at all seasons. Making a single visit before painting is for Alan, the artistic equivalent of a one night stand. He prefers to immerse himself in a landscape ..."each area I paint is preceded by an apprenticeship of getting to know the forms, the lights, the moods." (From On A Knife Edge by Jenny Pery)

By the time Alan comes to actually paint, he has amassed a sheaf of sketches. However, he does not use them to achieve line by line accuracy, but blends different elements together with his imagination to balance line and form, texture and colour. This evokes a strong sense of place that is far more alive and compelling.

This sense of intimate engagement continues in the way that he paints for Alan has chosen to use painting knives rather than brushes. "I love the way that it allows me to explore the physicality of the paint and mark making, the element of risk. Sometimes it is a real battle to get the effect that I am seeking, and I have to constantly adapt and invent. No two places are the same - that is the wonder and the challenge of it."

Donegal - Golden Sunburst Beneath Storm Clouds

With such a passion for paint it's easy to assume that Alan came from a privileged artistic background, but the reality was very different. In fact, he grew up in a poor working class family in the industrial Midlands.

However, when Alan was around five years old, his auntie, an educated woman who played the violin, took him to see a touring exhibition including Van Gogh at Birmingham Art Gallery. It was a very different world from his grey everyday surroundings and Alan was transfixed by what he saw, "It was the way the Van Gogh seemed to stand out from its frame - the sensuousness of the textures, the vibrancy. I knew then what I most wanted to do in the world was somehow paint like that."

His mother Elsie encouraged him, and got round the lack of money for paintbrushes by making makeshift ones using her own hair tied with cotton to a stick. Later Alan was able to get his hands on cheap paints, and can still remember the thrill that the exciting possibilities of the different colours gave him.

Painting became a way of escape as Alan roamed the fields, letting the landscape imprint itself deep in his imagination. "My first sight of barbed barley heads against vivid blue sky was like a religious experience - I found it so profoundly moving".

Alan was eager to improve as a painter, but often felt frustrated as he wanted to develop his own style rather than copy the work of others, as was common practice in art schools and colleges. Throughout his life however, Alan has met significant people who have encouraged him to persevere.

It was Ted Holmes, an art teacher at Redditch County High School, who first took the young Alan under his wing; while Norman Neasom of Redditch School of Art who drew "like an angel" taught Alan to use drawing as a way to process his thoughts. Another key meeting was with painter and art critic John Berger. By this time Alan had married Pat, whom he had met while training to become an art teacher, and was living with his young family in a small cottage in St. Briavels in the Forest of Dean.

Provence - Cherry Trees below Bonnieux

Life was good, and Alan expressed the sense of newness and vitality he felt in two paintings created using paint knives instead of brushes. Although simple they were so vital and fresh that Berger immediately recognised their potential. "I really think the knife is the way you should go." This was the beginning of Alan's love affair with the densely textured impasto effect that has become the foundation of his distinctive style.

To carve out more time for Alan's own work the family relocated to the West Country. Here, Alan retrained as an art lecturer at Exeter University and got a job as Senior Lecturer in Art and Design at Rolle College, Exmouth.

Busy and fruitful years followed, but Alan was still driven by the need for freedom to paint every day. Finally at a momentous lunch in 1982, Alan and Pat decided to take the Big Risk. They would give up their jobs, and Alan would paint full time with Pat as his business partner.

Alan supplemented his meagre income by working on arts programmes for BBC South West and ITV, but finances remained incredibly tight until Alan met his own Fairy Godmother during the making of a film about the Newlyn School.

David Messum was an influential London art dealer who admired Alan's work, and offered the struggling artist an exhibition at his gallery, as well as an annual sum to be offset against future sales of paintings. It was a typically generous gesture from a man who would become one of Alan's closest friends.

Finally Alan could paint when and where he liked, and he seized the opportunity to discover new and exciting landscapes, adapting his style to capture the unique qualities of each place.

In Provence, he completely omitted the sky and concentrated on the sensuous folds of the land, while in Cyprus he used featherlike touches with the very tip of the painting knife to depict fragile seedheads that framed the scenery.

In Venice he found inspiration in the reflections in the canals, using softer, thinner scrapes of paints to capture the luminous fluid quality, while in Ireland the weather was so temperamental he almost packed up and went home, "But then you suddenly get this amazing light when the clouds break open - I love the theatricality of it. It gives me an electric excitement."

Alan and Pat's risky leap of faith in 1982 has been justified, as Alan is now considered one of the UK's most significant landscape painters, with his work found in collections all around the world.

Piemonte - The Edge of the Vineyard

This year Alan's exhibition at Messum's in Cork Street, London revisits some well loved stamping grounds - the rain-washed western coast of Ireland, sun drenched Piemonte in Northern Italy, and atmospheric Hartland.

These paintings are more than just works of beauty that appeal to the eye; they connect with the viewer on a much deeper level. Alan explains, "For me painting has never been an intellectual exercise, but what I paint is infused with my emotional response to a landscape. It is an intensely felt experience."

This emotive quality of the work is what sets it apart. Graham Hughes reviewing Alan's 1988 exhibition praised the vibrant use of colour, but added, "What I will treasure specially is the aroma of lavender from the field in the picture... I am grateful to this radiant exhibition for bringing it to London.