Red Arrows lead artist to Cyprus
by Derek Lean Western Morning News - 9 March 1991
Hurtling through the sky at 500 mph in one of the Red Arrows' Hawk fighter-trainers might seem a far cry from the world of an artist. But, in a way, for internationally acclaimed East Devon artist Alan Cotton, the flight of a lifetime was part of a voyage that led him to his latest painting expedition, and this month's exhibition. Mr Cotton has long been a friend of Group Captain Brian Hoskins, who was once leader of the famous aerobatic team.
"Loving flying, I persuaded him to let me go. Of course I had to have a full scale medical, and if I had failed I would not have been allowed to fly," Alan told me. "It was exhilarating and frightening. Your senses are sharpened, and I would not have missed it for the world," he said.
Later, when Group Captain Hoskins was station commander at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, he invited Alan and his wife to visit, keen that his friend should, in his own unique way, capture the island's sights, colours, and atmosphere in oils that are deftly applied by a variety of painting knives.
To be honest, Alan's first visit was not exactly artistic love at first sight, and he puts that down to the time of year - late autumn. And, when he listened to his friend on a British Forces radio "Desert Island Discs" type of programme, Alan detected a sort of disappointment at that.
But, when he returned in June last year, it was a different story. "We found a different part of the island, on the west coast, and here there was a remoteness and unspoilt quality to the landscape.
Maybe Brian's theory was right, that I have to go twice to any place before I paint. On the second trip I was stopping the car every couple of hundred yards," he said.
Alan's excitement grew all the time as he surveyed the landscape, vistas of crop-ridged slopes, distant mountains, fertile vine-rich valleys, and always the changing rainbow of colours.
Ever since he was a boy, Alan has loved the idea of peering at the landscape through a foreground of plants. "I remember clearly being in the fields and looking through the barley heads, with their abstract shapes, against blue or stormy skies. I have always returned to that, and it was harvest time in Cyprus," he said.
And so it is now, only on Alan's canvasses. Golden cereals dominate a vibrant foreground, and through those stalks and ears we too can view the tiers of plateaux, and the distant mountains, their inky sombre-ness contrasting starkly with the sunshine of the corn.
Not only is it just waving wheat, but wild flowers, thistle heads, or simple grasses, that are the glorious doors opening onto beautiful undulating backgrounds.
"I had never painted middle eastern landscape before, and had to use different colours, little nuances of colours I had never used before. There were terracottas, pinks, and purples, hot browns, and the grey blue-greens of olive trees," he said.
As always, where he went, he drew, scores and scores of drawings. There were times when, not having his full materials, he would just use sharpened sticks dipped into indian ink, and they were more than enough. "They make marvellous staccato marks," said Alan.
He certainly saw the landscape from every angle, whether flat on his stomach peering through a flurry of flowers, from driving along lonely unsurfaced roads, or even tracks, and from the air, in a helicopter.
While sometimes he worked in oils there, his mighty canvasses are struck mostly back in his studio, working from the portfolio of precious drawings, his memories, and his feelings, imagination, and impressions of the artistic impact he seeks to create.
There are so many dimensions to Alan's work. Close up, the tactile shapes created by those knives, further back, an appreciation of the relationship of the colours, and even further still, the final totality of the picture - a complete composition of emotional and visual effect.
Some of the Cyprus work, and others from Provence and Tuscany, will make up the 40 or so pictures that will go on view at the David Messum gallery in London on March 21. More oils, and some pastels, will go on show on April 11, at the Selective Eye gallery in St Helier, Jersey.
An introduction to the exhibition catalogue has been written by the distinguished Cornish writer and broadcaster Tom Salmon. In it, he says: "It pleases me that he has come out into the sun; it really does suit him.
"Those gnarled olive orchards and blossoms in Provence, and the stretching of vineyards to faraway villages, and the hot yellows over peasant landscapes. And then there was Venice, and the slightest of greys over the lagoon, and the early quiet of the fish market. And Tuscany too, all terracotta colours, lazy and vibrant."
Now, there is Cyprus too, and Israel as well.
This summer it will be back to Provence for Alan. "Provence keeps calling me back because the region is so big, and those hill towns are such an attraction, as well, of course, as the colour," he said.
But this year too, will probably provide a splendid treat for those in the South West who admire Alan's work. He is planning an exhibition at Christmas time in his own studios so local people can see those splendid pictures from so many places.
"All the Newlyn School of Artists used to open their doors to the local people and invited them to see their paintings before they went to the galleries. So this year we are going to have a show here, in December," he said.
Well, I never thought I would hear myself say "roll on Christmas" in March.