Where Land and Water Meet


Connemara, Venice, Piemonte and Provence
Wednesday 7th March to Saturday 24th March 2001

Ian Collins - Author, Journalist and Art Critic

Foreword by Jenny Pery

There are certain places where the special contours of a landscape trigger Alan Cotton’s creative imagination. The West Coast of Ireland is one such place. It forms the main focus of this exhibition, filling Messum’s gallery with the potent blues and violets and rich grey-greens characteristic of the countryside that skirts the Atlantic ocean. Here the weather is the main protagonist, and the skies, heavy with rain-bearing clouds or streaked with pearly light, dominate many of Alan Cotton’s paintings.

Alan can no longer remember the number of times he has been to Ireland. He has explored the territory of Kerry, Connemara and Donegal with a passionate intensity, steeping himself in its history and internalising the shapes and colours of winding lanes, rocky walls and coastal cliffs. For him in Ireland it is always a matter of chasing the fleeting light. As he maintains, ‘I have never seen a place that changes more quickly than the West coast of Ireland. I love being there. It’s marvellous looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean, looking into some of the little sheltered bays, and tracing the curving lines of the estuaries’.

Alan finds the changeable weather in Ireland exciting and stimulating, forcing him to see the picture in an instant and to work fast and instinctively. He makes numerous drawings in his sketchbooks, rapidly noting down the salient points of the land and the cloud formations, using simple portable tools, usually pen and ink or pen and wash. These drawings, made on the spot, carry all the information that he needs for painting. They also retain the mood of the place, so that years later he can recall the whole experience of being in that particular landscape.

His drawings become the seed corn for whole series of paintings made in the studio. Although Alan may refer to them for specific information, the paintings he develops in his studio rely largely on memory and imagination. His studio becomes a timeless zone in which to revisit places he has seen, the challenge being to recapture the thrill of the moment. As he says, ‘I’m always obsessed with the place where I am working. Last year I worked right the way up from the Dingle, through Connemara and all the way up the West Coast, so the main thrust of this exhibition is from the experiences I had there.

I develop the paintings in the studio, trying to recapture the ideas and the memories I have of it. I discover colours by mixing the paint on the palette, trying to re-invent the subtle hues and to create little sequences of colours that resonate with each other. I always work in the same light so that I can judge the range of tones, often working with very close tones that shift almost imperceptibly through the colour changes. I work from dark to light in the traditional way, with the lightest touches going in last. The way each mark is laid on the canvas is an important part of the process. Although it is often difficult to achieve, I am always aiming for that synthesis of idea and mark.’

Alan’s painted marks are instantly recognisable. Applied with painting knives, either in vigorous sweeps or more delicate touches, they synthesise the characteristic qualities of rocks, clouds, waves, and water, balancing hard against soft, rough against smooth. The heavy impasto of juicy paint creates its own dynamic, the knife-edge marks standing out from the canvas and casting tiny shadows. Sometimes the paint is scraped away, revealing the bright underpaint when a particular passage needs it. Fixing the initial composition is the most cerebral part of the creative process. Many of the paintings are made on a square canvas, compositionally more exacting but when resolved extremely visually satisfying.

Having referred to the extensive ‘library’ of shapes and colours in his head for his composition, Alan prefers to lay on the paint intuitively, inventing shapes and colour combinations as he goes along. ‘That’s when I enjoy painting most, inventing as I go.’

In a complete change of palette, the exhibition travels from the moody blues of Ireland to the warmer colours of France and Romania. Provence was Alan’s first love, and he has worked there innumerable times, often in spring when the pure white blossom flares out in the cherry orchards. In his Provencal paintings the brilliance of the blossom makes dramatic impact against a darker background – a contrast reminiscent of his Hartland paintings, where white-capped waves crash against dark rocks.

Alan finds another change of mood in the countryside of Transylvania, which has become a recent addition to his collection of favourite painting grounds. Following his revelatory trip to Fiji, Australia and New Zealand as tour artist with The Prince of Wales, Alan was eager to see the villages in Transylvania that are under the Prince’s care. These paintings, with their warm colours and peaceful pastoral ambience, demonstrate his love of unspoilt rural landscapes where age-old building and farming methods are still practised.

David Messum has travelled and painted alongside Alan Cotton on many occasions, and has a deep understanding of Alan’s work. In his turn Alan Cotton has produced blockbusting exhibitions for Messum’s galleries almost every other year for the past thirty years. This rare artistic partnership continues to be a huge success.

Jenny Pery – curator and art historian