Thursday, June 26, 2008

Early Days

At the beginning of 1980, when I first realised that Flower Painting was what I wanted to do, I set about learning how to perfect a set of techniques and methods. Initially, I went repeatedly to the local florist (where I lived in East London) and there I purchased some Dutch Irises. I then bought the same cultivar of blue iris every few days for 6 months. I painted these little jewels every day, again and again, tearing up the failures out of frustration, and trying over and over to achieve the soft watercolour washes. I was seeking the creation of light and texture on petals and fronds. I was seeking to create a method of painting that allowed the watercolour to act in such a way that it mirrored nature. I was at pains not to draw with the brush, wanting to make watercolour paintings that extend Durer's tradition of natural beauty in natural light.

It was a testing time and one of great difficulty, because I was never sure if I could do it. At that time, there were few books on how to do this kind of work. I found How to Draw Plants by Keith West, which I read from cover to cover. This helped me enormously, but there was nothing available about how to achieve the soft watercolour effects in the way that I wanted it done.

Rory McEwen died in 1982, but not before he had achieved three major shows at the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street. Thus firmly planting flower painting in the mainstream of art. I visited all of these exhibitions, studying his compositions carefully, making copious notes. In 1981 I remember vividly that as I walked around the Redfern show the frequency of so many McEwen's together in one space touched my heart. The standard of the work was superior to almost everything else I had seen from the genre. However, his methods of tiny brush strokes on vellum were not my way. I went home and I tried again.

After trial and error and working each day with the unknown, eventually a methodology began to come together. I gradually began to make larger and more complete paintings of plants. After about three years of intense painting I had gathered a body of work together and began to think about an exhibition. In those days artists went door to door around the London galleries and showed their work to dealers. There was no correct protocol of submissions, the attitude was much more laissez faire, which was partly due to the fact that there were considerably less people practicing as artists at that time. Again and again I was turned down, told that the work was lovely but there was no market for it.
One day I was due to see a dealer in Walton Street, and being so disheartened by my failures I simply could not face it when I arrived. I walked on by, past the gallery, further up the road. I stopped outside the Oliver Swann Gallery, looked in the window, and for some unknown reason I walked in. There I saw the owner was on the telephone, and again I turned to walk out. But he had seen me, and waved. I remember being so fed-up that I thought 'Oh no, I'll have to speak to him now'. But this turned out to be the luckiest moment of sweet chance in the whole of my career, because he loved the work and offered me a show for the following year. I went home on cloud nine. The exhibition was a sell out and I have never looked back.