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Art Masterclass   

                              June 2008

Each month presents a feature from either The Artist or its sister publication, Leisure Painter.        

Art masterclass      

from The Artist, the monthly magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters, giving practical instruction in painting and drawing in watercolour, pastels and oils, as well as news of art events, exhibitions and competitions open to leisure artists;

This month: an  'Artists  of the world' feature from the current edition of The Artist, the magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters.



Arresting landscapes

David Tress talks to Oliver Lange about working on-the-spot, making studies for his mixed-media paintings

Light Passing by David Tress


Study; Langdale and Crinkle Crags










Study; Langdale and Crinkle Crags,

watercolour on paper,

                15X22in. (38X56cm)     

In art, technical skill is undoubtedly an advantage, but certainly in figurative and semi-abstract work those artists who also have a real empathy and connection with their subject matter are likely to create the most compelling images. For David Tress this affinity is with certain types of landscape.

The inspiration and physical satisfaction of being in the presence of nature is something he has known since childhood when, although living in the north west suburbs of London, his chief interests were in wildlife and the countryside.

Student walks on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path attracted David Tress to that part of west Wales and it is there, in a landscape rich in beauty and history, that he has lived for the past 30 years. Coincidentally, it is the landscape painted by Graham Sutherland, an artist whom he particularly admires. Although the Pembrokeshire landscape has remained a core subject for his work, Tress also paints regularly in other parts of Britain and Europe, for example the west of Scotland and the Tarn area in the south of France. He works mainly in mixed media on heavy quality watercolour paper, but sometimes in oils and acrylics, producing works that are highly individual and always exciting

Powerful landscapes

In 2001 David Tress began work on a major project which has led to the current exhibition of almost 60 drawings and paintings at Petworth House, on the theme Chasing Sublime Light. After a great deal of research into the work and journeys made by Turner and other important artists of the Romantic period, the project involved retracing some of those journeys through the powerful mountainous landscapes of northern Britain.

It was the pioneering travels of JMW Turner, Thomas Girtin, Paul Sandby and other artists, more than 200 years ago, that resulted in an entirely different approach to landscape painting: landscapes of the 'Sublime'. As David Tress explains: "The word ‘sublime’ had a more specific meaning at that time than it does today; it was applied to views that were awe-inspiring or terrifying. For artists working in Britain those 'awful' and 'terrific' prospects were found chiefly in north Wales and the north of England, particularly the Lake District and Scotland.

Kirkstall Abbey (Girtin's View)

Kirkstall Abbey (Girtin's View),

mixed media on paper,

273/4X31in. (70.5X79cm)

"The journeys were fascinating, revealing a spectrum of changes from wild and almost unchanged stretches of moorland and coast to the untidy urbanisation of locations overtaken by the industrial expansion of the 19th century. At Ullswater, for example, there was no discernible difference in the landscape from the time that Francis Towne, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Turner and Joseph Farrington painted there. In contrast, Kirkstall Abbey, which was painted by Girtin in the 1790s, is no longer set in empty moorland but is now on the outskirts of Bradford, surrounded by busy roads, railway lines and an electricity pylon, with high-rise buildings punctuating the horizon."I'm interested in urban imagery; I find it visually and in other ways exciting. So Kirkstall Abbey (Girtin's View) (left) includes those features.

My aim, particularly with the studio works, was for a greater depth and complexity than would be found in simple records of what I observed. My paintings are unashamedly personal responses."



The location work for the project was made over a two-year period, during which time, of course, David Tress was also working on other ideas. He made a series of painting trips, each one usually of about ten days. His equipment for these trips was a toolkit which corresponded to that of the 18th-century topographical artists, consisting of a sketchbook, watercolour paints, 15X22in. (38X56cm) sheets of heavy quality watercolour paper, gouache and Indian ink. He also took a camera, to record additional information about the scenes that he discovered, as well as to photograph himself at work in the landscape.

"An interesting point about the toolkit," he says, "was that, with its particular contents, small scale and versatility, it was scarcely different to one that we would use today."

David made a large number of studies on the spot, working in all sorts of conditions, including strong winds and rainstorms. Many of these studies were eventually discarded — the constraints of environment, weather, time and technique having conspired to deny them their full power. Many others did succeed, however; these studies show an integrity, energy and true sense of mood and place that comes from having a real affinity with the landscape and the struggle that plein-air work frequently entails. The aim was not simply to make useful reference sketches, images intended merely as stepping stones towards more resolved works in the studio. Instead he wanted to create works that were absorbing and challenging in their own right, "to make studies that showed some spirit and excitement."

Food Served Daily (Harlech Castle)










Food Served Daily (Harlech Castle),

mixed media on paper,

29X301/4in. (74X77cm)

Later, and in fact before all the location trips were completed, he began to develop some of the studio work, using the studies, photographs and his feelings and recollections about the different places as the starting points.

"Finally," he explains, "when I had a sufficient core of work I was able to get things photographed and so put together a proposal package to outline the project and send out to potential exhibition venues."

Vigorous approach

The studio drawings and paintings were made with a variety of media. For some, such as Grasmere Lake (below) David Tress worked with thick sticks of graphite to develop the drama of light and mood. This drawing was based on a study made near Red Bank, at the southeastern end of the lake. In fact, it is the same view chosen by John ‘Warwick’ Smith for his Grasmere Lake (as illustrated in Views of the Lakes in Cumberland 1791-5). There are other studio works that are pure watercolour, some in which watercolour is combined with gouache and Indian ink, and some that are essentially acrylic.

I try to make an image that is both visually and emotionally arresting," he says. "My ideal is for an image that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. To attempt that I have to take risks with the painting and I often work in a very vigorous, physical way. It is not unusual for an image to get an enormous pounding and perhaps even get torn apart, patched up and reworked. The surface is often painted and repainted, and sometimes scored, drawn into and collaged over."

Grasmere Lake

Grasmere Lake, graphite on paper,

401/2X593/4in. (103X152cm)

Having said that, each painting is built on a sound knowledge of spatial, tonal and similar formal disciplines. Otherwise, he points out, the result is just a painterly mess. The key to success lies in achieving a balance in which both subject matter and content are considered, yet also one in which the artist is free to respond to intuition and emotion. These are aspects that have to be finely judged and this is where the paintings of David Tress are so successful. Like the landscapes that originally inspired them, their character reflects the awesome sublime rather than the quaint picturesque.

A project such as Chasing Sublime Light is, of course, an immense and risky undertaking, and it is all credit to David Tress that he has pursued and completed it so successfully. Like the Romantics, whose work he greatly admires, his images evoke the spirit of place and do so with a particular sensitivity and individuality.

The rewards for him are several: the experience of travelling in landscapes which he otherwise might not have considered; the pleasure and knowledge gained from studying a wealth of writings on the subject; the body of work achieved: drawings and paintings that inform and create interest as a group, yet are equally significant as individual pieces; the general acclaim that this project will undoubtedly generate.


Interview with David Tress by Oliver Lange, taken from the June 2008 issue of The Artist




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