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Art Masterclass         March 2005

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

The Artist is a monthly magazine 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.

See the website for further information.

This month: an Art Masterclass featured in the current edition of The Artist, the magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters.

Aspects of the City

Living and working in London, Peter Spens has found stimulating viewpoints from which to work in situ on his oil paintings


These days it is rare to find an artist who is committed to working on the spot, especially one who likes to paint panoramic views of London. However, Peter Spens finds the ability to observe and experience subjects at first hand is essential. He also believes that artists work best from what they know best, and his powerful, evocative landscapes and city scenes clearly demonstrate this point. Mostly he paints large-scale oil compositions, but often an idea is also explored in ink or monotype. London, where he lives, provides him with an immense source of inspiration and ideas.

The approach that particularly interests Peter Spens is painting the city from a high vantage point, surveying a scene from one of the upper floors of a tower block. Such views produce an entirely different kind of drama and impact from those observed at ground level.

"They are quite extraordinary," he says, "with a huge domed expanse of sky and beneath it this amazing metropolis, with the river winding through it. Those elements I find endlessly fascinating."

In part, the appeal of working from a high viewpoint has been influenced by earlier landscape paintings that Peter made in Provence.

"I lived in Provence for seven years," he explains, "in a very mountainous region. Naturally, I began to experiment with compositions that included long views towards the horizon. I lived inland, but rather wished I lived near the sea. So I would paint views that had a similar feeling of space and infinity, looking towards the Rh?e Valley from the mountains. When I came to London, the mountains were man-made ones.

"It was a convention in the earliest maps to draw a portrait of a city from the vantage point of a hill close to its walls. Wenceslaus Holler, who portrayed 17th century London in his etchings, was supremely accomplished in drawing the city from imagined angles, often much higher than any view available from a hill or contemporary building. Today's office towers have given me the opportunity to spend hours observing the city below, with its buildings being thrown into relief or coalescing under a procession of different lights. These man-made mountains give views from the centre looking out to the landscape beyond.

River and buildings

"I started painting these high-viewpoint London scenes in 1993, at first from the IPC Tower. A friend was an editor of a magazine there, and she invited me to look at the view from her office. It was incredible, inspirational — especially the relationship of the river and the buildings, which has now become an important element in my work. Since then I have worked from a number of other highrise buildings, most particularly the Vertigo Bar on the top floor of Tower 42, in the City.

Morning Mist from the Vertigo Bar, oil on board, 10x10in. (25.5x25.5cm)"Sitting in the Vertigo Bar gives an extraordinary airborne sensation. It is a location that has inspired an ongoing series of paintings; West from Vertigo Bar, in which I am exploring the view beyond St Paul's Cathedral, along the Thames towards Westminster. Because of the high viewpoint, the horizon is quite low in this series, while the great expanse of sky arches back over the city. As in the poem 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge' by Wordsworth, I can see the city below 'Open unto the fields, and to the sky'. The glimpsed undulations of the South Downs in the far distance often make this view appear like a seascape with an infinite horizon."

Obviously, panoramic views of London are extremely complex subjects to paint. So what options does an artist have to deal with this level of complexity? Peter describes himself as a realist. "I won't put in every boat that comes along. However, I will deal with what's there."

Editing process

Certainly it's not simply a matter of concentrating on the picturesque. Yet, inevitably, figurative painting must involve a process of editing. It isn't possible to include everything. One of the main strengths of Peter's work is the rigour of his observation and draughtsmanship. Light is another key element in his paintings. It is the interpretation of light, in conjunction with the particular marks that are made, that together reveal form.

"All the time I am simplifying, adding and editing information," he says, "though trying not to get bogged down in the detail. The works are topographical, in the sense that they are concerned with looking at the space and seeing the relationship of one shape to another.

"I like improvisation on a theme; I very much enjoy jazz, for example. In painting, one of the greatest influences on my work has been C?anne's series of paintings of the Mont Saint-Victoire, near Aix-en-Provence.

"I always work on the spot, never from photographs. Even with the large paintings, most of the work is done in situ. I usually start with a small pencil study made in a sketchbook. This helps me evolve the composition, perhaps by cropping the drawing to a smaller size, and in particular it helps me decide on the shape and size that is right for the painting.

West from Vertigo Bar, Tower 42, oil on board, 29x45in. (73.5x11.2cm)"As with West from Vertigo Bar, Tower 42, (left,) sometimes I begin with a black and white painting to gain a better understanding of the subject before attempting it in colour, which I also did with West from the 42nd Floor, Tower 42. In fact, in the past I have used a similar approach, starting with a black and white drawing rather than an oil painting. It is easier to analyse in monochrome, and oil paint allows as many gradations of tone as you could want."

Acrylic and undercoat paint

Peter works almost exclusively in oils, painting on prepared MDF board. The entire surface of the board (both sides and all four edges) is treated with three coats of acrylic primer and then two of oil-based undercoat paint. This gives just the right degree of absorbency. Subsequently, when the board is dry, an imprimatura ground is applied, using a thin wash of colour that is appropriate to the subject matter and then rubbing this back to allow the white of the board to break through.

Peter's palette is based on Seurat's palette, consisting of black, Winsor violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, permanent green, bright green lake, Naples yellow, Winsor lemon, cadmium yellow, cadmium yellow deep, yellow ochre, light red (or Indian red), cadmium red, permanent rose and burnt umber. Titanium white, or occasionally zinc white or flake white, is used for admixing. All of these colours are from the Winsor & Newton Artists' Oil Colour range, except the bright green lake, which is a Michael Harding colour.

For Peter, the principal advantage of oil paint is that it allows him to work a palette for quite a while before the paint starts to dry. "And I like the way that the brushmarks are retained," he says. "The tone of the paint doesn't shift, as is the tendency with acrylic, for instance. I prefer to work through an idea from start to finish, so I don't put the painting aside at any stage and wait for it to dry. Much of the process is wet-into-wet, but with a large format I can focus on one area, while other parts are drying.

"I go straight into the painting, making simple statements on the board — usually starting with the horizon line and other basic divisions and proportions. I have no set procedure, of course. It is a matter of finding a way into the painting. Often I work from a small, key central area, onto which other areas can be attached and secured in terms of pictorial construction. I only put down marks that I believe in; I avoid just filling in everything, so patches of the board may remain blank for a long time.

Fat over lean

"From the broad divisions I begin to assess the position and scale of one shape in relation to another, rather like life drawing. Essentially my technique relies on the traditional fat-over-lean approach, although I seldom use glazes of colour. Instead, I control the thickness of the paint by other means: by wiping the surface with the side of my hand, for example, or scraping off areas and reworking them. But there can be quite a variation in the surface quality of the paint. All the while it is a process of evaluating and adjusting one element against another. Throughout the painting the thinning/mixing agent I use is Sansodor. This is because I am usually working in a building with other people around, so I choose a low-odour diluent."

Peter describes his working method as "pictorial construction, not illustration". His impressive paintings have immense energy; they succeed as paintings in their own right, essentially because the "paint is not subservient to the image".

His advice is simple: "Express what is in your mind. But at the same time accept that painting is not just a process of going from A to B, and it will involve some difficult phases. When a painting starts to talk back to you and there is nothing more to say, then it is finished. It achieves a life of its own, and that's that!"



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