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Art at the edge of the world

Words by Mercedes Smith

A new exhibition by painter Neil Davies takes us to two far flung, but equally inspiring, coastal landscapes.

For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to paint, single-mindedly ignoring all other subjects,” says artist Neil Davies. This is an attitude that has seen him become one of west Cornwall’s most admired and successful landscape painters, through talent and a commitment to creating considered and consistently exceptional collections of work. It isn’t hard to recognise a Neil Davies painting, they are unmistakable, particularly in their depth of colour, and the vigorous brush strokes Neil uses to express the energy of coastal weather systems. There is also a very particular blue that collectors associate with his work – not a tube colour, but a glowing, darkly vivid blue that is achieved through multiple layers and glazes of oil paint. “That particular blue has been arrived at over time,” says Neil. “When I’m observing the sea and the sky, I keep their natural colours in mind, but then seek to intensify them through paint mixing, and through the addition of varnish, which gives them a translucent quality, and by contrasting them with the vibrant yellows of gorse, or flecks of white in clouds or waves.”

Painting by artist, Neil Davies
'Silvery Light, Brough of Birsay', Neil Davies

Neil’s work is associated primarily with the sweeping landscape of Cornwall’s Penwith peninsula where he lives and works, but this year he presents a unique collection inspired by both Cornwall and Orkney, an island location that is one thousand miles away to the north, beyond the Scottish mainland. On show at St Ives’ New Craftsman Gallery, which has represented Neil for more than a decade, the exhibition explores the striking similarities of these two coastal landscapes. “This collection was inspired by a recent holiday in Orkney,” Neil tells me, “where the parallels with Cornwall are particularly apparent – that feeling of being on the edge, surrounded and supported by the sea, and of being part of an island community with its fishing industry, its scattered homesteads, its ancient sites and Celtic ancestry, its little coves and harbours and its wide horizons. I felt a strong connection between the two which I wanted to explore.”

Despite Neil’s high-profile association with Cornish landscape painting, it is not entirely unusual for him to make works inspired by other locations. “Over the years my shows have occasionally included paintings from Wales, particularly Snowdonia,” he says, “and often the Highlands of Scotland – places like Skye, Glen Coe and Applecross. All these, in common with West Penwith, are places of wilderness, of raw and visceral, elemental landscapes, with wild and unpredictable weather.” Neil’s appreciation for the landscape, he tells me, comes from seeds sown early in his childhood. “For the first few years of my life,” he explains, “I lived in Aberdour in Scotland, and was regularly taken on trips to the Cairngorms, where I would feed the deer and walk for miles in wild, open spaces. As an adult, I became fascinated with the many faces of landscape, in particular the ways in which the changing seasons, weather and light can affect the same view in so many ways. Moving to St Ives, and regularly walking the landscape of West Penwith, has compounded this love. Perhaps, regarding this year’s collection of work, because of my Scottish roots and love for Cornwall, Orkney’s similarity to West Penwith felt like coming home.”

Neil Davies at his Penwith Studio, February 2023
Neil Davies at his Penwith Studio, February 2023

Titled Connections: Travels in Orkney & West Penwith, this exhibition includes paintings of dramatic and awe-inspiring ‘edge of the world’ locations such as Cornwall’s Land’s End and Orkney’s Yesnaby coastline, both situated where Europe meets the beautiful but unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. Combining modern techniques with those of Old Master painters, Neil works with varnish-based translucent glazes, impasto and opaque matt colours, which he creates by mixing beeswax into his pigments. “Oil paint has always been my preferred material. It is the medium I find most flexible, and that allows me to achieve great variation within the paint,” says Neil. “Brushes, palette knives, rags and my fingers are all tools I employ to give energy to the movement of my oil paint, and for drawing I use pencils, chunks of graphite, Indian ink and compressed charcoal. The ensuing interplay of gloss, matt, textured, and thin and thick layers of paint, which echoes the diversity of elements in nature, all add to my final interpretation of the painting.”

Like many contemporary painters, Neil works on board instead of stretched canvas. “Boards are extremely durable and are able to take the punishment I inflict on them with the energetic, gestural strokes which happen when my painting is in full flow,” he explains. Neil begins the process of creating work by walking the landscape, observing its qualities at a particular moment in time – on a tranquil spring morning, or in the violence of a winter storm – and absorbing what he sees and the feelings it creates. “Anything I see can create a reaction in me,” he says, “perhaps a transient shaft of light on a whitewashed cottage, or the sun breaking through a bruised sky after a storm. The retained memory of that momentary event, and quick sketches done on the spot, act as the catalyst for decisions about the painting once I’m back in the studio. This is where the alchemy kicks in and intuition takes over. At this early stage my time scale for creating the work is unknown – sometimes the painting almost paints itself and can be finished fairly quickly, while others can take much longer. Once it is finished, I will set the painting aside for a while, then reassess it after a few days with a fresh eye. Sometimes I am satisfied with it as it is, other times I may decide to alter something – maybe a corner appears too dark, or some final touches are required to bring out a certain aspect of the work.”

When the finished painting is dry, Neil applies varnish to intensify the colours and enhance the vibrant depth of his richly toned, powerful paintings. Each one is an expression of his endless passion for painting the landscape. “An observation in nature – a flash of light on a rock, a break in the clouds – is the anchor point,” he says, “and then intuition and my subconscious take over, dictating the pace and direction of the painting, and resulting in gestural marks, accidental qualities and challenges which add emotion and enrich the final work. It is the challenge of making new work, and the subsequent alchemy in my studio, that draws me in and keeps me motivated. The landscape of the far west still has the power to surprise me, to present something previously unnoticed, or offer a new perspective on familiar subjects. Penwith’s geographical location, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic, means that we have a lot of weather events here and everything is intensified - the storms are wilder, the skies are more dramatic, the colours and light are brighter.

“The constant shift in atmospheric mood around the coast means I am never short of material: darkly glowering skies, turbulent seas and furious storms can suddenly vanish, and then the sun soaks the land with warmth and light. The wilderness of the high moors, the rugged coastline, the power of the elements – these things excite me – they recall an ancient connection with the soul of the land and it is hard not to be moved. As an artist, my emotional response is to capture the essence of these feelings in paint”.

See Neil Davies’ Connections: Travels in Orkney & West Penwith from 1st to 28th July at New Craftsman Gallery, 24 Fore Street, St Ives.

Painting by artist, Neil Davies
'The Blue Beyond the Orcadian Edge', Neil Davies


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