Words by Mercedes Smith
Cornwall’s most distinctive painter joins forces with St Ives’ most respected gallery this autumn, for an unmissable September Festival exhibition.
Middle: Neil Canning at his west Cornwall studio
Neil Canning is one of Cornwall’s most high-profile artists, with a distinctive style of work that attracts both private collectors with a passion for abstraction and the landscape, and organisations with an eye on expressing their cultural values through the acquisition of contemporary art: these corporate clients have included international banks, universities, and large companies such as John Lewis. In short, he has achieved an incredibly high level of success in his career so far, including an Honorary Doctorate awarded to him in 2011 by the University of Exeter for his ‘outstanding contribution to contemporary British art’. This September, he takes the prestigious September Festival exhibition slot at St Ives’ oldest and most historically important art gallery, the New Craftsman, a venue which reflects the importance of his work to the ongoing story of art in Cornwall.
“I have lived in Cornwall since 1997,” says Neil, who was originally born and raised in Oxfordshire, “and I initially had studio space in St Ives.” Here, immersed in the town’s famous north light, and encircled by the dazzling blue of St Ives Bay, Neil’s work took on the vivid palette for which he is now best known. “When I was working in St Ives my colour palette was always pretty full on, reflecting the intense colours, and especially the blues, of that environment. Colour is such a personal thing and it sort of seeps into your subconscious, depending on where you have been spending time.” In 2007, Neil relocated away from the immediacy of the ocean to the gentler, more rural landscape around Marazion just a few miles away, to a property with outdoor space where he could create a studio. “Since moving into the country my colour palette has broadened,” he tells me, “and although the stronger colours are there they are often counterbalanced with softer hues. Ultimately though, for me, there has to be a visual kick to catch the viewer’s eye.” Neil’s path to success has not been a conventional one: commitment to himself and his vocation, rather than any prescribed academic structure, has been the framework on which he has built his career.
Left: Sea Spark
Middle: High Drama
Right: Nightfall “After studying A levels, I made the decision not to go to art college,” he explains. “My parents generously built me a small studio in the garden and allowed me a year to just paint. At the end of that time, I secured my first exhibition with a local gallery at the age of 19, and I spent the next three years working in the studio of a professional artist and attending life drawing classes at various Oxford colleges close to where I lived. At the same I had works exhibited in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition when I was 21, and the National Portrait Gallery when I was 24. Ultimately, I learned a great deal from the amazing artists I have been in contact with over the years, and as artists we never stop learning.” Today, his appreciation of other artists, both their knowledge and their work, is reflected in the artworks he collects himself. “I have always enjoyed having the work of other artists in the house,” says Neil. “Many of the pieces I own are by friends and artists I got to know well, like Sandra Blow, Trevor Bell, Basil Beattie and Albert Irvin, and others are by artists I particularly admire, such as Victor Pasmore, Patrick Heron, John Hoyland, Ian McKeever and Bruce Mclean.” Many of these artists reflect Neil’s own passion for bringing landscape and abstraction together, to create works of significant visual and emotional weight. “Although my work is often considered to be abstract,” he tells me, “landscape has always been the most important subject matter for me. I soon realised that setting up an easel and just painting what I saw did not really capture the true experience of a landscape. I wanted to try and convey moving through the landscape, rather than being static, as most of the time this is how we experience it. So, I began by exploring specific locations, absorbing the colour, the changing light, the texture of rocks and the wind speed, sometimes making written notes and simple line drawings.
The way these elements are edited and balanced often take time to surface and become a painting. Ultimately, I wanted to create a visual language that was very much my own, where the mark-making and paint application was as important as the subject matter.”
Beginning a painting though, he tells me, is never easy: “I prefer to get some colour down quickly, just to make an initial statement,” Neil explains. “Most of my paintings, even the smaller works on paper, are in my studio for a period of months and comprise many layers of paint. Colours and marks constantly change, as more appear and some are covered. It is sometimes a process of destruction but all this energy, these risks, add to the drama of the final piece. I am seeking an alchemy, a combination of line, mark and colour that takes me back to that original sensation of being outdoors. Most of the time now I use mostly acrylic paint, along with dry pigments, graphite, charcoal, inks, mediums and marble dust. This applies to both works on paper, wooden panel and canvas. Some pieces, particularly my larger works, are also oil paint on canvas, but in others I find acrylics are increasingly versatile as a medium and allow me to build layers of impasto as well as thin veils of colour. I can also be quite physical with the paint when necessary, allowing it to drip or run. I often like to create a sensation of speed within the paint, maybe to suggest elemental forces, and the paint really helps me do that.”
Left: Moonrise St Ives
Middle: Night Watch
Right: Zennor Head For the last 20 years, printmaking has also become a significant aspect of Neil’s work. “I came to printmaking very much as a painter who makes prints. I have been working with Advanced Graphics London since 1995 and they are known for the great working relationships they had with painters such as Bert Irvin, John Hoyland and Craigie Aitchison to name a few. They are extremely good at allowing painters to extend their working process and explore new ways of working through printmaking. From my own point of view it was quite an easy transition, as my usual method of working in layers translated very well to the combination of woodblock and screen printing that I now employ. It was exciting to approach a new medium with no preconceived ideas, and I did so with a great sense of freedom. Many of the discoveries I made in printmaking definitely influenced the trajectory of my painting.”
Neil’s September Festival exhibition at the New Craftsman Gallery, titled Future Horizons, features 30 new paintings created during the last three years. “My main focus during this period has been the landscape and coast surrounding my home in West Cornwall,” says Neil. “I really wanted to push the boundaries and create work that was positive and forward looking. There is much greater diversity in the mark making, from sweeping brushstrokes to impasto colour accents and energetically drawn lines. Some pieces may appear to be completely abstract but all have a starting point in nature. They aim to capture the sensations of being outdoors, the rush of the wind and the crash of the waves as they reach the shore. I wanted to make this a show very much about Cornwall and the strong connection I feel with this ancient landscape.”
Neil Canning’s Future Horizons runs from 10th September to 7th October, alongside an accompanying exhibition of work by potter Jack Doherty, at New Craftsman Gallery, 24 Fore St, St Ives, TR26 1HE.