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artist spotlight: david unsworth

artist david unsworth painting en plein air

Can you tell us a little about the most recent works that you have on display here at the gallery? Was there any particular inspiration behind these pieces?

Five years ago we moved to the West Highlands and I was instantly seduced by the landscape. Despite living for the last twenty years surrounded by the hills of the English Lake District, first in Ambleside then in Grasmere, the Western Highlands were on a greater scale altogether. Subjects abounded and my first days were spent in excitable explorations of our local area of Lochaber. It felt as though all my favourite landscape components from around the world had been compressed into this one area. Creative energy is one thing, but I needed some focus. Glen Nevis became that focus of my first project, Waters of Nevis. I spent two glorious years painting along three miles of the Glen from Lower Falls to Steall Falls, and loved every minute, always with the river underscoring my wanderings. I found the Nevis to be a uniquely sheltering, nurturing and dramatic place to paint.

The paintings I have on display here in the studio are from my latest project in Glen Coe. I thought it would be interesting to make a series of works juxtaposing my Nevis collection, and the wild and rugged nature of Glen Coe was ideal. Here were mountains piled upon mountains, great sweeping gestures, bare turf and rock rising to impossible heights. Here the landscape was not sheltering but harsh and unforgiving. In Glen Nevis I could paint in all weathers and seasons, but in Glen Coe the weather could be brutal and even with my mountain tent I found it challenging in the extreme at times. But that is the challenge for me; the experience of working outdoors and being creatively engaged with the landscape is at the core of my creative life.

Can you tell us a little bit about your process?

I paint outdoors, working in oil paints on linen canvases. I use a layered technique which begins with a ground of texture paste mixed with finely graded river sand taken from the painting’s location to represent the rugged nature of the landscape. A traditional underpainting is then applied, which helps me to lock in the composition as the painting progresses, before the final glazes are rendered. Often this requires two or three sessions on location. My method relies on revisiting a location and I see it as more akin to portrait painting. These multiple visits allow me to find different facets of the same subject, almost different poses which are then built up over several days and layered into glazes; the aim being to record the layered nature of the landscape as I see it. I am sure that this way of working has a lot to do with my character and I enjoy revisiting the same locations over and over again. Every visit is unique but the underlying familiarity helps me to see the subtlety and to find the personal perspectives which I most enjoy painting. Perhaps this practice of revisiting, and my contemplative explorations, is why I am drawn towards fragments of landscape and drawn to intimate and personal responses to landscape.

My work is a contemporary take on Romanticism’s idea of the contemplative sublime. Layered paint suggesting layers of time, geology and memory, and expressing a sense of deep stillness in a dynamic landscape.

Where do you prefer to work and why?  

For me it has to be outdoors as this is where I feel most connected to my subject; landscape. I love the whole process of a day’s painting, from the slow walk in which sets the day’s rhythm, to setting up my painting shelter (purposed brolly or tent), to the weather and the obligatory tea making ceremony (which has to be done before any painting session), everything helps me to relax. It is this time spent in quiet observation which I find very important, deciding compositional questions and working out exactly what I wish to express before committing anything to canvas. I am sure many artists work on the principle of 75% of time thinking about it, 25% of time painting it; though I might be a little more 90%, 10% depending on how many cups of tea I consume…

 The process of painting outdoors is extremely rewarding in its own right, and I would recommend it to anyone. Just to sit for a day out on the hill, watching the weather change from fair to foul, watching as the sun picks out different facets of landscape or when the mist rolls in, concealing and revealing shape and form before dissipating, is reward enough and the paintings, when they emerge, are an added bonus.

The image below is of my studio, taken in the Lost Valley of Glen Coe just before the lockdown.

What are you working on at the moment, or what will you be working on next? 

Due to the restrictions on non essential travel my Glen Coe project is on hold right now. Looking out from home to the mountains of Glen Coe in the knowledge that I can’t visit is rather strange to say the least but we are all living through extraordinary times and this forced distance does give valuable time for reflection. 

I am also drawn to and energised by the vast sea and skyscapes that dominate the mountains here, and being lucky enough to live next to a sea loch there are subjects a plenty for my daily sketchbook walks. I am currently exploring our local peninsula which is five minutes' walk from here and I have been appreciating how lucky we are to live amongst such landscape.  Because the sky and light reflecting off the sea changes so quickly, you have to work accordingly and this is a challenge in its own right, picking up the energy and character of that particular day as the sun moves across the sky. These sketchbook walks might well coalesce into a future project but right now I am happy enough just to be able to get out and work.

It will be invigorating to return to the mountains of Glen Coe when normality resumes. Perhaps we will all cherish what was once taken for granted all the more, I know I will.

See more by david unsworth here.

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