Spirit of Place

Frances Noble talks to painter and printmaker Colin Bygrave

Everywhere you look in North Norfolk you see landscapes which beg to be painted. Constable said that in East Anglia he could feel the weight of the sky above him. On the day I visit Colin Bygrave, with a cold north-westerly wind blowing, the sky seems to be the only thing anchoring the landscape to the ground. When finally, after several detours caused by bad map-reading I find his delightful brick and flint cottage in the north Norfolk village of Briston I am greeted not only by Colin but by Meg, his very pale, very beautiful and very amiable yellow labrador. She lies at my feet as we talk - occasionally looking up as if to say ‘I could have told you that, why didn’t you ask me in the first place.’

Where and what did you study?

I did my National Diploma in Design at Reading University, with painting as my specialism. Drawing from observation was a key part of the approach at Reading and has remained fundamental to me all my life. I had a chance introduction to etching while I was there but although it fascinated me, I took up my career in teaching art immediately afterwards and did not have an opportunity to practise etching until much later when I was heading an art department at Loughborough College of Education and I was able to introduce printmaking as an option.

How did you come to settle in Norfolk?

When the college eventually merged with the University of Technology, the Art Department, and my job, became redundant and I had to move on. I had a period from 1977 to 1986 as Head of a Design Faculty in a community college in Leicester, but the pressures involved in this job resulted in my resignation after nine years and my wife and I decided to move away. We looked for somewhere in East Anglia because we are both from Essex, and eventually settled on this cottage in Norfolk. We took the plunge of having a big studio built in the garden. I was lucky to be able to buy, for a song, the etching press that I had had installed at Loughborough. It had been lying in pieces in a corridor, gently rusting, and nobody seemed to know what it was or what to do with it. However, getting it over to Norfolk was an experience that I wouldn't want to repeat in a hurry!
I got a job at Norwich High School for Girls, until 1995 was a real pleasure and helped pay for the studio. This, in turn, provided the means for a smooth career change as a professional printmaker in my retirement. The whole thing was a bit of a gamble but we are so happy here both with the studio - something I always wanted but never expected to achieve - and with being in Norfolk.
Do you miss teaching?

Not really, although I have enjoyed my teaching career - it provided some wonderful moments and a lot of stimulus. The disadvantage with it, from my perspective as an artist, is that although it is enormously stimulating to work with young people, you have to resolve a conflict between your own artistic vision and the need for open-mindedness in dealing with the varying artistic needs of your students; I don't think that I ever quite resolved that. I am convinced, after 38 years experience of it, that art is one of the most difficult subjects to teach. When I retired, I found that I needed some time to redefine my own artistic values, to separate them from all the possible ones that I had been putting in front of my students. It is a relief now to be able to say simply, "this I like, that I don't like," rather than this or that might be good for this or that student. It is good, in other words, to be able to be just an artist and not, any more, a bit of an artist and a bit of a teacher.
A great many of your images are from landscape, perhaps the most three-dimensional of all subjects. How do you translate the scene in front of you on to paper?
I have always been interested in visual perception - how we see what we see. The way we might represent what we see follows on naturally from that concentration in looking, as E.H. Gombrich powerfully demonstrated in his book Art & Illusion. An intriguing question, to me anyway, is this: if you could pluck an ancient caveman from his environment and drop him in Piccadilly Circus, what would he see? Would it be the same as what I see? If not, why not? Or, to put it more simply, does a town-dweller see the same rural scene as a countryman looking at it.
Now, the most basic aspect of seeing anything, especially landscape, is that of depth: that this tree is nearer to me than that building. If I only have a flat piece of paper on which to represent it, how do I do it? I do it by looking for clues in the landscape that suggest depth, like lines which converge, shapes which overlap each other, and so on: there can be hundreds of little, unobtrusive clues in one of my pictures to the ‘real’ landscape I had been looking at.

Your landscapes don’t seem to be just a response to the physical things you see in front of you.

The other part of my motivation, which particularly concerns landscape, is, I suppose, my emotional response to it, to the things which give a feeling of the place, so that it couldn't be anywhere, any old landscape, but is particular, special, and carries a feeling or mood which is special to the place. A good example of all these things can be seen in my etching of The Lane at Thurning. I seem to do a lot of pictures of roads, lanes, paths, some going straight up into the distance, some winding, some disappearing round bends, some just tracks which show comings and goings.

Do you think of your landscapes as timeless?

Not particularly, I would regard that as a possible part of the viewer's response to them. I am just concerned with making a well-constructed image. Once I have done that, in a sense the image is out in the world, it isn't my property any more. I am often surprised by what different people see in my pictures. I suppose you might ask, do I think of my work as traditional; that isn't a question that has any meaning to me - what is traditional? What tradition do you suggest I follow? Any artist follows some sort of tradition - even a conceptual artist like Tracey Emin follows a century-old tradition initiated by Marcel Duchamp. Nowadays the artist can pick and mix from all the traditions of the past. I could say that my work is ‘traditional’ because it follows a tradition, which I suppose relates to English romantic artists like Samuel Palmer, John Nash and Graham Sutherland: and it is ‘modern’ because I am doing it now, but I use traditional methods! So what does that make me?
How do you begin a new image?

Usually it starts with a drawing from observation, in the open: sometimes a quick sketch, sometimes a more complete colour notation. I find water-soluble crayons (not pencil crayons - they are too feeble) useful in getting quick and more complete drawings done. It is important, however, not to get to too finished a point at this stage, otherwise you can find that you have said it all and there is nothing left to be developed back in the studio. I might then do one or two work-out drawings in the studio before I start the process of getting the image on to the plate. This, and the subsequent printing, may take a couple of weeks, especially with a complicated design.
Do you ever work from photographs?

Occasionally, and almost always from photos that I have taken myself. I used to scorn people who used photographs for their starting point, and I am still wary of doing so; however, I believe that it is OK provided that the photographs are seen as a starting point for the work and not as an end to aim at. In fact sometimes taking a photograph is the only way to capture the image you want.
Do you prefer to paint or to make prints?

Being a painter is a very lonely business, you need to be a very strong individual to just be on your own all day doing unique things. Cezanne did it, just carrying on painting and painting almost until the moment he died, I know I couldn’t do that. On the other hand, printing is not just for my own amusement and interest - I have to think how my work might relate to other people and selling prints is evidence of being on the right wavelength, keeping in touch with other people. But it’s not just that - I’m fascinated by etching and love the contrast between the routine of making prints and the introspection of painting.
Which artists do you most admire?

Where to start? Cezanne, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vuillard, Sickert, would have to be in the list. I very much like Bernard Dunstan's work, also Fred Cuming's - not great artists but very good ones. I think Picasso and Lucien Freud are great, as great as any painters from the past. I have a personal belief that an artist like Freud who can make his subject so real that you feel that you have never looked at it before, at the same time as keeping the paint looking like paint, is a magician. The teaching of Victor Pasmore and the Basic Design Movement was very influential for me. It all began with Klee, the idea that it starts with ‘taking a line for a walk’. You take a point and move it and it becomes a line, you move the line and it becomes a plane, you move the plane and it becomes a 3-dimensional object.

Do you have a clear idea in your mind before you start a picture?

At first, any idea of what I want to do is at best vague and fuzzy, at worst non-existent - I say ‘at worst’, but I don't really believe it is a bad thing to start without an idea. I think there are two kinds of artist - the first has a clear vision and proceeds to put it down; the second, and I would say the majority fall into this camp, starts simply, with this vague idea, and, by making things happen, putting marks down begins to stimulate his/her imagination so that other marks - colours, shapes, etc - follow in response to the initial ones and the process, if one is lucky, becomes a sort of chain reaction. If the marks turn into trees or whatever, or stay abstract, is a matter for the artist's choice. Sometimes, when I’m working, I stop myself and think ‘What am I doing - spreading coloured earth and chemicals on a flat surface!’ and then, suddenly, I get a glimpse, and it might only be a glimpse of what it is I am doing and how it will be.

How do you know when that chain reaction should end?

Simply, when I don't want to do any more to the picture - it’s as simple as that. But it may well be that some time, even years, later; the picture starts asking me for more!
Do you have a regular working schedule?

No, I am afraid my organization of time is fairly chaotic - probably because I have always had an organized routine imposed on me as a teacher. I am in the studio most days for a spell; maybe all day and evening, though sometimes only an hour or so. Even if I don’t do any other work, I try to draw at least once a day.

Is it important to you that people see what you want them to see in your pictures?

Yes and no. Of course I am pleased when people like my work, and if someone is prepared to pay money for a picture, it is like a guarantee that he or she is, to some extent, on my wavelength. I am a self-conscious individual with a mistrust of consciously trying to express feelings and ideas in my work; I would rather say that what is there will come out anyway, and my job is just to make a well-constructed picture. It’s a completely artificial argument which some artists use when they say that the artist only paints for his or her own benefit, it is a great privilege to be able to produce work which other people like. Sometimes a person will see things that I was unaware of in the picture, which delights me!

Are you happy with your way of life nowadays?

When I was teaching. I was never sure whether I was primarily a teacher or primarily an artist. Now, I can simply be an artist and I love it!

As I say goodbye Colin tells me a story about Meg - the artist’s dog. She once ate 15 water-soluble wax crayons (complete with their packaging) which he had left on the sideboard in the house. Later that day when he took her for her afternoon walk she started being sick, ‘Battleship grey sick,’ he recalls, ‘I thought she was really very ill’. Then I started noticing flecks of Prussian blue and vermilion, and remembering how greedy she can be, I began to put 2 and 2 together and wonder if I would find my crayons when we got home! Of course they were gone! Luckily Meg was none the worse for her unusual meal.

All images copyright © Colin Bygrave

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