Lightscapes and Water

An interview with the painter Judy Buxton

29 JANUARY 2017,
Judy Buxton, Cascading Wild Roses
Judy Buxton, Cascading Wild Roses

Light is therefore colour (J.M.W. Turner)

As I walked past a gallery in Kensington on a cold but sunny winter afternoon, a couple of shimmering paintings called me inside. I stepped in and immediately I was swimming unhurriedly towards a vague shore, the two tall, large paintings, surrounding me like water. On the opposite wall, I found the explosion of hydrangea and roses, on smaller canvases, reassuring.

I hesitate to label Judy Buxton’s style. It is figurative, in the sense of retaining strong references to the real world: water, horses, flowers, studio objects. It is expressionist, as the image of this reality is distorted to make it express the artist’s inner feelings about it. It is nearly abstract, as the painter abstracted elements from the real world and arrived at a simplified composition of form and colour. The abstract is jostling with the figurative, like the playful horses emerging from the shadows to explode laughingly into light in some of Judy’s affectionate portrayals of animals.

Judy Buxton lives on the Lizard Peninsula, Britain’s most southerly (and sunniest) point on the mainland. (I always thought that the quaint name refers to the miniature dragons sunning themselves on the island’s rocks. Rather prosaically, the name comes from the Cornish “lezou” or headland). It seems an ideal environment for a painter: the dramatic geology, the challenging climate and rich flora is designed for the landscape painter. There is also plenty of water (the Lizard is nearly an island) and lots of sky – elements that feature in abundance in Judy’s paintings.

Looking at her paintings today, heavy with impasto, the occasional splash of bright red like a drop of blood in a white/grey landscape, one might not guess that Judy’s formal education as a painter was quite conventional. She received a First Class Honours degree in Fine Art from Falmouth College of Art; following that early promise of talent she was awarded a bursary to study at the Royal Academy where she obtained a PGDip in painting. Asked about painters that influenced her, the list is long and – to observe her work - unsurprising: late Monet, Degas, Rembrandt, Arthur Streeton, Cezanne, Turner, Constable, Goya, John Olsen – “amongst many others”. The Cascades (also the name of her latest exhibition) are large canvases in which the viewer can get totally immersed: the water has unexpected colours and a rich texture. The Autumn Riverbanks are smaller, tactile, luminous. One can smell the earth.

I enjoyed standing in front of the flowers: cascading wild roses, hydrangea, sunflowers. Not like Van Gogh, not like Monet, certainly not like a Renoir – but Judy Buxton’ s own way of seeing and making us see flowers. In her paintings, the texture creates light, the light is made of colour. Sometimes it’s the simple composition that stages the drama– an unexpected implosion in the centre of the canvas.

Supported by a relatively small but loyal group of collectors, Judy had had solo exhibitions every year since 1996 – in London, St Ives and Oxford, as well as participating in group exhibition. She is the winner of many awards and painting prizes.

Ponds, creeks, rivers, the sea… What makes water so interesting to you as a painter?

The abstract qualities of these elements. Looking into, say, the water and seeing the sky and the clouds; water as a mirror, yet offering depth and illusion. Water is continually transforming and fluid; it is liquid, like paint.

What inspires you?

Many things. The detail of nature, being in a landscape, moving through it. Light, change, the change in light. What you can’t see, the landscape as a vessel, a vortex which holds an ambiguous, fluid mass. Riverbanks are also the edge – which are also the edge of the painting. Reflected banks become walls of paint and colour. Water passages as in Cascade tumble down the canvas, revealing itself like a Chinese scroll. Transformation. Memory. Feeling. Change, ambiguity, transformation, paint. The act of painting, the form and challenge of the canvas as a vehicle for expression.

How do you work? Do you sketch? Do you do water colour studies? What is the process in the act of painting?

I always go on fast and rough, making marks and masses. I usually attack the whole canvas at once. I layer direct wet onto wet, paint that is difficult to control or glazing and dripping, straight on using brush and knife. I would paint several small scale variations on a theme at the same time – to make me work quickly and intuitively. I paint outside in the landscape; I think the landscape is the vehicle in which to drive the painting – like Cezanne and his mountain. I would work on horizontal formats, maybe six or eight at a time, each being a subtle variation, in a sequence. I stretch the paintings long and thin like slivers of the landscape, compressing it into the final format. I also use watercolour and mixed media on paper, drawings and photography – like using another eye. I might take 100 single shots in quick succession and then put them together in the studio, paint or tape over them. It is never a single image – drawing, painting or photograph – that inspires, but whatever combination suit the painting. In the studio I always work directly onto canvas, I don’t like to plan too much, I prefer to work in freefall, to let instinct guide my hand. Particularly on a large scale painting, it is liberating.

How do you select your subject? What influences the theme of your painting?

A variety of factors come into it. The Lizard Peninsula is a very watery kind of place. Different times of the year are inspiring in different ways. Autumn colours for instance are always spectacular and the light is soft with very clear reflections. Over the years I have worked at different points on the Helford River; sometimes they involved a long trek out, at other times I was lucky to be able to paint somewhere nearer. So, yes, it is mostly about the landscape. I would paint strips and strips of the landscape (they can be very long strips indeed) and bring them back to the studio to rearrange them. Sometimes the painting are hanging around the studio for a long time, forgotten and then resurrected months – even years – later, when the moment presents itself again. It could be the leaves changing colour, a specific light in the sunset, a reflection in water, or the sky. Sometimes it is just a case of summoning up the energy to start a big project.

Do you consider yourself (or would you like to be described as) a “traditional” painter? Do you care about safeguarding and taking forward traditional painting values?

Yes, I suppose I am a traditional painter who has inherited some of the wonderful language. I am happy with those boundaries, but I have to push them and find my own limits. I believe that finding one’s own mark, authenticity is the most important thing for an artist. I just want to paint my paintings, not have some other artist – however respected – sitting on my shoulder.