Hi, I’m Jem Bowden (you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or my blog). I am a watercolour tutor and landscape painter, and have recently turned ‘full time’ in this capacity. It took me a long time to realise that this is what my life should be about, and ‘getting here’ is something I think I’ll always be working on!
I was brought up in countryside close to Bristol, UK, and now live on the edge of the same city. Perhaps because of my rural upbringing, I hope one day to live closer to a ‘wild’ place, ideally by the coast somewhere, quite calm and peaceful with fresh walks of sea air… not an unusual dream.
En Plein Air
I love being out in the landscape soaking up the whole environment. While enjoying summer I am now looking forward to being reminded of the forces of nature (and landscape scenes) that Autumn and Winter have in store for us. I think I paint – and paint landscapes – only because I feel so inspired by the aesthetics and power of nature (and particularly the sky) that I have to ‘do something about it’.
I suppose I’ve always had the ‘creative’ urge; in childhood I drew all sorts, until I saw a JMW Turner exhibition at age 10, which then switched me on to the idea of painting the landscape. At this age, I also wrote illustrated stories and created things out of fabric and wood. Later I became a musician for 20 years, which I then quit entirely to concentrate properly on painting. To me it is all just creativity, which seems to give my life a purpose.
Painting outdoors is what I enjoy most, and what makes me feel properly alive!
While grass seed or insects land in my palette or on me, and the light changes or the wind takes the easel away. At the end of the day it all feels marvellous. All the while you get glimpses and little insights into nature, which feels like a privilege to witness. The focused observation of it all seems to heighten awareness of the senses, so every moment feels properly ‘lived’.
Being outdoors keeps me feeling in touch with the world, in a way beyond our sometimes petty human concerns. The fact that I set up an easel and attempt to paint the beauty of it is, I think, just a by-product. The joy of ‘plein air’ (pronounce it how you like – I’m trying to invent a new way) is that it brings me into direct contact with the subject – the inspiration itself. In the studio, I can really miss this, to the point at times of almost losing the pleasure of painting.
I also like the challenge of producing an interpretation, speedily – as outdoor painting tends to encourage – that I hope when I look at it away from the scene, it will feel like an authentic and evocative visual version of my experience. It always seems against the odds, and indeed many of my plein air efforts fall short of this, and yet that is fine with me. After all, why should it be possible at all to capture on paper something that is probably indescribable in words?
I don’t have a car so I do a lot of walking with maps after a bus or train ride, with a hiker’s style backpack containing my painting gear. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to join a painters group, based around a core of friends. This has been a privilege too, with the added benefit of car lifts out to more remote places. Painting out with a group provides a different, social aspect to plein air painting, which is fun and valuable in many ways. Inspiration and ideas can be gleaned from watching how other painters work, plus it is nice having someone to share the ‘fun’ with when sheltering under a tree from a sudden downpour.
This is probably what I am doing, in general, when painting outdoors. Sketching is a funny term, with different meanings to different people. I guess I’m just using a palette of colours and some brushes where others may use just a pencil, or whatever else. To my eyes, watercolour can often be at its best when used quite spontaneously and with a direct approach that has a degree of all-or-nothing about it. Not only do I like this way of working, but I often prefer other artists’ ‘sketches’ to their more ‘finished’ work. There’s often some essential vitality, or the inspiration itself which is more evident in the former than the latter, and for me this is a big part of what makes successful art.
I’ve never felt inspired to ‘work up’ plein air painting into studio ones. To me they stand alone as the finished article. They are about what the watercolours and I did there and then, under the influences of the moment. There’s something almost magical about it to me, which I don’t want to meddle with, so I’ve learned to accept their imperfections and happily leave them alone. I like that honesty and again, I’ve always liked to see human fallibility in the work of other artists because being human is an essential part of being an artist!
In the dark cold times of winter the studio comes into its own. It is a different ‘discipline’ altogether for me, and relies on a different motivation and different inspiration to working directly from the subject. In fact it is a lot less ABOUT the subject directly, and a lot more about the medium itself and the ways of handling it. I find this time in the studio is also about reflection, reviewing, note-making, task-setting and sometimes soul-searching. Also, I do more teaching and visiting art groups during this period of the year, all of which is rewarding and beneficial to one’s own painting practice.
In the studio I work, as a subject basis, from the thousands of photos I take during the course of a year. There needs to be a good memory link to the moment and place, to feel that inspiring connection again that made me want to take that scene away with me. From that point though, much will get changed as the creative process begins, amending composition, simplifying, enhancing or changing the atmosphere, etc. Interpretation, in other words.
The studio also presents a great opportunity to become more experimental again, which I think is always a very healthy and wise move for any artist, but one which, for me, can take some discipline at the beginning to get into. Once I’m there, I find it can really take off, and I’m getting out of bed ridiculously early in the morning to try out an idea that has kept me from sleeping.
I do love painting the sky. If I get stuck, I sometimes just paint a quick sky with abandon, and it can get me back into the swing. Taking this as an example of something for studio experimentation, consider the ways you can try to differ the approach…
Put in the clouds first, or put in the ‘blue sky’ first, try working with the board vertical, try working flatter, wet the paper in some places first, or don’t, use a huge brush, use a rigger, use a couple of new colours, try painting it all very pale, or darker than usual, try using some spatter, or deliberate run-backs, try using more vertical brushstrokes than usual, or only horizontal, try starting in the middle and working out, try mixing all the paint as you go, or mixing them all up ready first…
Try working at a completely different scale to your usual, try getting it done inside one minute, try doing the whole thing in 8 separate sections allowing drying between, try a different paper that allows glazing better and layer it up accordingly, try an absorbent paper and doing it in one wash, try varying your ‘attitude’ half way – painting the first half with real care and the second half with real abandon… There are millions of variables – not to mention that there are endless different types of sky!
At the end of winter, I’m always raring to get back outside to my real ‘muse’. But I always find the indoor explorations under the lightbulbs of winter will have produced some steps forward in technique, and some new objectives, which can all help improve the interpretations to come in the year ahead.