Artists and Illustrators Magazine
‘Braving the elements’ by Steve Pill
Broad Street in the Rain, oil on linen, 30×32cm
“You can’t be a landscape painter without painting the weather,” says Francis. “That’s what it is all about”
For his new solo exhibition, landscape artist Francis Hamel has braved all weathers to spend the last year painting various locations in and around Oxford city centre. We’ve arranged to meet him there to chat about his work and when we call his mobile upon arriving at the train station, he has already set up his portable easel on St Giles’ and got his next composition well under way.
There are puddles on the pavement and a brisk late autumn chill in the air but Francis is undeterred, wrapped up in his cardigan, over-sized mac and scarf. “The work that I do is about capturing a sense of light and weather,” he explains. “You can’t be a landscape painter without painting the weather – that’s what it is all about. Oxford in particular looks slightly silly in the sun. It is a gloomy, fog-ridden, damp, rather bad tempered place to look at, and somehow it seems truer to itself in the rain and mist.”
However, as he quickly uses his oils to sketch out a view of the historic Eagle and Child pub (rumoured to once be frequented by authors CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien), it is clear that Francis is someone who is able to find colour, contrast and movement in the most unlikely settings.
His forthcoming solo exhibition, Oxford Paintings, includes a view down Broad Street awash with reflective puddles and a wintry depiction of slow-moving traffic that has been rendered with the skill and immediacy of a Claude Monet oil sketch.
All of Francis’s works begin on location, even if he isn’t quite as hardy as he first seems. “Im no Superman,” he says, from the comfort of the cafe across the road . “I still get bloody cold and bloody miserable like anyone else and I dream of hot coffee and open fires. You just have to throw yourself at it with as much passion as you can muster on any given day and hope that something comes out of it.”
Although the artist is not averse to painting in better weather, he disagrees with the suggestion that it would make his life easier. “The sun poses as many problems as the rain. I love painting things against the light as well; it is a lovely light to capture but technically it is tremendously difficult .”
Francis has been taking on such challenges for almost 25 years now. Born in 1963, he studied at the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Magdalen College, before trying to establish himself as a professional painter on his own terms. He took time out to build up a body of work, before renting a London gallery to showcase his talents. “We sold three or four pictures,” he recalls. “It felt like a success.”
Since that time, he has been able to turn his hand to a variety of diverse subjects, from Italian landscapes and scenes from a local circus, to murals for Fortnum & Mason and even, earlier this year, a portrait of the Prime Minister, David Cameron.
However, one thing he has learned from bitter experience is never to be without his paint box. Many years ago, his wife had pleaded with him to leave the paints behind for their family holiday but it only served to reveal the true depths of his addiction to oils. “After three days, I had to drive for 60 miles to spend £300 in an art shop because I am much better company if I’ve done some painting.”
Surprisingly, given that he lives just north of the city centre, this new exhibition will mark Francis’ first paintings of Oxford since a successful solo show in 2004. In the intervening years, he has been mentally stockpiling potential subjects around the city, mixing interesting views down the side streets with depictions of the more famous historical buildings. “With the Oxford pictures, there’s a whole other narrative to the paintings because the place means so much to so many people. It’s one of those cities where there’s a massive nomadic population and it touches the lives of a vast number of young people at a volatile time in their lives. If you’re describing actual places, inevitably someone will have had their first date there or been sick on the pavement or fallen in love. It’s nice when people add to the picture by bringing their own lives into it.”
The downside with focusing on such familiar surroundings is that Francis can’t use the same degree of artistic license that he does when composing rural landscapes. “In Oxford, you can take some liberties, but you can’t move the Ashmolean and put it next to the Sheldonian Theatre. Topographically, I can’t move things about as much as I do in a landscape. Sometimes the landscape isn’t quite the way you want it to be and so very often one makes extremely radical decisions.”
These subtle changes to a landscape are what Francis believes can turn a good painting into a great one, and a process he encourages other painters to do more often. It is only if someone catches him in the act that they can even tell. “Some years ago I was painting on a beach in Scotland and this girl was really shocked that I’d moved the island much closer to the mainland,” he recalls. “She was slightly offended at the idea that I’d shifted everything around in a way that took such enormous liberties. But I’m sure if she’d seen the picture out of context, away from the actual scene, she would have known exactly where it was.”
Francis Hamel – Oxford Paintings 2012 ran from 30 November to 2 December at Magdalen College, Oxford,
and 5-22 December at John Martin Gallery, London Wl. www.jmlondon.com
WET IN WET?
Francis shares his tips for plein air painting in poor conditions.
• Leave the camera behind
“Cameras simplify the colours in shadows. Instead make drawings of your subject; drawings that aren’t about being finished articles in themselves but are laden with information, where you’re thinking about what you are seeing and make notes on it, so that when you go back to the studio, you know what is required.”
• Pay close attention to the colour
“The key thing about working outside is that you’ll get the colour values right. Mixing up the colours directly as you go, you can make sure the colour relationships are true and then take it back to the studio and work it in to something more pictorially coherent. The topography is something that will stay the same; what won’t stay the same is the light on October 9th 2012.”
• Try working on a smaller scale
“Wind is the one type of weather that is really challenging. The easel gets blown over all the time and you end up having to hold it with one hand. I’ve done that many, many times and it’s not a particular relaxing way to work – a smaller board is less likely to blow around.”
• Fill the board quickly
“I tend to mass together all the light areas and dark areas. Today, I was working on to a prepared board that had a warm red colour painted on it already. That meant I’d got the mid-range covered and I could start off by breaking the whole thing up into three categories – lights, middles and darks – to generalise and get the composition down quickly.”
Plein air painting
• Don’t be too precious
“Paintings made on location have a freshness and a spontaneity about them that is hard to generate with a studio picture. However, there’s more likely to be a thumbprint in the corner or a bit of grass stuck to it as well. I remember painting on the beach once and the painting fell in the sand – the picture worked really well but if you feel it now, it feels like sandpaper, so there is always a risk. The advantage is that you can make a completely spontaneous response.”