Lesley Birch’s paintings are truly evocative of atmosphere and emotion, which just so happens to be the title of her current solo show at the Kunsthuis in York. In her landscapes, ribbons of free flowing colour describe the environment and the breeze blowing across it. The colours she uses allow a dream-like element to course through the works. Some of her paintings depict a solitary figure, often always a female (age unspecified), her back towards us, looking across an immense and brooding view. There is something almost filmic about these works, that portray loneliness, wistfulness, nostalgia and the sublime all in equal measure.
Lisa: What do you paint?
Lesley: Land, seas, moons, coasts, figures. My pieces are inspired by memories, feelings and experiences of time and place.
Lisa: Can you tell us what you will be showing at your forthcoming show, ‘Atmosphere and Emotion’ at the Kunsthuis in York?
Lesley: I’ll be showing over 50 varied experimental pieces inspired by Neolithic sites, cliffs, rocks, pools and shores of County Mayo, Ireland where I spent time in October 2014.
Lisa: How do you develop the ideas for your paintings?
Lesley: I gather ideas in sketchbooks which I take everywhere. I log thoughts, poems, bits of collage and sketches made in situ. I have around 100 sketchbooks now and I’ll dip back into them, sometimes months later.
When I actually begin painting, ideas have percolated in my mind and at this point I’m not planning at all. Just responding. I work on several paintings at a time. I like to listen to music as I paint and I’m very fussy about the mood this creates because it affects the work.
The paintings I made in Ireland at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation are more muted and brooding in atmosphere. Back in my York Studio, I began to make small oil & wax pieces on paper and as memory and imagination kicked in, my feelings recreated the place in an explosion of colour. Then I was using the biggest canvases on which I’ve ever worked. There seems to be a process between being in the landscape, the act of sketch-booking, the studies done in the place (Ireland) and the actual paintings done on my return to York. Once the memory is processed it reappears in a new, mad palette of oranges and yellows combined with stark landlines in black Indian ink and sepia. This is the positive energy I now feel about the place. New places evoke new responses – Ireland, my native Scotland and later on this summer, Italy.
Lisa: How important is the location of the scenes that you paint?
Lesley: The scenes are important for sparking off feelings and emotions. The weather, the air, the earth under my feet, the colours all affect me. But it’s the feeling about the scene that’s most important to me both at the time and afterwards. I don’t place a particular mountain beside a particular road. I’m not concerned with that. It’s the memory of the place that’s important to me. And so it’s colours, textures and shapes which come through.
Lisa: How do you actually apply paint to canvas? Is it always with a brush?
Lesley: Palette and painting knives, old brushes, rollers, tissue, paper towels, tile grouting implements, rags, paper towels, my fingers, old credit cards, large brushes from the hardware store. I use a dough scraper thing to apply oil paint mixed with cold wax – a technique learned from artist Rebecca Crowell whilst in Ireland. You can’t get the exact version here in the UK so I improvise from the bakery section of the hardware store. There are no rules.
Lisa: Do you ever give up on any of your paintings?
Lesley: No. Usually they sit waiting for me to attend to them. And years later they turn into something else. So I guess I’ve not given up because the underpainting affects the outcome.
Lisa: Can you describe where you do the majority of your painting?
Lesley: Most of my work is done in my studio and also at The Art House Printing Studio in nearby Wakefield.
Lisa: Can you describe how you see the relationship between your printmaking and your painting?
Lesley: My paintings and printmaking feed into each other. Monoprinting is a great technique for me because I work fast and furiously. This helps me stay loose and take risks. And I want the paintings to have that freshness too.
Lisa: Who do you consider to be your biggest influences?
Lesley: The artists whose work I love such as Peter Lanyon, Marlene Dumas, Anselm Keifer, Richard Diebenkorn, Leon Kossoff, Egon Schiele and the Scottish Colourists may not necessarily be direct influences on my own work. However, recently Rebecca Crowell, an American Abstract Expressionist and Emily Ball (a Brighton painter) have mentored me, sharing processes and approaches which have helped me move forward. As an artist I’m always learning. It’s a solitary process in the studio and you can’t beat meeting and sharing with other artists. You can never say you’re fully developed. It’s a journey. That’s why I experiment a lot.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we see more of your work?
Lesley: “Atmosphere & Emotion: An Irish Journey by Lesley Birch” runs from June 5th – July 12th at Kunsthuis Gallery, Crayke, York YO61 4TT. The Gallery is open 10-5pm Wed – Sun. More details here.
Later in the year I’m exhibiting at According to McGee, York
Online gallery Artfinder