Jonathan Pitts’ paintings depict large natural spaces void of human presence. He lets his materials do what they want to do, playing a careful game of balance being allowing the paint to just be and intervening to control how his pictures look. His interventions can sometimes appear brutal; scratches and stabs with sticks and vigourous brush work all help to build up from the stains and drips of colour. The result is landscape painting that never appears contrived but always natural and full of power.
Lisa: In your statement on your website you say you ‘want your paintings to be beautiful’. How would you define what is beautiful in words?
Jonathan: It is very hard to pin down because beauty is an abstract concept, one that is defined differently by each individual. In this respect it can become controversial. Beauty for my painting is an ambition. Simply put my paintings are a statement of what I consider to be beautiful.
I consider Van Gogh’s painting to be beautiful, the swirling shapes and interpretive use of colour make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It is utterly transfixing. The rasp in Kurt Cobain’s voice is beautiful but tinged with sadness because it conveys so much troubled emotion.
I guess beauty is an elevating experience whether or not it’s a sad or happy one. Beauty it seems then is bittersweet.
Lisa: How do you prepare your paper for painting?
Jonathan: A lot of my preparation is in the choice of paper. I have experimented with many types of paper. Generally I use the 625 gm Saunders and Waterford 100% cotton rag paper with a not or a rough surface, which I then cut to various sizes. This paper comes sized with gelatine, which stops the paint completely sinking in. Sized cotton rag paper is wonderful to work with because of the way that it absorbs the paint.
I can be very aggressive in the way that I make a watercolour, often attacking it with knives and sticks, this is why my choice of paper is so heavy.
For my oil paintings I use a fine weave cotton duck that I carefully prepare with Golden acrylic gesso. I spend a lot time getting the surface to be fairly smooth and even.
Lisa: How well do you need to know a subject in order to paint it?
Jonathan: I paint almost exclusively plein air as it gives me an intimate knowledge of my subject, my chosen landscape. I was recently diagnosed as autistic. I think that the need for familiarity in the places that I paint in is very important in this respect. I now view my need to make paintings as my way of understanding and making sense of the world.
I grew up in the countryside and I am only ever truly comfortable when I am in a field knee deep in mud! I paint outside, because I need to, it is the place where I feel most comfortable and therefore at my most creative.
I have good visual memory and I can paint places that I have been to from memory, this is especially useful when I need to practice. It is also a useful skill to have when painting plein air because the landscape is changing second by second, so in a way you are always painting from memory.
Lisa: How do you decide what exactly you are going to paint?
Jonathan: I like to paint plein air in the open countryside as far away from interruption as possible! And in a familiar place if possible. If it is a new place I like to become familiar with it by using my sketchbooks first. These are my general starting points.
Compositions occur to me when I walk in a landscape, it feels instinctive and a dialogue is then developed between that landscape and my painting. I make a painting in response to the way a part of the landscape makes me feel. The painting tries to pin down these feelings. Every landscape I choose to paint has a certain ‘visual rhythm’ to it, with the changes in the light and weather throughout the day it is a ‘visual rhythm’ that is regularly changing. I am constantly responding to these effects of light and weather.
Lisa: What is your success rate with making work like? Do you ever discard work that has not been successful?
Jonathan: Plein air painting can be a very frustrating way to make an artwork, I have spent a lot of time over the last 10 years learning from my mistakes! I don’t make it easy for myself, I am fearless when I paint and I will paint in any weather. This has resulted in very good paintings, but an equal share of terrible ones!
I only exhibit the paintings that I feel are interesting to look at, that communicate the way the landscape made me feel. The paintings must achieve a good sense of balance in terms of colour and form. I am very demanding of my paintings in this respect and in the early days I did end up discarding a lot of work. The experience that I gained over the past 10 years of plein air painting means that now I rarely discard work. I have learnt how to pace myself during painting, when to take my time and when to go for it!
Lisa: What are your favourite materials to work with?
Jonathan: I like to think about materials as colours and binders. I work with set of primary and secondary colours, just as you see them on a colour wheel. To this I add whites and earths. I then work with these colours over a wide range of binders.
For my paintings on paper I use a variety of water based paints. For the gum arabic based paints (watercolours) I make my own paint. For this I have a range of pigments (Sennelier, Kremer) and a recipe for gum arabic solution. I use a Roberson’s glass muller and slab to mix and grind the materials into paints. It is a laborious process to make your own paints, but it has helped me to understand how paints work. This in turn has helped me learn how to exploit the characteristics of individual pigments.
For the acrylics I use a variety of the Golden products. I like any of the colours that Golden produce because they don’t give their paint ranges a uniform sheen, each colour has its own unique finish from gloss to matt. A uniform sheen can be very useful when working opaquely on canvas, however the matting agents that are used also dull the intensity of the colour. On paper I want transparent colour that is very intense, matting agents dull the colours and reduce this transparency.
I have recently started painting plein air in oils on canvas and for this I make my own paint. For the oil binder I use a cold pressed linseed oil without a siccative, the Pip Seymour products are excellent. To this I grind limited range of colours that sit around the colour wheel. With practice I have made very intense colours that are very different to the ones sold in tubes.
Lisa: How important is leaving things to chance in your work and why?
Jonathan: Chance is very important to me, I like to make suggestive marks that evoke a feeling of a place rather than being too literal. My favourite passages in paintings are the ones that I can’t recreate, each piece becomes unique in this respect. Just as in the way that no two days are ever the same, neither are two paintings.
Plein air painting requires you to react to the changing light as it unfolds. I like to work with my paint in a very spontaneous and fluid way, this allows me the freedom to respond to these changes. That said I do have a lot of fixed elements to the way that I work as a whole, not everything can be left to chance. I practice every day and I work with trusted materials that work in a consistent way.
I aim to make the best painting that I have ever made each time that I set out to paint. I leave a lot to chance when I am actually painting, simply because thinking gets in the way. Thinking about the next mark stops the flow, the best marks are made without me realising it.
Lisa: How do you decide what materials you’re going to work with?
Jonathan: I like to understand my craft, because then hopefully the poetry can happen unhindered. The staple ingredients that I am never without are Titanium White, Hansa yellow, a crimson (a personal mix), Ultramarine, an earth either burnt umber or yellow ochre. This is my principle palette that I use across the various different binders gums, acrylics and oils. To this I will add some extra colours, pyrrole reds and oranges, phthalo greens and blues and dioxazine violet. I am a fan of cooking programs, they often talk about ‘celebrating the hero of the dish.’ I like to use this concept, it helps me to focus on my goal for each piece. I often focus on one colour or type of colour at a time.
On paper I use inert water based materials, this is because the paper is unprimed. On canvas I like to use oil paint, because I can keep moving it about the surface more freely than acrylic paint. There is much less resistance and when thinned with solvents it has a very low viscosity when compared to acrylic thinned. Oil paints are extremely good glazing materials because you can work them effectively in thin layers for long periods of time. Generally I work in a layered way where I switch between opaque and transparent passages of paint, building up glazes.
Lisa: What advice would you give to someone considering a career as a landscape painter?
Jonathan: Generally speaking learn to trust your instinct with composition and colour. Practice often, as if you were a musician, and learn your ingredients like a chef. Also, keep lots of your work to see your progress.
Be prepared to group your work into small collections and also be prepared to be able to expand your collections for solo shows.
Develop good relationships with galleries. Some people may tell you that a gallery will take too much commission. Don’t listen, a good gallery will earn their commission by selling your paintings regularly to people that are interested, and it’s a great feeling.
Always look and learn from others work. Everyone borrows from someone at some point. Try not to copy another’s work for your final pieces, at the end of the day, people will be interested in what you have to say in your own paintings. I look up to the works of other contemporary artists making landscapes today. Kurt Jackson and Peter Brown are two fantastic plein air painters that are so consistent in creating beautiful work. Also I will spend a life time enjoying the paintings of the late John Hoyland.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Jonathan: In the flesh:
The Stour gallery, Shipston-on-Stour, P: 01608 664411, E: email@example.com.
They stock a large amount of my paintings.
Jonathanpitts.com I have a mail order service for purchasing select smaller works that can be shipped worldwide. These works will be unavailable anywhere else. I also have a blog which I update regularly. I document my exhibitions, sketchbooks and my process.
artgallery.co.uk A variety of my paintings and drawings.
I am a regular user of social media I upload sketches as they are made and photos when I’m out painting. You can find me here:
Facebook: Jonathan Pitts Landscapes
Google+: Jonathan Pitts
You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for enquires. I am always interested in exhibiting in new galleries, and happy to arrange viewings.