John D Petty’s intuitive and spontaneous landscapes present what it feels like to be within the East Yorkshire and Humber area. By combining graphite, strong mark-making, acrylic, oil bar and unusual elements, Petty’s textured and enthralling landscapes draw you into an exact moment of nature — whether it’s the first blooming of the rapeseed or a summer breeze in a field of oats or the history of a building within nature. He currently has two shows coming up and has kindly talked to us to discuss what inspires him to devote such energy to the outdoors and what his detailed processes are.
Tegen: Your work focuses on your local area, East Yorkshire and the River Humber, which you returned to later in life and now work exclusively from. What about this landscape both personally and artistically fascinates you and is that what drew you to working mainly in landscape drawing and painting?
John: I work with the landscape as subject matter because I like to be outside and in the landscape. To some degree it’s an escape into peace and quiet and open spaces away from concrete and brick. This might be why my landscapes do not feature buildings although I have used buildings as subjects in their own right in the Holderness Church drawings and in the Bunkers and Pillbox drawings. Until I came back after taking early retirement I hadn’t fully realised just how much I missed the East Riding and, especially, the River Humber. It’s low-lying land and is criss-crossed with drainage channels—even through the city. ‘Ings’ is a common name in the Holderness area (Ings Road, Sutton Ings etc.) and it comes from a Norse word meaning water meadow or marsh. It’s these drains and ditches that keep the Holderness area in a condition that can be farmed. In the middle ages, when farming the land was everything, Holderness was one of the most prosperous areas of the north of England. Other landscape artists are attracted to the hills or to the moorland; I feel a particular connection to the flatlands simply because it’s here that I grew up. It’s important that I feel that connection; I don’t think I could be so committed to drawing and painting a landscape that I didn’t feel a strong connection to. The names of many of the farms and roads reflect the origins of the land; Marsh Lane, Thorn Marsh Farm and so on.
Tegen: The compositions often have a single point perspective which gives a depth and intensity to the landscapes, is this intentional and how do you choose or design your compositions, are there several development sketches you work on before starting a final piece?
John: There are some big fields here and, from a low viewpoint in particular, the view can be an almost uniform-colour crop extending to a knife-edge horizon. What to do with such a view? More recently I’ve been working on moving away from a single point perspective view towards what I refer to as expressive abstraction—I’m not looking towards complete abstraction but a flattening of the foreground and/or random gestural marks are mannerisms I have used to deal with the uniformity of a cultivated landscape. Other than the sketchbook work done out in the landscape, I don’t do any preparatory working. I select a sketch to work from—it might have been done yesterday or two years ago—and I use cropping Ls (L-shaped pieces of card) to find an interesting area.
Initial work might be no more than a general indication of a horizon and the deeper shadow areas. From there the work—especially the paintings—develops in its own way and can sometimes change completely until there is little obvious connection to the original sketchbook drawing. On one or two occasions I have started working with a sketch done in a particular location, come back to the painting some days or even weeks later and decided that it reminds me more of a different location, and that takes over from there on. This happened with the Outstray Road painting—the one with the single telephone pole. The original sketchbook drawing was looking in the opposite direction where the poles run across some very big fields. For some weeks I worked on the painting, painting over some poles and moving others; I just couldn’t ‘find’ it at all. Then one day I thought “Would it work with just the one pole?” There’s a spot further up the road at a lay-by very close to a single pole and once I made the shift in my mind, everything seemed to fall into place. The odd thing is that I’ve sketched from that lay-by, looking in the same direction many times, always been dissatisfied and never used the sketches.
Tegen: Similarly, when discussing your work you’ve spoken about depicting the feeling of being in a landscape rather than just what it representationally is. Your marks and sweeping strokes really give a strong emotive force to what often people would think of as a calm, plain or tranquil space. How do you produce this, is it intentional and do you find that this comes out naturally while your working?
John: There are places I visit frequently where the land has been farmed for centuries and I sometimes get a very strong feeling of that history—my own great grandmother was a servant girl in one of the big farmhouses in the area. And the Humber estuary is wide and if I can ignore the petro-chemical works on the river bank it’s not hard to see it much as the Norse settlers saw it. I’m not pretending that I’m trying to somehow depict this but the knowledge of that history is one aspect of my connection with that landscape. I was walking back across a field after being up on the raised bank that stops the river flooding through and I met the farmer. We exchanged hellos and then he said “It’s a different world up there isn’t it?” And he’s right; it is.
When out sketching I try not to have predetermined objectives as I feel that this is a sure way for the sketches to become stiff and too contrived. If I come away with something I think I can use, that’s good, if I don’t, then that’s ok too because it is about being in the landscape and if nothing else it’s good to feel the sun on my back and, if I’m lucky, hear the sound of the cuckoo.
I like to work quickly but this doesn’t mean that a painting is completed in one session; I often put a work aside for days, weeks or even for months before I decide that it’s finished. How do I make that decision? I’m not sure but it has something to do with looking at it and thinking “yes…I know that place”. I’ve come to think of my practice as being one of repeatedly making and disrupting the work. The “…sweeping strokes…” you refer to may be a result of the disruption which might be done with random marks made with oil pastels or a brush loaded with thick paint. The disruption is a way that I adopt to stop the work becoming stiff and to move it on whenever I think it might be nearing that state.
I’m not a particular fan of ‘kit’—filberts, riggers and the like. I’ll use anything that will make a mark or can be used to apply paint. My stock brushes are cheap nylon or bristle brushes or decorators’ brushes. I don’t often use anything less than half-inch. I also use palette knives both to apply paint and to scrape over the dry surface, on the really big drawings I use a plastic print-roller to apply dilute gesso. “Sweeping strokes…”? Well, it’s a very horizontal landscape with few vertical accents and there are many places where you can turn through 360 degrees and not see any built structure at all.
Tegen: What’s your routine for painting plein air? Do you find you prefer to work on sketches rather than full pieces outdoors? How do you go about creating a series of sketches?
John: I have occasionally done larger drawings plein air but it’s not my usual practice and they have not been very successful—the drawing process can be quite aggressive and an easel is not a very stable platform. When outside I work in sketchbooks with soft pastels for convenience and because they suit my fondness for drawing and mark-making. I’ve also used acrylic markers as sketching tools but I find them to be much less spontaneous than the pastels. Monochrome work is done with graphite sticks. More recently I have started to explore the use of acrylic inks with the pastels.
There are locations that I visit frequently and one day I might move from one to another and on another day I might stay fixed at a specific spot (last summer I was at one such place and a Land Rover pulled up alongside. Sam, a farm worker, leaned out the window and said “Can you stay there all day ‘cause you’re keeping them crows off that barley and saving me a job.”).
I’m very aware that, for me, the more I think about what I’m doing the more stiff and awkward it will become and so I often just start mark-making and laying down broad areas of colour. It may take three or four sketches before I feel that I’m starting to get something that, at some point in the future, I’ll be able to use. I make brief notes in the sketchbook, usually the location, eg. ‘wheatfield, Marsh Farm’, the weather—‘sunny, cool breeze’—and the time of year—‘late May’. I find that this helps me to re-connect with that place and time if and when I choose to utilise that sketch at a later date.
Tegen: Your work seems to have extensive sketches and sketchbooks as a foundation – how do choose which sketch to work from? Is there a particular way you store your drawings to make them easy to work through?
John: There are perhaps two or three pieces that were done almost entirely from memory and with little or no reference to sketchbook work, but yes, my usual practice is to browse through my sketchbooks until something grabs me—it’s very hard to say what and why that may be. The sketchbooks are just there in a pile and the only organisation is that on the cover of each completed sketchbook I write the dates of the starting and finishing, ‘March 2016—Sept 2016’ for example and I might mark the pages I think I can use with a slip of paper. I sometimes, especially in the winter months, browse through old books and something that I have overlooked previously will jump out at me. Often this browsing is no more than a delaying tactic because I’m not certain where to go with whatever I might be working on at the time. I’m usually working on more than one of the larger works concurrently and I might feel the need to refresh my memory by studying the sketch again and often, unless it’s still open at the page, I can’t remember which book it’s in.
John: I can only repeat here, I think, that, for me, it’s important that I feel a connection with the landscape I’m attempting to depict. In East Yorkshire and especially the Holderness area, you’d have to look hard to find a landscape that is not agricultural and intensively farmed. I have very many reservations about industrial monoculture; it is, in many ways a barren landscape in that nothing can live in fifty acres of rape-seed but there are little enclaves, places where I can hear the skylark or the cuckoo as I sketch.
Agricultural land is in a state of constant change, from bare earth to grass-like shoots to mature crops and back to bare earth again. There is also the annual rotation of the crops and in winter months particularly I sometimes find myself thinking “It was rape-seed in this field last year; it’ll probably be wheat again next year, or barley maybe”. Industrial agriculture is contracted in advance and there was a lot of borage last year. This year, barley seems to be the ‘in’ crop.
In more pretentious moments perhaps, I have come to see the creation of the paintings and drawings as echoing the changes in the landscape itself, in that they always start with a sketch made in a specific location, and this location is likely to be one I have sketched a number of times and have visited on many, many more occasions. But once the work gets under way it tends to take on a presence of its own.
It’s a particular fascination that such small villages have churches of some considerable antiquity and substance. It’s a solid reflection of the prosperity of the land in the times when farming was everything and more than fifty percent of the male population was employed on the land. These old churches somehow embody this. A friend who acted as a sort of mentor during the development of the Holderness Church drawings, said “Personal stories are engrained in the stones, land, architecture of such spaces, they are dense with them and I feel a very strong connection to that because it’s meaningful stuff.” I felt it was right that parts of those drawings were obscured, as are the lives of the people who once invested so much—either through devotion or fear—in such places. The same is true, although for different reasons, of the bunkers and pillboxes. There’s heavy erosion on this part of the coast and there were many more of the pillboxes when I was a kid and we sometimes used to play ‘soldiers’ in them.
Tegen: The tone and light in your work creates a huge amount of atmosphere, do you choose particular days or weather to work from or is in more a case of building up that atmosphere from memory?
John: Ah, the weather. Being land reclaimed from the river, it’s very flat; the fields being very large in some places, there’s nothing to break the wind. In summer months a windy day is a nuisance in blowing the sketchbook pages and, one time, blowing pastels off the bridge parapet into the drain. In colder months it will, as a local said one day “…cut you off at the knees”. I do sometimes go out sketching in winter, but it’ll need to be a calm day; I’m more than a bit of a fair-weather artist in that respect. I have occasionally made sketches from inside the car but it’s unsatisfactory for me because I need to move around a little and I work better standing up.
In the winter months my visits are still frequent but tend to be limited to slow drive-abouts of familiar locations. Without wanting to labour the point, any atmospheric qualities come from memory and the familiarity with the place. As I said earlier, a work is finished when I walk into the studio, see it again and can reasonably think “yes, I know that place”.
Tegen: A sense of the time of year and season really comes across in your work, especially because of your colour choices and your intelligent use of them in broad strokes. Do you have a favourite season to work in or represent? How do you approach selecting your colours, particularly when you use oil bar or a drawing to lift or add a signature colour to the piece?
John: My subject matter is an intensively farmed, agricultural landscape and I feel an obligation almost that I should present it in all seasons. But apart from the weather aspects mentioned above, agricultural land in winter is really rather brown, wet, muddy and not very interesting. It’s good to see the first signs of new growth each year but as new shoots, many crops look much alike; they’re green and grass-like and it’s only as they develop that the colours change. Barley for example goes through a wonderful colour change as it matures. At the time of writing the rape-seed is starting to lose the bright yellow flowers and will soon be a dull grey-green, turning brown as the seeds mature. I don’t attempt to reproduce the colours absolutely accurately but it is important that they have the right feel.
I prefer to mix colours from a few basics and don’t use many ready-made colours. Other than the warm and cool primaries, I use Paynes grey instead of black and also because it can mix to produce some good dark greens, raw sienna and burnt umber because clean browns can be difficult to mix, Naples yellow because it’s good for agricultural crops and Hookers green because it was created specifically for botanical illustration and gives a range of greens that are much better than I can mix. I use quite a lot of acrylic medium and the acrylic paintings are built up from layer upon layer of thin colour; the medium helps in causing the colour to ‘pool’ more evenly and can be used to adjust a dry colour in quite subtle ways—by applying a thin yellow over a green for example. Another way that I sometimes disrupt a painting when I feel it might be getting stuck, is to apply thick areas of straight-from-the-pot colour with a palette knife and modify it with thin glazes when it’s dry.
The signature colour you refer to, in what I call the oil-bar drawings, came about almost by accident. I bought a few of the oil-bars as an experiment and just happened to use them first of all on one of the smaller graphite and gesso drawings. I liked the result both in the different texture the oil-bar has and in the reaction with the water-based acrylic gesso and decided to explore it further.
Tegen: Texture and dynamic movement seems essential and intrinsically valuable to your work. You discuss the fact you use sawdust, sharp tools, hard plastic rubbers and layering paper over abraded areas to achieve this. What attracted you to using texture? Do you have any advice on how to maintain the careful balance your work embodies that stops texture overruling the image?
John: Why texture? I don’t know that I can say exactly, other than that as I go about the landscape at different times of year I’m aware of the varying textures of the land and the crops. I’m not interested in trying to create the texture of a wheatfield for example by drawing or painting individual ears of wheat, the texture might be a way of representing this—it’s a texture although not the texture. It’s a painting after all; I see no reason to try to pretend otherwise, so I use what might be available to me.
Also, when I started to draw the landscape seriously about ten years ago, I was clear that the drawing skills I had at my disposal, skills that come from producing camera-ready artwork for graphics for print, were definitely not the direction I wanted to go in. Then I came across the drawings of David Tress and immediately thought “Yes. Now that’s drawing”. I don’t feel the need to go as far as he does, but I’ve borrowed one or two of his techniques as a way being more expressive. The hard plastic rubber is a way of extending the mark-making of the graphite—marks made very heavily with a 9B graphite stick and then rubbed back with the eraser are very different from marks made with a 2B graphite stick. The deeply scratched marks are sometimes structural—graphite will tend to collect in the scratches to produce marks that I couldn’t easily make otherwise—and sometimes they are no more than the disruption I spoke of.
I also use a razor blade to scrape the graphite back and sometimes this goes right back to the under-surface of the paper. When worked over again, the new, slightly fluffy surface takes the graphite in a very different way. Sometimes it doesn’t work the way I would like and the simple solution is to stick new paper over it. The collaging in David Tress’s drawings is very much a part of the drawing and the process; that’s his technique and I don’t want to imitate that, but when I saw what he was doing there was a “yes, why not?” moment.
The sawdust I have used more recently was just another “why not?” My studio space is over a workshop and there’s always sawdust about. I simply dumped a handful onto the wet paint and let it soak in. It’s very much like porridge at first but once it has had a couple of coats of acrylic paint or medium it’s as hard as rock.
As for “…careful balance…” that sounds more thoughtful than it is. I’m aware that I have what some would consider an extreme reaction to preciousness about the work. It’s only a drawing, no-one will die if it fails. This is what the disruption is all about. I sometimes come back to a drawing after a day or two and I’m not satisfied although I don’t know why. Rather than sit and ponder on why, I usually take up the razor blade or the scissors and make random scratches and gouges. It’s now not what it was and I can more easily move on.”
Tegen: The variety of materials in your work is fascinating especially the strong focus on drawing and graphic line as well as your combination of acrylic and oil bar. If you had to work in one medium what would it be and what would be the top three art products you’d have to have to keep working? Also, could you tell us a little bit about why acrylic appeals to you?
John: I’ve settled now, on Saunders Waterford for the drawings and on Jackson’s Eco Paper for the acrylic paintings. Eco Paper is a hand-made rag paper and available in a very heavy weight. It takes a lot of abuse, has a rough surface texture that I like and takes a lot of water without buckling. It does need a coat or two of gesso first however. It also has a very irregular deckle-edge and I prefer to keep this as I feel it contributes considerably to the work. The ‘graphic line’, usually done with oil pastels, is a vague remnant of the camera-ready artwork days I imagine, although it’s true, I do like line; I like line a lot. The oil bar in the paintings is usually on top of the acrylic to add areas of more intense colour and to flatten the picture-plane—it also has a different texture—but in the oil-bar drawings there are areas where the acrylic—water based—gesso is on top of the oil bar. An archivist may well take a sharp intake of breath at this.
If I had to work in one medium? That’s a Desert Island Discs question. I would probably shout and scream at the unfairness but settle on graphite, so my three products would have to be graphite sticks—the big hexagonal type that I can use in my fist and really grind into the paper—the hard plastic erasers and Saunders Waterford paper (rough).
Tegen: Your landscapes use distinct architectural details to add focus to you works alongside their usual play of light, colour and dynamic texture. For instance the solemn telephone pylons, or electricity poles, really bring out and add a distinctive element to the pieces they’re in. Has this always been something you’ve used in your work? How did you begin to include them and do you find them significant?
John: A little detail can go a long way. I still like to try to capture the nothingness of a big field of crop because I have such conflicting views about that kind of monoculture. And it’s a horizontal landscape in which there are very few vertical accents; the poles, a copse of trees, a hedgerow. These things do tend to stand out and the poles, in particular, can have a slightly forlorn quality sometimes. I’ve tended, I think, to utilise them more in the drawings than in the paintings because the drawings are more firmly fixed at specific locations whereas a wheatfield at Marsh Farm is much like a wheatfield at Outstray Farm. I was talking to a local resident recently and he asked me if he would recognise the locations. The paintings? Definitely not. The drawings? Well, maybe.
Tegen: Do you have any pieces you’re working on currently that you’re particularly interested in and how do you see your practice and subject matter developing? Also, where in the flesh and online can we see more of your work?
John: I’ve always got three or four things on the go. Currently there are two graphite drawings I’ve put aside for a while (my grandmother used to talk of leaving tea ‘to mash’ and I like to think of these as being left to mash for a while). There are a couple of paintings in which I’m looking at the ditches that divide the fields—I’ve tended to ignore them up to now. In April I went on a workshop called Experimenting with Pastels and I’m playing around with some of the ideas it pitched up for me.
I’m lucky to have work at two galleries at the moment. Drawing and Painting the Agricultural Landscape is at Morten Gallery, a lovely little gallery in Bridlington Old Town (until mid-June) and there are some drawings at Eleven in Hull (until early July).
My website is at http://farm8.clik.com/johnhumber
The image at the top is: Hay Meadow at Auster Grange Farm, John D. Petty, Graphite, gesso and oil bar on paper, 22×15 inches.