John Horton and Christina Hopkinson are two watercolour painters who are exhibiting together for the first time at The Granary Art Gallery, which is set in the grounds of Weston Park. Both artists are keen bird admirers, and ‘Our Feathered Friends’ will be a show celebrating the beautiful birds that they have been fortunate enough to have encountered on their travels near and far. Both artists chat about what inspired them to start painting, why they paint birds and their thoughts that lie behind the creative process.
Bird Artists Christina Hopkinson and John Horton in Conversation
Christina: John, I remember meeting you at Frodsham at the AAA, (Assoc. Animal Artists) Spring exhibition and event weekend in, I think, 2016.
John: That’s right, we were standing in front of your award-winning picture at the time and started chatting
Christina: The Nandays Parakeets
John: Yes it was a beautiful piece of work and I remember being very impressed with it.
Christina: Thank you
John: We started chatting and it went from there. I remember talking about the AAA and TWASI – The Wildlife Art Society International, and that sparked your interest and you went on to join that. In fact I think you went on to have the first sale at the TWASI Hanbury Hall exhibition.
Christina: That was the Nuthatch In The Ivy painting. It seems like it was only yesterday that we met, but I can’t believe it was two or three years ago, or thereabouts.
John: So how did you get into art? Did you start at school?
Christina: Well I have a memory going back to nursery school, of making a picture using poster paint, and folding the paper in half to give a symmetrical pattern, and I think that was my earliest memory of using colour to create something exciting from paint and paper. I was very young and it’s going back an awful long time. After that I had a brother who was very good indeed at art, and he used to paint most evenings in his bedroom. I was a lot younger than him, and I remember that I would knock on his door and ask if I could sit with him. We used to listen to music whilst he was painting with oil paint, and so he inspired me to look at art more seriously. I was about twelve by the time that I acquired some oil paints of my own, and I had a book about an art dealer called Duveen, which contained a lot of photographs of paintings by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough. I used to try to copy those. I had no idea then that you needed special paper or canvas etc. to paint on with oil paint, and I used ordinary cartridge paper, but amazingly I still have those paintings somewhere, and the paper survived. So I have to credit my brother Terry.
John: To give you the inspiration.
Christina: Absolutely.. to have given me that excitement about painting and drawing and I just wanted to acknowledge the part he played in giving me that love of painting and art.
John: I have a similar memory in that my uncle was a lovely watercolourist. He was my father’s youngest brother…quite a bit younger, and he died only about four years ago, and I inherited all of his art books and a lot of brushes. In fact, I was relating the story to my daughter recently, about how I was with my grandmother, (my uncle was living with her at the time), and I had made a painting of a barn owl. I must have been eleven or twelve at the time. My uncle came back from work and he painted his version of it and it was lovely to see him work. He was a lovely watercolourist and latterly we had joint watercolour exhibitions together. I got so many tips from him and my father had a pal who was in the forces during the war and he was a lovely watercolourist who gave me a lot of encouragement. I’ve always had a passion for birds though, right from the word go and I would buy the RSPB Christmas cards designed by Tunnicliffe, and so everybody had bird Christmas cards. Tunnicliffe is a great hero of mine as is Peter Scott.
Christina: Yes Peter Scott! The reason I got into birds is because they were right outside the door, and I couldn’t go off trekking to Tanzania or anywhere like that to look at other things, so I had to think of what was around me that I could actually observe and reference from life, and it was the garden birds, and that’s what started me really watching them, looking at their little traits and the family interaction and so on. So I thought yes, they are right there, because I didn’t want to be someone who just copied photographs.
John: That’s right. I think that’s where we are very similar in that respect, that we both love to draw from what we are actually seeing in front of us. That’s the nice thing about birds in that there is a little bit of natural history theatre going on in front of you all the time. The interaction between the different breeds is fascinating.
Christina: I quite agree. I just think they can be so amusing, but it’s a real case of survival out there for them isn’t it?
Christina: If you think of the cold for a start. These little birds have to survive in this cold weather, whereas you and I wouldn’t cope with it very well.
John: In our comfortable houses…that’s right. I’m an obsessive bird feeder and it’s a good feeling that you are giving them that fuel to get through the night.
Christina: We had a lovely tame robin a couple of years ago, and he would sit on your hand to take the food..that was a real thrill. The robins we have now are a little more wary, but the one two years ago was a friendly little thing…not to other robins though.
John: Yes they are very aggressive, and what people don’t realise is that they migrate, and all these blackbirds that we are getting in the garden right now have probably come from Scandinavia and Northern Europe, and the ones that have been with us through the winter have all moved south.
Christina: We’ve had some, and it’s been really useful, because they’ve got some white feathers. One has a white tail feather and the other has some white feathers on its back, and they act like a marker and you can tell which birds you are seeing and it’s interesting to see where they go in the garden and what they get up to.
Christina: Regarding your art, who inspires you?
John: I think the great thing about belonging to societies is that you see so much work by very talented artists around you and I think you almost subliminally gain inspiration. Initially though I was always inspired by Tunnicliffe…he’s my great hero, particularly his sketching. I love his sketching and I have all of his sketchbook works. I draw a lot of my inspiration from that, but there’s also Peter Scott. Nowadays there are artists like David Miller who is mostly known for his fish paintings, but I particularly like his bird pictures and I realise that I am inspired by David’s work.
Christina: I think I follow him of Facebook actually! He’s brilliant, I love his work.
John: I go fishing and he designed the images on the fishing license as well as on some stamps.
Christina: I love his underwater images. I also really like the work of Robert Bateman and have quite a few of his books. I was looking on Amazon to see if there were any books on bird artists in general, and in the reviews section of one book, someone said that the best bird artist in their opinion was a man called William T Cooper, so of course I did a Google search and found that he was an Australian artist.
John: Is he the one that David Attenborough mentioned in the Birds of Paradise book?
Christina: Yes. I think he lived in Queensland, and sadly died a few years ago. I found out more about his work and fell in love with it. I discovered that a lady called Sarah Scragg who is a film maker, visited him and made a DVD called Birdman. It’s about him and his working process and shows him going into his garden which backs onto rainforest, where he gathers twigs and branches and so on, to use as reference material for his paintings. It’s really interesting and I’d recommend it. His books now are really expensive to buy. The other artist I follow is John Muir Laws who has written a book called Laws Guide To Drawing Birds, and that was very helpful to me when I first started drawing birds.
John: I love the work of Lars Jonssen too. His work is absolutely superb. I have a couple of his books.
Christina: He’s painted the arctic birds hasn’t he.
John: That’s right.. the freedom of his style is what I love…it’s so loose. It’s what I like about your style, the looseness.
Christina: That’s what I love about watercolour in that it gives you the freedom to do that.
John: It’s what I say to my students, don’t scrub at the work, just let it flow, let the medium work for you and let the water take the colour.
Christina: I think that’s what I found so difficult in the beginning having worked in oils before. Letting go of the desire to control everything. It’s taken me until now to have that confidence to put the paint in the water and leave it alone to let it do its thing.
John: I’m telling my students all the time, more than anything else, to leave it and not touch it whatever you do. Resist the temptation to go back in with a brush and fiddle with it.
Christina: I still fight with that now…I still fight with it. I think oh I’ll just do a little bit more and the more I do, the better it’ll be. And it’s not! The more you do, the worse it gets. I’m with you there completely. What about the need to surround yourself with positivity? I remember someone who said to me that her husband said she couldn’t paint and that what she did wasn’t very good, so I said stop showing him because, especially in the beginning, you need encouragement and creative comments. I find that I get positivity from being a member of the organisations I’m a member of.
John: Also from exhibiting work, you often get good positive feedback. The great part is when you connect with someone viewing your work, you create a link with them straight away, and that’s why we do it. It’s presenting our feelings and our passion for the birds and the medium and the painting. It’s very heartwarming I always find and it just inspires you to do more.
Christina: You need any critique of your work to be positive.
John: That’s right, with the TWASI weekend we have critiques and we have top flight professional artists who offer a critique which then develops into a discussion, and I find with the many years I’ve listened to those, I’ve found it incredibly helpful. Not only the constructive criticism of your work, but also that of other artists work, and what comes out of the discussion as well.
Christina: When painting, what do you try to achieve in terms of for example, colour and light?
John: A painting succeeds if it has light in it. I think that’s the most important element then the shadows and contrast with the light all come together to make a painting live. If you haven’t got that, then the picture’s going to fail.
Christina: I’d agree entirely with you. That’s what I like to achieve, and I also strive to use drama with the use of lighting. I admire the work of Caravaggio and his use of contra jour. I received a Highly Commended for a painting called, ‘There Is Always One’ which I had in the AAA’s Spring exhibition in 2018, and in that I endeavoured to introduce a narrative and use a dramatic effect with a strong light and dark contrast, and that seemed to have worked.
John: I was challenged to paint an abstract at TWASI. I’d been on an avocet cruise on the Exe estuary and a huge flock of avocets, probably three or four hundred strong, took off and there was this dramatic black and white, so I used that as the basis for my abstract. It was just loosely painted black and white shapes. Nothing was connected, it was just black and white shapes against a strip of sky beach sky and sea, but it had a lot of drama and the black and white of the birds really impressed me, so it was very interesting to use it as an abstract.
Christina: Yes, it takes you out of your comfort zone as well that kind of a challenge.
John: It was a very challenging piece to do and also it developed movement. It was very well received and in fact it was accepted into the David Shepherd Wildlife Art exhibition and it went into the portfolio there so it was very gratifying.
Christina: You only get that spontaneity by working from life don’t you?
John: That’s right, and also taking a flat piece of paper and giving it depth and creating a three dimensional feel to it.
Christina: Is there anything you feel you want to improve on in your work?
John: I think you’re always striving. People ask ‘what’s your favourite painting?’, and I would say it’s always the next one you’re going to do. It’s endless, are you ever satisfied with what you do? I would say probably not. It’s an infinite quest I think.
Christina: I think if you ever feel you’ve approached that state, then it’s time to give up isn’t it? If you think what you’ve just done is perfect, then anything you do later is never going to live up to that. It’s why I’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride with producing work for this exhibition, it’s because I keep thinking that I’ll do another one, then I’ll do another one, because the next one is going to be better, and it’s never ending, but it also drives you on. I would really like to get to grips with birds in the landscape, especially with the Florida birds that I paint.
John: People associate me with birds in the landscape, and it’s always the greatest compliment when people say that they feel they can walk into the picture. I feel I’ve achieved something.
About the artists:
Christina Hopkinson is a member of The Association of Animal Artists, The Wildlife Art Society International and is an Associate member of The Guild Society of Artists, (part of the Fine Art Trade Guild). You can view more of Christina’s work on her website here.
John Horton is an honorary fellow and long-standing committee member of The Wildlife Art Society International. John also runs workshops from his studio in Worcestershire and you can find details of his classes on his website here.
About the exhibition:
‘Our Feathered Friends’ – an exhibition of watercolour paintings by Christina Hopkinson and John Horton.
Where: The Granary Art Gallery, Weston Park, TF11 8LE
When: 2nd March to 31st March 2019
The gallery is open daily from 11am – 4pm and admission is free. There is a cafe and a restaurant on site, and facilities for the disabled.
Please visit www.weston-park.com for further details and more information.
To find out about other exhibitions that are on currently please visit our artist calendar or to read more on exhibitions and events visit our What’s On page.
The top image is Christina Hopkinson, The Last Lemon 2 , watercolour, (21”x29”)