Greg Ramsden’s landscape paintings combine the monumentality of the natural world with a nostalgia you might associate with faded postcards and distant memories. By working with subtle tonal shifts alone and a near-complete absence of colour, Greg achieves scintillating light effects as well as varied and rich brush marks. In this interview Greg reveals his dedication to sensitivity to tonal value, how incorporating silver leaf has affected his work, and how he is using social media to develop his practice during Covid-19 lockdown.
Lisa: Your paintings are wonderfully subtle and nuanced, with a lot of close tones…and although they might be described at monochromatic, the closer you look the more colours you see. Are there any tips you can offer for achieving the right values in your painting, in addition to harmonious colour?
Greg: Well first of all thank you for asking me to take part in this interview, I’m very happy to answer your questions and hopefully give the little insight into my painting technique.
It’s great to hear words like subtle when someone describes my painting. It’s all about small value changes and how I place them. I achieve this by simplifying the amount of value levels in my paintings. I have reduced this to 7 values, ranging from just off black to not quite pure white. They are numbered for identifying as I premix them into empty tubes. This allows me to get the same value day after day when returning to paintings. I don’t use pure white or pure black.
By making the painting surface a middle value I paint first the shadows then the lighter values leaving the highlights and darkest values for the last part of the painting. I think the most important part is putting the correct numbered values inside each other. Jumping from one value to another can complicate the painting. Once I have blocked in the shadows and highlights the mid tones take care of themselves – being created by the negative shapes formed by the positive shadow and lighter areas.
Lisa: Do you work with a set palette of colours? If so what does it consist of – if not, do you have a few colours that you return to? Why those colours?
Greg: I mix my own paints and have talked a little about my palette already. I use a Titanium White, Ivory Black and Burnt Umber to mix 7 values into paint tubes. The addition of Burnt Umber makes the values neutral. By this I mean not cold nor warm. It’s a reduced palette that allows me to focus on the context of the painting.
Lisa: Do you always work with acrylic paints? If so what is it you like about acrylics in particular?
Greg: I used to work a lot in acrylic, it was easy to fix value mistakes and it dried well in the winter time but far too quickly for me in the summer. Mostly I found the value shift from wet to dry paint frustrating, I’d put down a value and it would dry a different value. Having to remember what’s dry and what’s not in the painting just made achieving the subtle nuance of light so much harder. So I returned to oil painting. I love the flexibility of oil and the range of mediums available. I always painted in oil from a young age and the acrylic mediums didn’t suit my way of exploring paint.
Lisa: Can you describe the process of painting your work – how do you resolve composition, do you paint en plein air, is there an underpainting and are there many layers of paint involved or do you paint alla prima?
Greg: The process begins with walking in all weather conditions searching for light conditions that inspire me, I create small studies in oil in-situ or draw and capture various types of photos, videos and slow-mo. These help me gain an understanding of the moment I’m inspired by. These small paintings become medium sized works in the studio about 12 x 16 in. and if there is something in the process of painting them that is successful or intriguing or even allusive then the work can take on a grander scale 6ft x 4ft in order to examine that nuance deeper. As for the mechanics of the process I premix my values into empty tubes, this allows me to identify quickly the right tube and value. Then I get consistency in value day after day when returning to paintings. I prepare the painting surface a mid value, this allows me to paint the shadow first in a dark value then the light and finally the highlights. The shapes then become abstracted forms made up of negative spaces and by doing this the mid tone areas are completed already. I hope that makes sense explaining visual ideas in words is always a problem for me being dyslexic, which by the way is a wonderful thing to be once schooling is over!
Lisa: What is it about water that is so inspiring?
Greg: Water is a mesmerising thing, I love to be by it, there is a calmness reached by spending time contemplating water, rivers, estuaries and seas or right at the edge of the ocean with the infinite horizon line. It’s also in the macro that I’m fascinated with water, firstly it’s the glitter path of the sun or moon reflecting off the surface. The mathematics of how it reflects in such patterns amazes me. I read an amazing book called ‘how to read water’ by Tristan Gooley and the amount of information on the different ways water can reveal things about the world around us is amazing. My most favourite is how light and water can silhouette people, distort and erase edges with the reflecting light.
Lisa: Is colour temperature something you think about when painting your work? If so, what are your usual thought processes concerning this?
Greg: I don’t really think of colour in my work. It’s not a focus for me, in-fact I find colour and hue a distraction for what it is I am trying to investigate in my paintings. I want the work to focus the viewer on something more than a representation of a popular holiday location. The monochrome paintings hopefully work on the eye in a different way, asking questions of the person in front of them. I want them to work like a remembered moment something way back in your mind that isn’t quite complete but the recall of it surprises you with a recollection of something deeper than that perceived, bringing up something from deep down.
Lisa: What is your painting surface of choice and why? Do you prepare your surfaces for painting yourself and if so, how?
Greg: I change the surface that I use depending on the mediums I’m using with the oil paint. If it is thin then I prefer a flat board with very little tooth but if I’m using little or no medium then a canvas board or stretched canvas is my choice. If it’s a canvas then I buy them either stretched or the Jackson’s range of Handmade Oil primed canvas or linen boards. If I’m making a panel myself then I’ll buy marine plywood or hardboard and prepare it with the Jackson’s thixotropic Oil Painting primer. A nice tip is after the first layer of primer is dried for about 72 hours to go over it with a razor blade held with the sharp edge nearly vertical to the surface and CAREFULLY pull it across the surface tilted towards you slightly so the blade isn’t cutting into the primer. It is such a nice way of flattening the surface down without scratching it like when using sandpaper.
Lisa: Great tip, I want to try that myself! At the time of writing we are 1 week into recommended social distancing as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic; how has it affected your practice and do you have any tips for any artists feeling overwhelmed by the crisis?
Greg: Well my wife and I run the Tonic Gallery which has been shut for the past week. The closing of the gallery has left me with no income so I’ve tried to keep a positive attitude and think about doing more online with social media and Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. I’ve started making videos about how I work to share on my websites. I’ve also been thinking about ways of introducing people to the whole process of my paintings from the start to finish. By asking people which drawing out of three options should I make into a painting next and coming up with fresh ideas to share with people whilst they’re in isolation ‘a painting a day is the isolation way’ something like that.
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Greg: Recently I’ve taken to walking on overcast days so there are less values around me and I can transpose the light conditions into a painting. I am painting onto silver leaf which is something I am working on at the moment. Preparing silver leaf is a very satisfying process, I use a flat board, put down the glue and then actually lay on the silver leaf. The mid-tones that I talked about earlier which were normally the ground for the painting are in this case the silver leaf. So instead of it being the mid-tone I use the high value of the silver reflecting to be the equivalent of light and adjust the values in order to get the painting to work both when the silver is reflecting and when it isn’t reflecting. Capturing direct light is a hard process to imagine and see but hopefully when you see the work you’ll understand!
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Greg: You used to be able to see my work at Tonic Gallery in Salcombe but since Covid-19 the gallery is currently shut so you can now view my work on the website www.tonicgallery.co.uk , the Tonic Gallery Instagram page or the Gallery Facebook Page. . My own website is www.gregramsden.co.uk . There is also my instagram at www.instagram.com/gregramsden_art – there you can sign up for a newsletter and I will post and email new paintings coming out most days during this isolation period.
Header image: Greg Ramsden’s studio