Artist in Focus: Jonathan Pitts
Jonathan is a watercolour artist who battles all kinds of weather to produce work which often gets finished by rain or wind while he paints outside. He has been working and exhibiting in UK for several years, winning awards and perfecting his take on landscape. His work is partly abstract and partly deeply influenced by the site he has chosen. Working in situ gives him the right kind of push to really focus on the view and how it makes him feel.
Hi Jonathan, can I start off with the obvious, what draws you to paint outside?
I grew up on the edge of the Cotswolds, and lived next to the river Avon. As a child, I would roam the riverside, I started to paint here from observation when I was at school. I always find inspiration and a sense of calm by the riverside.
I have always had a fascination with landscape painting, most of the images I have ever made have been about the landscapes where I have been living at the time. Although I paint mostly on location I have a strong visual memory that allows me to paint from memory. This helps me explore new ideas away from the landscape itself, this can help give a new perspective.
You say you have been painting since school, how has your art changed overtime?
I have always maintained the vision to make landscapes that engage the viewer, but my approach has developed over time. I have pursued all aspects of how to use paint from pouring to spraying it. I have explored many different ways of conveying how a landscape makes me feel through different approaches to pictorial language. Gradually I have developed my style which relies heavily on my instinctive response to a place.
In what ways is the Thames significant to you? Is it your relationship to the place, or is it the river’s history?
Firstly it is the natural beauty of the river bank. The Thames can be very wide in places, and when there is a good vantage point it is great place to explore the reflections. The Thames is an easily accessible river and rich with wildlife, it is always interesting.
History inspires me generally, Turner made many great watercolours along the banks of the Thames. I often paint in the fields at Runnymede where the Magna Carta was signed.
How much planning do you do before you start on your work?
Every time I make something I am consumed with the desire to push myself and make something better than before, I feel excited every time that I paint, whether it is a small ink or a large watercolour. Of course not all pieces are successful, but one piece leads to another. With this in mind, there are many months of discovery that has gone in to each new painting.
A lot of the marks that I make are put down quickly, I have found that the marks that are applied quickly feel inspired rather than contrived. I rehearse and warm up in my sketchbook before I commit to a final piece I tend to work very quickly in my sketchbook, only spending a few seconds on each sketch. This lets me filter out distractions and helps me to get to the heart of the image that I am trying to make. I see the final paintings as a continuation of this process.
What do you feel the aim of your art is?
My way of painting is to respond to observed changes in the landscape as they happen. Paradoxically I am thinking in terms of design and exert control over these events by making a painting about them. My art is straightforward, it has a basic desire to provide a meditative space that pictorially references the unpredictable arena of a landscape.
Growing up in the countryside I have always been aware that the countryside is a manmade environment; from the patchwork fields to the pollarded trees. The paths that I use to access the river only exist because of the many feet that have trod them. There is an underlying brutality to the countryside; heather is periodically burnt to keep the saplings from taking hold and becoming trees. Trees are cut and fields ploughed. I have always approached the making of paintings in this way, I scrape colour off the paper, I score into it with knives and sand back layers. The paintings have a history in the layering just as the fields do. Yes, the image is calm but there is an underlying brutality if you look closely.
When did you start to make art?
When I was 2 or 3 my grandad asked me to draw a bird for him, I can remember drawing a sparrow that I’d seen in his garden. My grandad was shocked that I drew a life like image, with feathers and pointed feet, he then went to tell my dad that I was an artist. This memory has always given me the courage to say that I am an artist. At school I started to discover and make art, school allowed me to see art as a profession that I could pursue.
What do you find the most challenging about being an artist? And making art?
It can be difficult to feel satisfied with everything that you make, learning to manage my expectations is important. The hardest skill that I have learnt is to pace myself when I paint. When painting outdoors, there is a natural desire to respond to the changing weather through the day. Sometimes this requires me to respond quickly and sometimes to take my time. I naturally respond to what I see in the landscape quite quickly, however successful paintings have to balance these quick inspired marks with areas that require more consideration. Learning when to slow down and contemplate is a skill that I have developed.
Does it matter to you when your viewers read into your art things that you have not intended?
I welcome an unexpected and unique response to my work. Often this has helped to inform my understanding of the characteristics of my painting style. My intention is to invite the viewer to have an emotional response to the countryside in my paintings, everyone will have a slightly different reaction. The Sunday Times art critic Frank Whitford observed about my work that:
‘Such ambiguity stimulates our imagination, so we fill the gaps left by the artist, thus strengthening the power of the image.’ Frank Whitford, Sunday Times Culture Magazine, on 28th August 2011.
What artist would you like to be compared to?
I am inspired by a wide range of artists, from the impressionist era through to the abstract expressionists and to current abstract works by Ian Davenport or the late John Hoyland. I see that my art naturally explores the link between landscape and emotion, this I also see in Impressionist works. Although the pictorial language is completely different, I see the same emotive response to the landscape that Van Gogh pursued, in Pollock’s poured paintings. I feel compelled to paint the British landscape, because of my emotional connection to it. In the same way that Van Gogh sort enlightenment in his richly coloured landscapes.
What is your proudest moment as an artist to date?
Winning the 2nd prize at the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition and seeing my work reviewed by the Sunday Times art critic Frank Whitford for the Times Culture magazine.
Jonathan’s atmospheric vibrant landscapes are an insight into the way he translates nature into colour. Whether sunny or rainy, his work is luminous with the paint often suggesting shapes rather than defining them. The ‘paintings were made in the fields around Marlow, the views can be seen by walking the Thames path between Marlow and Henley’, their location giving their ethereal quality a solid background.