Here comes the sun
PUBLISHED: 15:13 03 July 2014
Richard Sowman’s work goes on show at Topsham’s Art Room this month – bringing with it his fascinating insight into the nature of light
Richard Sowman’s work is all about light. He trained in London and at Falmouth School of Art in the early 1970s, at a time when traditional skills were still taught and valued.
Traditionalism means the art of working in front of the subject, absorbing it and interpreting it. “They took observation very seriously”, he remembers of his tutors who included Euan Uglow, Francis Hewlett and Bob Organ.
“Those were my formative years – and there’s always this notion at the back of my mind about objectivity and respect for the subject.”
But after a stint working as a professional artist, Richard ended up pursuing his other passion – boats; particularly old vessels and their restoration. This work, which took him to Exeter Maritime Museum, brought him full circle when he headed off to live on a boat he had rescued and restored to live in Spain and Portugal for eight years.Here he found the light and warmer weather encouraged him to work plein air (out in the open), something that remains important to him, even though in the South West of England the weather can sometimes necessitate additional reference to sketches and photographs.
“With a photograph, you have one moment to look at, one 250th of a second, but if you are sitting in front of the subject you have got thousands of moments. You are constantly making decisions, some good, some bad, and can have happy accidents – that only happens with something you are interpreting over and over again.”
His work remains fixed on two areas of enquiry. The first is the sun and what he calls the ‘dramatic alchemy’ that occurs beneath it. “I’m intrigued by the way light from the sun hits things and transforms.“Illusion also interests me at a technical nuts-and-bolts level; how it might be possible to communicate a vision of light with some coloured powders ground up in linseed oil and plopped around with bristles stolen from pigs and squirrels.“At one level there’s a piece of cloth or wood with some smears and scrapes and blobs; at another, there’s maybe the memory of a dusty room, lit by a shaft of westering sun. I love the drama.”
Looking at his work, it’s no surprise that Sowman’s work has gone on show at the Royal Academy – and sold before the doors opened to the general public. “It’s a great experience,” he remembers. “There’s a great buzz about the show.”
He names Matisse as a major influence – the technical skill which allowed him to be really free and ‘cheeky’. His response to a critic who complained about one of his works that ‘the woman has two elbows’, to which Matisse replied, ‘that’s not a woman, it’s a painting’, describes where illusionism ends and true painting takes over.
But the sun in all its different guises remains evident in all Richard’s work. “I like the full glare of southern sun,” he admits. “But if the Inuit have dozens of words for snow, and here in England we have several words for rain, we should also have lots of words for different sunlight.”
Richard Sowman is on show at The Art Room, Topsham 22 June to 20 July.