In Conversation with Artist Ashley Hanson
Olver Lange - Posted on 04 Jan 2013
It was after seeing a Peter Lanyon exhibition in Manchester in 1978 that I decided to be a painter,’ says Ashley Hanson. ‘Like Lanyon I am particularly drawn to the unique shapes and imagery of coastal towns, with their mix of natural and man-made elements. After several holidays in Porthleven it was inevitable that I would settle in Cornwall to be close to the landscape that inspires my painting.’
Lights of the West 2, oil on canvas, (60x80cm)
Ashley and his family moved to Cornwall in 2005. Before that he had lived in London for 20 years, after graduating with a BA (Hons) Fine Art First Class from Canterbury College of Art. In 1997 he won a Slade School of Art Boise Travel Scholarship to North America, where he made a series of train journeys around the states before painting for two months in a barn in upstate New York, at the home of the sculptor Jon Isherwood.
He has continued making work about his experiences in the US, with series such as ‘Americascapes’ and ‘The Englands’, which enabled him to interlink paintings inspired by the coastal landscapes of Cornwall and New England.
Currently he is working on paintings inspired by the different characters and locations in a book by the American writer Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, a dark and fascinating reinterpretation of detective fiction.
Ashley’s work is regularly shown in solo and mixed shows, including in 2012 at the Discerning Eye Exhibition, London; Canvas & Cream Competition, London (joint prize winner) and the National Open Competition, Chichester.
Charlestown 3, oil on canvas, (60x50cm)
He is also an experienced teacher, having run summer school courses, workshops and painting holidays. Here, he acknowledges the support of his wife and business partner, Denise, who handles all the aspects such as marketing, organising the workshops and painting holidays, and negotiating with galleries.
‘On the painting holidays I encourage students to make an emotional response to the landscape,’ Ashley explains. ‘I believe that painting has gone beyond representation now. What is important is how you respond to the subject matter. You mustn’t be passive.
With the students I follow the same philosophy and principles that I use in my own work. We start with location drawings and then work in the studio, away from the subject, which releases the imagination.
‘I focus on colour and go back to basics with colour mixing and principles. I encourage students to do something they have never done before – take a few risks and challenge themselves. The emphasis is on colour relationships and finding a personal colour palette that excites.’
Porthleven 6, oil on canvas, (50x40cm)
Defining shapesColour is the most powerful quality in Ashley’s paintings; for him, colour comes first. Various events in his career have inspired, influenced and invigorated his interest in colour: his early admiration for the work of Peter Lanyon, especially Porthleven 1951; a lecture from Terry Frost whilst at Canterbury College of Art; the influence of Thomas Watt, the Principal at Canterbury; and his visit to the 1992 Matisse exhibition in New York and later his time spent at the Triangle Artists Workshop hosted by Sir Anthony Caro. Ashley describes himself as ‘the product of an interesting conflict between abstraction and figuration during the 1980s’.
He started as a photo-realist, working from blown-up photographs and a limited colour palette. ‘But after a while I realised that it wasn’t very exciting or rewarding,’ he explains, ‘because I always knew how the painting would be resolved. I once spent a whole year on one painting, and although it did win second prize in the Hunting Art Prizes, I realised that there were so many ideas in that painting that were lost forever. I thought that perhaps a better way of working would be to work on several canvases at once.
‘Now, essentially my paintings are landscapes: they are about places. I am also interested in maps and I like that combination of imagery and the flat, map-like space, with the tensions and relationships that it produces. Each idea begins with a journey, a walk, getting to know a place, and making drawings and taking photographs. Often, it is the shape of a place that is the starting point. Every place has a unique set of shapes that define it. I use those shapes to give structure to the painting and create a dynamic composition.
Porthleven 2, oil on canvas, (50x40cm)
Colour and content‘I don’t feel obliged to match or imitate colours. Working in the studio, away from the subject, I am free to invent. I use colours that I like and that work: all the time I am considering colour relationships.
‘But the paintings are not just about shape and colour, they are not abstracts. They have a context. They are about my life and the things that interest me. I have no knowledge when I start a painting about how it should look or be resolved.
There will be many changes and layers, many problems to solve. Taking on the unknown and finding ways to successfully complete that journey is always very exciting!’
Ashley works in oils on canvas, or occasionally Formica. In addition to the wonderfully rich colour quality of oils, for him the other advantages are the slow drying time, allowing time to look and think, and the possible range of techniques, from a thin stain of colour to a heavy impasto treatment. This aspect, the actual paint handling, is very important in his work. He makes use of different techniques to express different elements in the landscape.
His colour palette varies, although it is usually quite limited. He keeps to just two or three colours in the colour mixes, always aiming for relatively pure colour.
Often he works with colour mixed in yoghurt pots and poured on to the canvas, building up effects with lots of layers, perhaps as many as 100. As well as brushes, he uses screen-printing knives, big sticks, a steel rule and other implements to apply the paint and make different marks.
Padstow 3, oil on canvas, (50x50cm)
‘I start with some random marks and colours, using any colours left over from the previous painting,’ Ashley explains. ‘I try to work these into a composition, but nothing is fixed at this stage – I am just enjoying handling paint and colours.
Working without fear
Then, usually with the canvas on the floor, I’ll consider what I have and look for a connection with the idea I have in mind. It could be a patch of colour, or a particular line or mark, and so on. That will provide the ‘hook’: I will build my painting around that.
‘An accidental mark or colour can be just as important as a deliberate one. With any mark you have to decide whether to keep it or destroy it, whether it works for the painting or not. And although I know the “rules” of oil painting (essentially working fat-over-lean) I often break the rules. For instance, I often work wet-over-wet or apply a thin layer of paint over a thick one, perhaps then smearing it with the side of my hand to cover up the wet surface beneath.
‘I like to see what happens and this may involve all sorts of intuitive and experimental techniques. For instance I let paint run, I might swing the canvas from side to side to create different effects, and I sometimes apply thin glazes over thick paint, wet or dry. Similarly, with the paintbrush held almost horizontal, I might skim the surface of the wet paint and so add a pure line on top. In fact, because I always use relatively pure colours, it is not a disaster if two layers merge together – it will still result in a strong colour.
‘My paintings are generated by ideas and experience, but “found” in the process, by working out problems. A finished, successful painting is one in which everything works and belongs. But to get to this stage I like to work with no fear and to push back the boundaries!’
Padstow 4, oil on canvas, (45x60cm)