For the past 25 years Keith Dunkley has painted in acrylics, his main type of subject matter being what he calls “domestic landscapes”. These are paintings of gardens, terraces and similarly confined and intimate spaces where, he says, “You might expect to come across people: places where they go to meet in a very private, perhaps secret way.” Invariably his paintings contain the suggestion of human activity rather than any actual figures. There is always evidence that something has happened or is about to happen, though it is left to the viewer’s imagination to decide exactly what this might be. Usually these are paintings of emotional contrast. While on the surface they are tranquil, inviting landscapes, there is an equally strong undercurrent of mystery and intrigue.
The attraction and impact of Keith Dunkley’s work result just as much from his concern with mood and atmosphere as from his immensely sensitive paint handling and skilful use of colour and light. An essential part of painting, he believes, is the need to interpret a mood and express feelings. Indeed, the inspiration for his paintings is usually a mood rather than a specific place. Various considerations influence this concern with mood and among these, he suggests, may be subconscious factors dating back to this childhood.
“Many people of my age group, born during the war, must have gone through all kinds of traumatic experiences in their infancy. It’s always been a puzzle to me, an enigma in a way, that there hasn’t been a study of the effects of the war on the arts in general, or on British art.
There must be traces in the back of so many of our minds that originate from that period. They don’t seem to be coming through in painting, or even music, in a form that we can readily identify. A lot of the elements that are in the undercurrent of my paintings (the lack of figures, the sense of security or insecurity) possibly bear a reference, however fleeting, to feelings that go back that far. I don’t know. This is something that intrigues me."
A Late Breakfast, acrylic on board, 30 x 30in
“My paintings are never, or very rarely, straight landscapes. I don’t go out and find a landscape and decide that’s what I will paint. They are always a mixture concocted in the studio from images I get outside and which I have recorded as photographs or drawings. Each painting is evolved in a way that bears no relationship to my own feelings, my own sentiment, built almost as a stage set to illustrate these feelings – to create something that relates to the vision I have. They are idealised in that sense, in the same way that the classic Renaissance paintings were put together to create an image of a place or a time. I work in that kind of tradition.”
On location Keith makes pen drawings annotated with information about the feeling, light and colour, and he backs these up with reference photographs. His subjects aren’t necessarily places of great renown or interest but they will include something that has attracted his attention and which he believes will prove useful for a future painting. His travels have taken him to France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Holland. He never sets out with any preconceived ideas and expectations as to what he will be sketching and photographing. “It is a matter of having my eyes open and noticing what might be useful,” he says. “New locations help to stimulate fresh ideas, but you have to be true to your feelings. The more I paint, the more I come back to discovering the same things. But it is a matter of using them in a slightly different way.”
Waterside, acrylic on board, 24 x 24in
Acrylic ideally suits the way that Keith likes to paint, which in the main is fast, concentrating on one painting at a time, and using an approach that involves repeatedly working over and developing the picture surface with thin layers of colour. Acrylic dries quickly, is transparent yet will build up opacity, and allows reworking. He chooses his colours from the Winsor & Newton Finity and Liquitex ranges and his normal palette is white, cadmium yellow light, chrome oxide green, Hooker’s green, black, burnt sienna, raw sienna, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium orange, cadmium red deep, cobalt and indanthrene blue. Black is used basically as a toner and to create really dark areas. The paint is diluted only with water: no gels or other mediums are used.
Keith finds that a sheet of thick glass works best as a palette, because this is non-porous and therefore allows the paint to stay liquid for longer than usual. Interestingly he always works on a square sheet of board, ranging from 12in (30cm) square to 48in (122cm) square. Among the reasons for this is the fact that he views his paintings not just as individual works but as belonging to a whole body of work which has chronicled his feelings through an extended period of time. The square format provides a link, a unity to this sequence of work. The larger paintings he describes as “more dynamic” in what they have to offer, while the small ones are “more intimate”.
Waterfront, acrylic on board, 14½ x 14½in
The particular mood or feeling that is the motive or point of generation for Keith’s pictures initiates a palette of harmonious, mid-tone colours that are applied in a quick, random way to cover the entire picture area and form a basis for development, or what he calls sculpting. “If there isn’t the feeling there in the first place then I’m lost,” he explains. “So I start with the feeling and allow that to express itself. It forms itself into its own storyline and the garden, the terrace, the hillside or whatever gradually evolves from this. If I’m feeling especially calm, the colour range may be quite muted, while at other times the colours will be very strong. Sometimes I go into the greens, or I may start with the oranges, the autumnal range. Those initial colours set the mood and create a starting point.”
At first the ‘sculpting’ takes the form of general areas of light and dark, and thus the original feeling begins to be considered in a three-dimensional way. “Then,” says Keith, “I want to push holes in it. I want to take some parts back and bring others well forward to create almost an abstract in colour, in tones. Once that has started to happen in a very loose, very liberal way, the painting begins to take on a kind of form and it will demand that areas of strong colour are placed here, areas of contrast there, and so on. Those areas gradually break down in my mind to suggest, for example, the colour of flowers against the shadow of a table, and the painting starts to emerge in that way.”
It is at this point that he makes use of the reference material, usually combining details and sections of ideas from a number of sources. Thus, rather than following a preconceived plan, the composition slowly evolves. Similarly, because the subject of the painting is not an actual place but grows from various bits of information, the source and effects of lighting have to be imagined. In the absence of any direct form of reference, the handling of light relies on knowledge and experience. “It’s never a real light because the paintings are not of real places. I know from experience that if I paint outside the light can change so much that in the end I have to make a decision as to which type of light to use. It’s up to me as an artist to choose exactly the quality of light that I want in my paintings.”
Dance of Minerva, acrylic on board, 24 x 24in
Surface and undercurrents
So how is it possible to paint imaginary, invented places in a way that enables them to assume a convincing sense of reality? Keith Dunkley’s success in creating the impression that his gardens, terraces and landscapes are actual places relies on his ability to suggest detail through skilful brushwork; his great sensitivity to mood, atmosphere and the effects of light; and his accumulated experience.
“I think any painting can be read on a number of different levels,” he says. “There is the painting that you actually see, the apparent subject matter, be this a portrait, landscape or whatever. And you can be intrigued by that. But you may want to go further and question the choice of subject matter. For, of all the things possible, why on earth has the artist chosen to paint that? Then you start looking into the painting for the undercurrents, for the answers to your questions and the personal ideas of the artists – his mood and what he was thinking about when he painted it. This has always struck me as very important.”
River Terrace, acrylic on board, 24 x 24in