Compelled to express the spirit of the Dorset landscape, Phyllis Wolff uses her experience, memory and imagination to arrive at her distinctive artwork. Obsessed by colour she injects a sense of joie de vivre into each piece. Phyllis arranges colours, preserving the beauty and freshness of each but also providing rich contrast. Just like the Scottish colourists she has a preference for vivid colour and fluid handling of paint and has clearly been influenced by the French Impressionists and Fauvists Monet, Cézanne and Matisse.

Phyllis first started painting and drawing as a very young child and began life drawing at Epsom Art School at the age of 13. ‘I was very lucky to have that firm foundation of years of evening classes. I regularly won art prizes at school, receiving books on Gauguin, Chagall and Matisse.’ She went on to study at Goldsmiths College and St Martins School of Art. ‘We were taught to question and analyse rather than painting techniques, stretching canvases or drawing from the model.’ Phyllis’ first breakthrough commission was for a 28x9ft oil on board mural for Shaftesbury town council, The Translation of Edward King and Martyr, which she restored ten years ago.

Melbury Delight, oil on canvas, 80x120cm
Melbury Delight, oil on Canvas, 80x120cm
‘In this view of Melbury Hill lots of colour and directional brushmarks add to the joy
reflected in the painting.’


Moving to Dorset in 1976 has had a great and lasting influence on her work. For the ast 40 years she has adored painting Melbury Hill, which lies on the high chalk escarpment of the North Dorset Downs, separating the Blackmore Vale from Cranborne Chase and is one of the highest points in Dorset. ‘Since we’ve moved even closer to the foot of Melbury Hill my painting has really taken off. I feel a newfound freedom and energy in painting. It is wonderful to set up my easel in the garden, with all my necessary stuff, a flower bed on one side and the marvellous hill on the other and see what emerges on the canvas.’ Phyllis’ goal is to capture the true feel of the landscape rather than a photographic imitation, which she says ‘lacks feeling’. She responds emotionally and has developed a definite painterly language, which comes from living with the landscape and knowing it so well. ‘I don’t want to compete with the camera or a photograph. The camera doesn’t always tell the truth. It’s the feel of it that is the truth. Honesty and integrity are not enough – there must also be feeling. Painting is about knowing and feeling – knowing alone is not enough.’
Jubilation, oil on canvas, 100x100cm
‘This reflects the busy bustling colour of my flower beds. I want to make the painting
burst with energy so the more vibrant the colour, the better.’

Her garden has also become a rich source of inspiration. Phyllis has painted over 30 pictures of her ponds, which she and her husband have built together; each one is painted with fresh spontaneity, often capturing fleeting movement. ‘To me, the relationship between the artist and the subject is very powerful and important; you have to love what you paint.’

Working practice

Surprisingly, Phyllis has very few rules for generating a painting and just tends to work on a gut feeling. Preferring to use sketchbooks purely for making records while on holiday, rather than preparatory drawings, she says she is often ‘too impatient to produce rough drawings’.Unlike many artists Phyllis doesn’t agonise over her work. ‘I don’t like to labour over the technique and just like to capture the feel as quickly as possible. Technique is much less important than the content. I don't like to think too much. I aim for a quick reward as I’m very impatient.’ Phyllis claims that ‘sometimes patience is not a virtue.’

Rosy Melbury, oil on canvas, 70x70cm
‘A restricted palette of harmonious pink,purple and magenta
contrasts with yellow to give a warm glow.’

Creating a rough outline with oil paint diluted with white spirit, Phyllis uses a colour sympathetic to the landscape. She doesn’t plan the composition and lets it happen rather than trying to control a painting. Mostly she prefers flat hog brushes and sometimes sable riggers for finer drawing and texture. She uses a knife or rag to scrape off the paint. ‘I sometimes use retouching varnish, or quick drying medium to get the paint to dry if I need to cover paint quickly.’ To achieve her magical medley of flashing colour she has learnt to work around the whole picture, building up layers of colour on colour simultaneously, going round and round until complete. 'Colours only work in relationship to one another, not in isolation. One has to keep working over the whole canvas.’


Phyllis half closes her eyes to ensure she doesn’t become bogged down with the detail. ‘I quite enjoy painting over old,discarded paintings. It is quite nice to see the under-painting coming through.’ Using a basic palette of about eight colours Phyllis never uses black. ‘I mix Prussian blue and alizarin red instead of black. For a special treat I use extra fine quality Rembrandt paint. There are fabulous colours especially Rembrandt rose, cobalt violet, turquoise blue and Sèvres blue. I sometimes use Old Holland, too.’ She always wheels about her trusty trolley of equipment, containing old jam jars of brushes and her old melamine palette.

San Sebastian Harbour, iPad print
‘This scene is made up of blocks ofbackground colour with outlines applied over
the top. Again I consciously chose complementary colours with a strong blue
sky and the use of vibrant orange.’
Mostly painting outside and in front of the subject, she enjoys going out into the landscape and experiencing the nature around her. Phyllis admits she can’t paint sitting down and often listens to music while working. Her spontaneous style and speed of the brushstrokes give a unique energy to the work with momentary flashes of contrasting colours peeping through. 'I often like to ask my husband’s opinion. I have a fear of over working a painting – ruining it by tidying it up. I often have several paintings in my head but it’s just whether I have the time to do them.'

Just Waterlilies, oil on canvas, 75x75cm
‘My garden pond can look so different at different times of the day. I have captured the
fleeting movement of the fish as glimpses of their colours become apparent when you look
into the painting.’
Addicted to the ambiguity and endlesspossibilities of painting, Phyllis loves the fact she can pause and go back to a painting with a totally different outlook. An assortment of ready-made canvases is often waiting to be filled and she enjoys working on several paintings at a time. One painting can take roughly two days with four hours’ work per day.

Digital drawings

For over a year Phyllis has been exploring the creative possibilities presented by the iPad. ‘It has provided much fun, infinite drawing opportunities and influenced my painting style. If you want to push your creative boundaries, try out new things, it is fantastic. ‘After downloading several drawing tools I soon discovered that it really does present a quick and useful way of drawing. It slips into my handbag and has become my portable studio – it’s great for when you are on the go. It doesn’t take too long to master and the stylus is easy to control’. When finished she just emails the pictures over to the printer. ‘It is a great way of producing affordable prints.


Mount Teide and Two Red Roofs, iPad print
'This was a quick sketch on the iPad. It was purposely executed in a sketchy manner
to give added vitality.’
‘When I started I tried out a few art apps, favouring Art Studio because I like the wet paintbrush effect, and easy blending of colours. Then I heard David Hockney talking about the painting app Brushes.’ Brushes will play back a mini film so that you can see the drawing process. Pictures can be produced with your fingertips without any paraphernalia or mess. ‘There are however, colour limitations. It’s not like squeezing paint from a tube. It could never be a substitute for real painting, oil or watercolour. It lacks the sensuous quality of paint or pencil on paper. The introduction of new software is irritating. Brushes 2 has been withdrawn from the UK market and replaced with Brushes 3, a more complicated version.’ Even though she loves the fun of the iPad and it has led to a new-found inspiration for fabric designs, Phyllis says ‘it is a bit of a gimmick’.
Purple Pond, oil on canvas, (90x90cm).
‘The use of complementary colours gives an immediate impact. Obviously the colours have
been enhanced and are not how they naturally would look but this creates more life.’

Phyllis Wolff attended St Martins School of Art and Goldsmiths College and taught at Kingston School of Art. She is represented in private and public collections, and exhibits widely in the United Kingdom and abroad. She continues to undertake commissions. Phyllis exhibits regularly at Highgate Fine Art and at galleries in Old Brompton Road and Fitzrovia in London. In 2004/5 she exhibited at Hutson Gallery and participated in several mixed shows at New Grafton Gallery, Barnes. Phyllis’ work is often in mixed shows in the south-west. Phyllis offers visits to her gallery, studio and garden classes at her home near Shaftesbury, for those who wish to use their iPad as a drawing and painting tool. Her book Colourscapes contains a whole range of her pictures. During 2013 Phyllis is exhibiting at The Minster Gallery, Winchester, telephone 01962 877601, and is participating in the Christmas exhibition at the Quest Gallery, Bath, telephone 01225 444142,; iPad prints and reproductions are available at: