Back in the summer 2021 issue of The Artist, Caroline Saunders talked to Royal Academician, Fred Cuming about his sensitive and poet landscapes.

We bring this conversation to you in memory of Fred, who passed away in June 2022, aged 92.

Fred Cuming responds to cloud formations and quickly changing weather; the subtleties of colour and light direct his brush. He has developed a finely tuned visual intelligence by constantly absorbing everything around him. ‘I have gained a knowledge and memory of the light and adjust the colour scheme according to the time of day.’ Still working in the traditional manner, his work is slowly evolving towards an emotional use of colour and abstraction.

Morning Sea, Dymchurch, 2017, oil, (20x24in.)

‘This demonstrates the ever changing weather of the English climate. Until recently you could not bank on how the weather would change in just a few hours. This is why the English painter develops a kind of shorthand, making colour notes on sketches in order to remember the colour and shapes so that it can be developed further. The palette is essential in recreating the subject and I still believe that the spectator should contribute to what is being seen; thus their imagination should be a vital contribution.’


With an artistic career spanning over 70 years Fred still remains excited when embarking on a new painting. He describes it as a constant road of discovery. ‘My style has progressed as a consequence of years of sketching and painting. Drawing is essential as a tool of discovery and mastery of technique. It has taken years of observation to understand art forms and get me to where I am today. When you first start out you see everything, but the art of designing is not just having a good eye for detail, it’s what you also care to leave out. Being selective and organising colour and shape is important. With the sheer volume and complexity of the world it is surprising how little we take in and see until we commit to paper. Endless trial and error makes you a little bit cleverer each time.’

Having worked on the spot outdoors in his younger years, Fred now mainly refers to his sketchbooks and photographs. When out without any paints he will make a drawing with colour notes translating it into oils when back at the studio. ‘In the process there is a terrific leeway for interpretation. I’m not ever trying to paint a photograph. I’m not trying to be visually accurate; I’m trying to paint an emotional response or what I feel about something.’

Wil-O-Wisp, Romney Marsh, 2019, oil, (20 x 24in.)

‘This subject is quite close to the sea. Early in the morning you will frequently see this Will-O-Wisp, or sea fret. Most of the painting is set in icy blues and greys; there are just tiny areas of warmth in the foreground and the tree in the middle distance. This is first light, using colour accordingly to describe the time and the emotion that I am feeling. This has led to abstraction.’

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‘My grandfather, a lithographic artist, persuaded me in my decision to study art. At the age of 14 I was allowed to go to Sidcup School of Art. I had some really excellent teachers who steered me in the right direction. After four years I was accepted at the Royal College of Art.’

As well as good teaching, Fred’s development was inspired by other artists. The English Landscape School was very influential, then he was taken to the National Gallery in 1942, where he met the then director Kenneth Clark. Although most of the artworks had been relocated to Wales for protection during the war, ‘Rembrandt’s A Man in Armour, one or two English landscapes, and the Stanley Spencer series Shipbuilding on the Clyde were there. I hadn’t yet gone to art school; seeing these paintings knocked me over.

‘On occasional gallery visits I would head for the Constables or the Turners but out of the corner of my eye I’d see a Cézanne or a Corot and I’d clock onto these and think “this is interesting”, and I’d begin to see more. What I love about Giorgio de Chirico is the mysteriousness and his beautiful use of colour. There are so many that are wonderful.

Among his contemporaries Fred admires the style and expression of Norman Adams, professor of painting at the Royal Academy and Welsh landscape painter Sir Kyffin Williams.

According to Fred, English landscape painting has to capture the moment. ‘John Cotman and John Chrome invented a kind of shorthand because of the rapid changing weather patterns; whereas I found that in France and Italy, I could work on one painting for two or three hours in the morning and slowly capture the change of light, go and have some lunch and then in the afternoon do the same. If you’re in a stable reliable climate you can perhaps do six paintings in a week.’

Prunus, April, 2019, oil, (76x76cm)

'I endeavoured to describe an early frost: the sharp blue of the sky, icy and bitterly cold set against the warm landscape of the middle ground, the frosty green grey foreground and the icy lilac blossom on the left. I am not trying to replicate a photograph but using colour to indicate the time of day. The spectator I hope will feel the sensations that I am aiming to describe. The proportion of colour to portray the subject is of the utmost importance.’


Portrait commissions include the Queen’s coronation, which is in the Government Collection and Professor Stephen Hawking, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.

When painting portraits Fred might want to make a feature of some of the colour but he might choose not to go into terrific detail. For instance, when he was working on the Stephen Hawking portrait, he could see the detail of the floor and everything around him, but his focus was Stephen’s head and shoulders, which was what the portrait was all about so everything else was simplified.

Stephen Hawking, 2008, oil, (40x30in.)

'My wife and I visited Stephen on several occasions at his home; he was always busy teaching students so was not available for a proper sitting. My studies consisted of a number of drawings made in situ and from them I produced a number of paintings. I always work on a mid-tone background so that dark and light areas register the structure and composition of the painting. I focused on his head and shoulders and the importance of his computer. I like to create an imbalance in the painting, highlighting the figure. The only areas of colour highlight the head framed by the support and the blue shirt. The lower part is greatly simplified in order to give prime importance to the head and upper body.’

Working practice

Fred works predominantly on hardboard, but uses canvas too. To prepare both surfaces, first he primes the boards then he paints a mid-tone such as Indian red or Van Dyke brown so that lights and darks register on it. Fred’s personal preference is for Robert Harding oils because they have been mixed in a similar way to the old masters and are good quality.

The colour palette varies according to the subject. Rather than black, Fred tends to use Payne’s grey. ‘To heighten the emotional feeling of a painting I may change and limit the colour range. There is a tonal pitch to everything, I can play with a range of colour, not focusing on every detail because that is not what interests me – it’s the combination of things that makes certain things more important and others play second fiddle. I will play with the composition to enhance particular elements.’ Fred’s choice of brushes and palette knives has varied over the years according to the subject and size of the work; he does not however have a particular preference.

To achieve a sensitive and unique rendering of light and mood Fred quickly lays colour whilst listening to all sorts of music from classical to jazz and blues, sometimes he just prefers it quiet. Chopping and changing between paintings he may produce three or four versions of an idea, each a slightly different interpretation. The biggest size Fred now works on is 48x48in. He is very selective about his artwork, ‘I work on things until I’m satisfied with them, I won’t let anything out I don’t like. Little sketches can be fab, big ones can be a flop. Tiny sketches sometimes turn out to be the best things you’ll ever do.’

Singing the praises of The Royal Academy for its long tradition in support of the arts, Fred greatly appreciates the exhibitions they have curated. ‘This is only possible through private revenue generated from sponsors, visitors and donors. The Royal Academy is an independent charity thereby they do not receive grants or funding from the Arts Council.’ He is also a keen reader on the subject of art.

Fred is very grateful to his wife Audrey for supporting him throughout his career. Luckily for him becoming a professional artist was a good move and he hasn’t looked back since. After being a full time teacher Fred decided in the late 1970s early 1980s to focus on his art. A couple of playful quotes that Fred bears in mind are from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland ‘No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise’ and ‘Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.’

Self Portrait in Studio, 2019, oil, (36x36in.)

‘This is my new studio designed and constructed by my friend David Tarr; the best studio I have ever had since I left the RCA and the studio at Egerton House. Since I have been in this studio I have begun a number of new paintings and my approach to new work is that it is dominated by the things I wish to paint and not just to please the public.’


Fred Cuming exhibited widely in the UK and overseas. He has many works in public collections around the world. In 1969 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA), and in 1974 was the youngest member to be elected a Royal Academician (RA). He was also a member of the New English Art Club.

Fred enjoyed writing books and making instructional painting DVDs of his art.

You can order two of Fred's DVDs here.

RIP Fred Cuming RA February 16, 1930 - June 12, 2022


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