Oils and pastels in Snowdonia
As a full-time professional artist, Keith Bowen has done his share of travelling. In the mid-1990s, he made a number of trips to the US over a two-year period as he developed his book Among the Amish. He has done the near-obligatory series of paintings of Venice, and another series of Provence. Now, however, he is focused almost exclusively on his homeland of north Wales.
It is a decision that involves him in long-distance commuting. His home and studio are in Scotland. Every four to six weeks he packs his sketching materials and storm-proof clothing and heads off to Snowdonia.
Once there, every second counts. "Even if the weather is awful, I'm out there," he says. "I haven't got the luxury of being able to sit back, waiting for it to clear. But I feel very comfortable in these wild places, much more so than in a modern shopping centre.
"Spending time in Venice and Provence was fine, but I've been mucking about in the Welsh hills for ever. I have a greater understanding of this landscape, a greater gut feeling for it."
Oils and pastels
Half of Keith's studio is set out for oils, and half for pastels. He will work in, say, oils on several paintings, until he feels that a particular subject might work well in pastels. Then he switches for a while until he is ready for a change once more. At his one-man exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff, this summer about threequarters of the work was pastel.
Whichever medium he uses, however, the paintings are recognisably his. "It is not a style," he stresses. "I don't strive for a particular style. Drawing is handwriting, and what you see is my handwriting."
"To me, a single line would not look right and, most importantly, would be out of character with the rest of the painting," he explains. "As you come down the picture the approach changes slowly from rear to middle distance, and then in the foreground the marks are much more vigorous and pronounced.
"Even with the patch of white water, which makes a solid shape, you have not one mark but an accretion of many marks."
But Keith does draw a distinction between his two favourite media. With oil paints — he uses mostly Old Holland and Winsor & Newton Artist grade — the possibilities are infinite, he says.
"Choices have to be made between rough canvases or smooth panels, and between huge ranges of brushes and palette knives, according to the texture I want to achieve. This is very exciting, but it does sometimes mean I can get sidetracked into thinking about the medium rather than the message.
"I am happier with pastels because I don't have to think about what I am doing, just about what I am trying to say."
His oil paintings begin with a brush drawing in grey or earth tones, his pastels with a charcoal drawing on a finegrade industrial sandpaper, which he works and reworks until he is happy with the composition. Then, as shown in his demonstration painting Carrying Sheep, he almost obliterates the original drawing as he covers the surface with a mass of lines in randomly chosen colours — a technique favoured by Degas.
By allowing some of these colours to glint through, he aims to give a depth to his paintings which, he believes, cannot be found in photographs or digital images. And he has plenty of colours to choose from — almost 2,000 pastels in all, including full sets of Daler- Rowney, Unison, Schmincke and Sennelier.
Nothing is invented in his paintings, he points out, but that does not mean all the elements were in the same place at the same time. His models are shepherds and farmworkers who have been photographed at work, and then sketched in Conté. "I have many, many drawings of the way sheep could be, but the one I selected in this instance was right for this picture. In the same way, I have chosen the very best hands I could find in my sketchbooks. The crux of the painting is the knuckle of the index finger, which shows the strain of holding the sheep."
Bowen paints the hills and farmers of Snowdonia not just because he has known them since childhood but because he sees a way of life that could disappear. "We and the landscape are one," he says. "The phrase everyone uses is 'We are all moving forward', whereas I want to cling on. "All of these things are extremely important, and we lose them at our peril. If there is a link across my work, that would be it."
DEMONSTRATION: Carrying Sheep
"A charcoal sketch established the bones of the composition, and this was developed further with black pastel. The circle in the bottom right corner is a compositional device echoing the sun. Refining the drawing was crucial as it was the framework for all the subsequent work."
"Linear marks were added with harder pastels, such as Daler-Rowney and Unison. The colour choice was almost random, but the process helped to separate foreground from background. The greater the range of colours that I use in these early stages, the more options I have for developing the painting later."
"I continued adding colours. Some parts are evident in the final painting, whilst other passages were entirely worked over."
"Colour now gave way to tonal values, the cool dark blues contrasting with the existing warm reds and oranges."
"Temporarily the painting took on a much cooler feel as blue was added to the sky."
"For the final layers I switched to softer pastels — Schmincke and Sennelier — and a technique that might be termed 'linear glazing', just gently brushing on colours with the edge of the sticks."
Carrying Sheep, pastel, 391/2x291/2in (100x75cm)
"The final touches were additions to the grass and stonework, and I refined and unified colours throughout until I was satisfied with the effect."