Back in 2013, in his studio, surrounded by oil paintings in different stages of work and with a variety of subject matter, from small sketches of fishes and shells to seascapes with huge skies, Fred Cuming described his ideas for a painting he was working on to Vivien Donald. Its subject - a rainbow.

‘It’s going to be a very simple format: a rectangle of very dark sky, the arc of the rainbow, a long, thin rectangle of land and very bright colour in the foreground. The impact is in the composition and the proportion of one colour to another. I’ve been painting this idea, fighting it, for a long time, and I’ve done several versions.’

Rainbow, Tennyson Down, oil on board, (91.5x91.5cm)

‘In the painting above I’m trying to impart mood; a feeling of stormy light with echoes of shapes. The foreground is a semi-circle, with a second semi-circle in the cliff over the sea, and a third semi-circle with the clouds and then the rainbow, so there’s a repetition of shapes. I was also playing with the breaking up of surfaces and the textures of lichen in the foreground. Tennyson Down is the oval in the middle, seen from The Battery on the Isle of Wight’


 ‘I’ve had ideas about landscape all my life. I went to Sidcup Art School at the age of 15, where we were encouraged to draw and to look at things, to be visually aware. This early training has been the mainstay of my working process ever since. I always have a little sketchbook with me, so I see something and put down a few lines — if it’s Camber Sands it’s probably one line — and shapes which are colour formations, and a lot of colour notes. I’ve a good memory. As Degas said, you remember the important things. When I come back I have dozens of little boards handy, and I put the idea down to remember it and perhaps do two or three versions that might develop into paintings. It’s all filed in my head; I use the drawings and shapes, and develop them in different ways. I have a lot of paintings in the studio and that’s part of the process; they feed off each other.'

Cloudscape, Camber Sands, oil on board, (76.3x71.2cm)

‘One of the skills of the experienced artist is to know when to stop. I’m one of the world’s worst; I keep looking at pictures and thinking I could alter that area, and it’s not always the best thing. Finishing pictures is hard work. Starting them is pure enjoyment, with the freshness of the paint going on and being excited by the idea, experimenting with colour and shape. The early stages of a painting are full of energy, full of suggestion and these are the qualities I try to retain. I like to think the spectator is contributing and that their imagination is stimulated.’

Rye Harbour, oil on board,(25.5x30.5cm)

‘Rye Harbour is a theme that’s recurred over and over again in my paintings’

Fred finds much of his subject matter on the coast in East Sussex and in Cornwall. ‘Because I have lived near the sea for three-quarters of my life I’m looking at it all the time. If you go to the same place many times and become preoccupied with it, it will chuck up lots of possibilities. I didn’t know how to deal with Camber Sands initially; I couldn’t see it. You’ve got a sky, you’ve got the horizon and the foreground; where do you put them?

‘The sea itself might be slatey grey or almost brown, with tremendous effects and moods. It’s difficult to get a high viewpoint at Camber but in Cornwall you can look down into the sea and it has almost violent greens and blues. At Camber the effect is more subtle, with little drifts of colour. There you are always looking south at the sea and into the light, which produces dazzle effects.

The Wave, oil on board, (91.5x91.5cm)

‘In The Wave, above, I’m using two strong horizontal areas being broken by the movement of the wave and the surface of the sea as opposed to the simplified foreground of the surf; and the same in the sky being broken by the cloud formation but also setting up opposition in colour, with the strange evening sky and the coldness of the wave opposed to the colour of the foreground’

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‘On the other side of the Channel in northern France it’s a similar landscape, except that you are looking north and so the sea colour is totally different. The painters I’ve looked at all my life are landscape painters, and the Impressionists that I rate highly were working along the Normandy coast: Boudin, Monet, Manet, Millet. French painters are terrific and have had a big influence on me, but so also have Constable, Turner and Cotman.

 ‘At St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall I find I am chasing the light all the time. There’s a need to work quickly and get something down. One of the problems with working near the sea is that each day the tide arrives at a different time. So you have to work quickly because everything will look different the next day.

 ‘When I begin a painting I work straight in with colour on a mid-tone coloured ground, such as umber or light red. I put a light area against the mid tone and immediately I’ve got two forms, and then put down a dark, so now there are three basic tones and immediately I can get an idea of the masses that I want.'

Fireworks, oil on board, (61x61cm)

‘The idea for the painting above came from a firework display with a good big bonfire against an evening sky, so you’ve got some illumination behind, as opposed to a black sky’

Surface preparation

‘I like to paint on board because I couldn’t afford canvas when I first started painting. There was a snobbish idea at the time that unless it was on canvas it wasn’t any good, but a lot of very good young painters worked on wood or hardboard, and because they were so good the dealers had to concede that board was OK.'

Cyclamen, oil on board, (30.5x25.5cm)

‘My hardboard is primed not on the textured surface but on the smooth side. It has to be sanded down really well to get rid of the coating, so that it becomes absorbent, then it is primed with a good gesso primer and a white undercoat.

‘Most canvases have surfaces that are too coarse and mechanical for me, but Winsor & Newton are doing a nice stretched linen canvas now; it’s only in certain sizes, but I’m using some of that. I’ve tried various supports. Stretching a good-quality cartridge paper over hardboard is a very sound surface to work on. Canvas is easily damaged, but oil paintings done on paper stretched over board tend to survive.

‘I use all sorts of brushes, mainly nylon flats; sables are too expensive. I’m terrible with brushes because I scrub: I’ll put colour down on the canvas, and if I haven’t hit it spot on and decide that it needs more of one colour, I’ll scrub that in.'


‘I study colour avidly. You can’t invent it, but in the studio I try to make the colour have an emotive content, an atmosphere. I squeeze out quite a lot of paint on the palette — earth colours, yellow ochre that you can mix up in one of the earth colours, or raw umber for a darker, richer hue, sometimes burnt sienna, cadmium yellow which is warm, and sharp lemon yellow hue, or Naples yellow. If you mix cadmium yellow with a blue the tendency will be a warmish green; lemon yellow with cobalt will give you a sharper green. I might take cobalt blue and white and blend a touch of viridian into the mix.’

Tall Ships, Moonrise, oil on board, (61x61cm)

‘I saw this at Falmouth. Lovely boats sitting in the harbour, and then the moon came up; it was late evening, not quite dark’

The oil colours Fred Cuming uses are mainly from Winsor & Newton and Daler-Rowney. ‘There are too many colours on the market,’ he says. ‘Somebody who is not very experienced can spend a fortune in an art shop. Watercolour boxes can have 24 colours, and you certainly don’t need all of them. You can do amazing things with basic colours. I used to get students to work with a blue such as ultramarine, vermilion, a yellow, perhaps cadmium, and mix them in different proportions. Students should mix up paints from a very limited basic range and see what they can find. The best thing is to experiment and play around with paints just as freely a child would.

‘I suppose I am a traditional landscape painter, very English, using soft greys, ochre and biscuit colours, so I need something quiet for the frames. Abstract painting now is about just using colour and that can stand up to bright colour frames. Modern painting has become incredibly colourful, which I like very much, but it’s not me.’

Spring Still Life, oil on board, (91.5x91.5cm)

'Still Lifes is a series I did of the table in my studio with objects, flowers and dead flowers at different times of the year. Various compositions grew out of it; this is a triangle.’

Fred has plans to improve his Sussex studio. ‘You work wherever you can,’ he says. ‘I’ve always had studio sheds, little rooms in interesting places that I’ve rented for a fortnight. In Fowey there was a patio overlooking the sea, which was perfect. I once used the top of a lifeboat hut in Hythe, looking straight out to sea. It was cold in winter: I could work for two hours maximum, but it was good in summer, although the sun was shining through the windows. The studio I’m hoping to have will have perfect lighting — and be warm in the winter.

 ‘I sold that painting and don’t know what became of it. Paintings get scattered and there are many I wish I had hung on to, that had something special about them, but I could never afford to keep them.’

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


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