The southwest coast of England has long been favoured by artists, its dazzling light and unpredictable and dramatic weather its greatest asset.
From the artist colony of St. Ives to the artistic communities dotted along the shorelines, Cornwall and Devon is a behemoth of creativity. We caught up with one artist, Hannah Woodman, who is born and bred in Devon to find out more about making a life and career along the craggy rocks and under the dramatic sky.
Had you always wanted to be an artist? Are you from an artistic family?
I’ve always had a compulsion to paint, but circumstances almost conspired beyond my control to eventually make it happen as a career. I’d been trying to take up various other career options when I left university, but odd things kept happening like the random disappearance of my application or the theft of my portfolio. In the meantime I carried on painting. One day I had some photographs done of my work and I inadvertently left them at a friend’s house. Her neighbour saw them and passed them onto a gallerist he knew, who then called and offered me a show. My very first exhibition was on Cork St, which was quite a leap for an unknown. I think back now on how serendipitous it all was!
Did growing up in Devon influence your decision to go into art?
I’m sure growing up in Devon had an influence on my artistic development. I was born in the South Hams, which is a very beautiful part of the county and I clearly remember the joy of watching the seasons change around me. My family originated from both Devon and Cornwall however, so we had many holidays to the far west of Cornwall that cemented my fascination with the sea. I had immense encouragement from my parents, who sent me to a primary school in Dartington, which is an area rich in creative expression. I’m sure the seeds were sown in those early years, as a child I always found it exciting to retreat into my own creative world of drawing.
Tell us about your artistic process. Are you inspired by a particular movement or artist?
My artistic process is very organic now. I’ve built up a familiarity with certain areas that gives a focus to my paintings beyond the visual representation of a place. Gwithian and Godrevy on the North Coast are favourites, as are Sennen Cove, Cape Cornwall and the coast path from St. Ives to Zennor. There is something monumentally special about being out in these landscapes alone. When I can’t see another single soul and my surroundings stretch far beyond until they drop into the sea, suddenly comprehending my sense of scale in the world becomes exhilarating. I consider my work to sit very much within the British Modernist tradition. It occupies that area between the abstract and figurative, so I’m in a constant struggle with how to distil memory and imagination onto canvas while still rendering a meaningful sense of place. I’m as happy scrutinising a Turner as I am relishing an abstract expressionist canvas. Joan Mitchell is a big influence, for her joyous painterly freedom through a considered process. I work physically, building up the paint in layers and exploring mark making through large brush and palette knife work. Texture and looseness are important, but the spontaneity people often associate with my process is rarely as rapid as the work implies. I can agonise over some of these canvases for weeks! I’m currently preoccupied with some large-scale, immersive drawings that are a very raw and pure form of expression and I’m enjoying this new approach immensely.
Has the legacy of the original St Ives’ artists and the history of Newlyn’s studios impacted the way you work?
The St. Ives legacy is undoubtedly an inspiration and it’s wonderful to have such a rich, cultural heritage as a backdrop to my practice. Having said that, I think it can be dangerous to reference it too closely. Its’ legacy is so huge that contemporary artists could get swallowed up in perpetuating versions of what’s gone before if they’re not careful. The greatest endowment of this history is that Cornwall continues to harbour such a lively breadth of creative practice. It’s almost unique in its energy for this. There are so many collaborations, pop-up exhibitions and open studios taking place each year and a strong sense of encouragement exists among artists. It’s still full of experimental creative communities.
Why do you think artists are so frequently drawn to the south coast?
Obviously the quality of the light on the Cornish Coast is a big draw for artists, but in reality it’s the drama and expanse of the place. When you stand and watch a weather front approaching over the seas and see how the light changes the colours and mood so rapidly it is a thrilling engagement with your surroundings. I can only speak for landscape artists, but trying to capture that on canvas is an endlessly exciting challenge.
Tell us about a typical day and what it involves
A typical day for me involves getting to my studio at about 8.30am and immediately taking stock of what I did the day before with fresh eyes (and a cup of tea). I’m lucky to be on the water in a converted warehouse so I enjoy the activity and movement of the boats outside and watching the reflections of the changing light. Once I launch into painting I’m in full focus however and I’ll paint for as long as the light allows. My studio is in a complex with other artists and creative businesses so it can be a very sociable space – there’s a great café next door for lunch - but once the doors are closed there’s a respectful industrious atmosphere that I really appreciate. I’m usually working towards exhibition deadlines, but I also undertake some teaching and lecturing. I’m currently studying for an MA in Museum and Gallery Education and I’m a passionate advocate for arts education so I occasionally run workshops or courses alongside my own practice, either down in Newlyn or St Ives.
Talk to us about your two upcoming exhibitions
My next exhibition will be at Panter and Hall Gallery, London, which runs from November 2nd – 18th. It’s a solo show of landscapes and seascapes all produced over the last year entitled Cornwall: Coast and County. I’ve experimented with scale so it includes several smaller works alongside quite large dramatic pieces, which gives an insight into the challenges of gathering an infinite landscape into the confines of a canvas. I’ve also just collaborated with a wonderful jeweller called Mirri Damer to produce an exhibition entitled ‘Sea and Sapphires’ on show in Falmouth until mid-October. We’ve produced a bespoke collection in response to each other’s creations inspired by the Cornish coast. Mirri collected gems from Sri Lanka and I reflected those in my palette, while she referenced my mark making in silver and gold through her jewellery designs. I enjoyed the collaboration process enormously as it reminded me of the universality of creativity, no matter which discipline you’re coming from.