3:05pm Monday 10th January 2011
By Matt Clark
In landlocked York, MATT CLARK meets an artist who lives and works as if she is by the sea.
THE view over Stonegate from Gill Douglas’s studio would inspire anyone to reach for a paintbrush. But all she can see is the Isle of Skye. Every day, Gill works from sketches made on field trips to Scotland which take her back to the days when she was marooned on Barra, marvelling at the Summer Islands or walking along the shoreline on Gallenach.
Today, it’s Rum Cullin whose brooding skies, formidable peaks and vibrant hues remain as indelibly stamped in her mind as when she first saw them.
Gill’s house in Petergate is filled with paintings of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Strong, dynamic and in various styles, some are abstract, others traditional; most were inspired by her infatuation with the sea.
So it is fitting that her home should be known as the Lighthouse.
There are four storeys, each with one room and connected by a staircase that winds through the heart of the building. This feels more Fair Isle or Cromarty than York – and there’s even the shipping forecast on the radio.
Gill hasn’t always painted seascapes, but she thinks it was divine intervention that got her going.
“I had my first exhibition at Treasurer’s House and a friend came in,” she says. “He loved the sea and said I’m going to pray that God will give you gift of painting the sea and the where-with-all to do it.
“Well I thought, ‘I know where this is coming from, he wants me to do him a nice painting’.”
But it turned out to be providence. A few days later a couple came along to the exhibition and spied one of Gill’s paintings of her home, so they asked her where the lighthouse is in York.
Then, as luck would have it, the conversation turned to a small island off Kirkudbright, on which they had just taken a lease.
“They told me it was only half a mile long, with just a lighthouse and a couple of cottages. Any time I wanted to paint the sea, they said, I should just let them know.”
A month later there she was, on a small boat with a couple of friends and their dog, all heading out to sea.
“It was an amazing place and we ended up getting marooned, because it was too rough to get back to the mainland. That’s when I really began painting the sea. It was an incredible feeling; such a wild place but so very safe.”
From the window of her tiny cottage, Gill produced her first seascape, Force Eight On Richardson’s Rock.
“It was a really special day, I remember the wind – you could hardly stand up – and there were these great storms all around with the sea boiling away below and piling up over the rock.”
This wasn’t the first fresh start in her life. Gill worked as a secretary, then a social worker, before she completely changed direction at the age of 27. She studied at art college and went on to spend time as a designer at York Theatre Royal. Since 1998, she has been painting full-time.
Gill doesn’t work from photographs but makes a key sketch and writes copious notes on what a place means to her. Sometimes she will scribble a favourite quotation. It gives her a take on a scene; a snapshot in the mind rather than on film.
“When you look at a photo, there is so much detail and it can be difficult to work from when you come away. But when you have a sketch pad you make choices, you decide what will work.”
It is not only about painting what appears to be in front of her though. Gill recalls Turner’s words – if you want to paint the sea, learn what one wave looks like – and points to an early work where one is breaking the wrong way. Now she spends a couple of days at a location observing and absorbing before even picking up a brush or pencil.
However, meticulous attention to detail doesn’t stand in the way of art. Some of Gill’s paintings are abstracts; an interpretation of the raging sea before her.
“I don’t really have great concepts. I’m more reactionary and paint from my inner feelings; it’s an emotional response to what’s around me.
“Sometimes I don’t work on a sketch for years, but I know when it’s the right time to go back to it. There’s immediacy to a sketch and all of them are still in my mind.” Gill’s love of Scotland goes back to her childhood, when she discovered books by the naturalist Frazer Darling. “There were places in them like Summer Islands off Ullapool. I just loved those books and had imaginings of going to all these different places.”
As a young woman, she first visited Barra and Iona, but when she finally reached her beloved Summer Islands, disappointment greeted her. The weather was too perfect.
“I love storms and wild seas. I was born during a thunderstorm and I can’t paint in bright sunlight at all. It’s less dramatic and the colours keep changing.”
Gill has recently ventured into print making. She studied the subject a few years ago at York College and says it resulted in renewed creativity, not only with her prints but the paintings too.
Now, having bought a printing press, she produces etchings in all forms, collagraphs, collages and lino prints. Subjects are again drawn from a love of the sea, mountains and islands.
“I use strong colours and sometimes with prints I don’t work from sketches at all. But what happens is very interesting. I was looking at a print the other day and thought, that could have been painted from the front door when I was on Harris.
“I think in everything I do there is a sense of place, even if sometimes I’m not always aware of it.”
For her series of prints entitled In the Beginning, Gill did a lot of research into planets. A devout Christian, she has always been influenced by a love of creation.
“I looked at NASA photos of exploding stars and approached the series as I did when a theatre designer, where you try to find the most suitable medium for the text. Print making by its very nature leads to abstraction and in that it’s similar to how I designed a set for plays like House Of The Dead.
“I still enjoy painting, but now I have two ways of expressing what I see.”
Gill’s work is diverse and at exhibitions people often ask now many artists’ work is on show. It comes as a surprise that the answer is ‘just one’.
Eventually it’s time to leave via the winding staircase. This leads from the studio to the ground floor, and pays testimony to Gill’s wide range of styles, being adorned from top to bottom with different examples of her work.
Back outside, Petergate is its usual bustling self with shoppers chasing bargains in the sales. All remain oblivious to the other hive of activity going on a couple of floors above them, where Gill Douglas is back on her beloved Isle of Skye, creating another remarkable work of art.
• You can see some of Gill’s prints at the Pyramid Gallery in Stonegate as part of a joint exhibition which runs until January 20.
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