Given that you paint landscapes, how does the environment that you live in impact on you?
Hugely! It's only since moving here, and spending a lot of my time outside that I've really made the commitment to be a landscape painter. The inclement weather and changing light conditions inspire me to paint everyday.
Did you paint landscape before?
I did, but I wasn't as consumed by it. I painted all sorts of things: cityscapes, still life, people. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do until I moved here. I spend a lot of my time outside walking our German Shorthaired Pointer, Lottie, on the fells and in the fields. Being immersed in the landscape I want to express the mood and the atmosphere of it. You can't get much more immersed than being on top of a hill, miles from anywhere and anyone, with the wind whipping around you. It's the best inspiration for getting into the studio and putting pastel on paper!
Do you ever try to paint outside, or is the weather just too unpredictable?
I haven't done to date, but now I am working on a project to do so. I have got in touch with various landowners in the area, and over the summer I want to paint outside, because I feel as a landscape artist I need to intimately know the places I paint, I need to get right in the middle of the places I paint to capture the atmosphere, and produce my best work.
Do you work from photographs then, or sketches?
Currently, I work from photographs and notes. The main reason I am embarking on the 'Lancashire Estates' project is to develop my practice to incorporate more painting 'en plain air', as it's known in the trade. I take my camera and my note book everywhere. Although visually it is about what is in front of you, it is also about trying to capture say, this place at five o' clock in the morning with the sun coming up. It is a lot of note making, and absorbing. It's sounds really indulgent, but it's about breathing it in, remembering those smells, the dampness, so I can get it on the paper.
So when you are actually painting, what are you thinking and feeling?
I am remembering what I saw, how I felt, how cold I was, and I'm remembering seeing water bouncing of leaves, trees and puddles, and the light conditions that creates. I am just really trying to remember what it was like to physically be there, as well as knowing the lie of the land in terms of the hills and the valleys, trees, and where you get the depth. There also the traditional technique of knowing where is the background, foreground and middle ground. When I first started studying Fine Art, I was taught a lot of traditional techniques, which have stayed with me and I think are important. You have to be able to visually create the depth. When I am painting I am surrounded by my photographs and notes to help me remember.
Is your work then, a visual representation of the place, but combined with your experience of being there?
Yes, that is a pretty good description. It is about visually painting what the land looks like, but also, especially if you are doing a commission for someone, it's about what they feel about that landscape. Somewhere I know that what I feel about it will be entirely different to how someone else might feel about it. They may have a more nostalgic relationship with the place, so it is about expressing that feeling of the place.
So how do you go about painting a commission of a place, that is someone else's experience?
Its a complex process, that takes time and a lot of conversation with the client. It's easy to decide on a place, but then I need to found out what made them decide on this place, what light conditions, or seasonal conditions do they want, what particular emotional connection do they have with this place? It is about having a very deep conversation, and then also getting a range of photographs, taken at different times of the year, or when we know there is going to be a particular type of weather pattern. There is a lot of preparatory work and it takes a lot of understanding. Often people haven't thought so deeply about what the place means to them until you have that conversation, and for me to express that when I paint, I need to know as much as possible beforehand.
I imagine it's quite subtle, how do you know when you have got it right?
Basically it's people's reaction. I have done this for long enough, to know the sort of questions to ask, and information to get. I try to put myself in their shoes, when I am absorbing this information. A reasonable sized painting probably takes me six to eight weeks, just to paint it, and most of my clients want to come in and see the work in progress. So usually in the first two to four weeks, when doing the underdrawing and getting the lay of the land, and adding a few colours, I can tell immediately the client looks at it, by their face, if I have got it right or not! There is a smile and a real twinkle in their eyes. You can see it the moment they walk in, that they have had that memory or connection. So the most important thing is to get as much as possible in the first place, about what does the person think about when they see this place, what are their experiences of it. Having a lifetime's knowledge of paint, colour, how to warm things up, express a certain mood, it is just the practice of associating certain colours with certain things over the years. It is not something I take for granted though. It's not good to be too sure, to think I have got it perfect.
Winter in the Valley
How would you describe your relationship with colour?
Very close! I guess, as I am an artist anyway, I deal in visuals! I don't do well with sounds, or reading something, I have less of a reaction to them. But with colours I do. Green has a very calming influence on me. I know I am a visual person, tell me a name or a number and it just goes in one ear and out the other because I haven't visually seen it. I have got a constant relationship with colour. Maybe because I have painted for so long.
Do you have colours that you just love and want to use?
Lots! Earth Greens, Steel greys and blues! Gun-metal grey is a favourite, and deep-sea blues.
What is it like living with and working with another artist?
It is really good actually! John is an amazing artist, his ability to represent something so closely, in such detail, and to give it the life he does, I think is just brilliant. There is a little bit of competition there though. If he does something very good, then I think I need to match that. I think that's healthy though And to have someone there to critically appraise your work is so good. It is very hard to do that objectively yourself. So to have him come and give it his critical eye, is wonderful. I do the same for him. We call it "quality control." I am amazed everyday by what he does, and that pushes me to do better myself.
Seeing his work, does it ever make you want to do portrait?
No! I have painted people before, but for me it's all about being outside, and expressing that feeling of a place. I just don't get that connection with people. It's quite a solitary thing, I have more connection with places outside than people.
Visitors come and watch you working, does that disturb you?
People are generally very respectful, on the whole it doesn't bother me. I can shut people out, and just get on with it. I completely ignore what is going on around me, which drives John nuts if he is trying to get my attention! Where we are, we have such a good set up. I know there are days and times I can really get stuck into my work, and then other times, I can break away and chat with people. It's relaxing. Although mostly people tip-toe around, not knocking on my door and asking what I am doing!
You were an engineer before, how did you make such an extreme change in your career?
Yes I was mechanical engineer in the nuclear industry. I was fortunate enough to be with John, and have his support, and fortunate enough not to have any dependants. I hated my job for a long time. I had enjoyed doing technical drawing at school. Art wasn't considered a proper job, so I went down the route of technical drawing. John and I had both been into art for years, but just as a hobby. So we spurred each other on. We encouraged each other to take the plunge, not to just keep talking about it and wondering what if, but to do something now, to leave our jobs, and that is what we did!
It sounds like it is going really well?
We have this mantra that we use when anyone asks that question - 'We're grateful for today and hopeful for tomorrow' - I'm quite superstitious and don't believe you should ever get too comfortable. You should always assume that anything can happen, and that you can go from hero to zero in the blink of an eye, so you should take everything a day at a time and be grateful for that. We have been lucky to have massive support, and our reputations are remaining in tact so we're thankful. We don't have a decadent lifestyle by any means, we work hard and we don't indulge ourselves, but we're happy. We were lucky being just the two of us, we always knew that if we failed it was just us two and Lottie we were letting down!
To read Cassandra's partner, John Rotherham's interview click here.
To find out about their gallery and commissions click here.
Article Header image: Mull