Martin Evans is one of Cumbria's most esteemed contemporary landscape painters. His artwork captures the stunning scenery in the North of England, and beyond.
Earlier in the month, we were able to sit down with a coffee, and talk about his work, his practices, and the murals he'd been working on most recently.
You work quite fast...
Yeah. I guess I'm maybe impatient. I think one of the things that draws me to street art is that. The fast work of the spray paint, the drips, that all creeps in. And I like to create a quick impression, rather than to get bogged down in really intricate detail. Obviously, there's a place for all these styles, but what suits me is working quickly.
I get a bit of an adrenaline rush from working quickly. You're solving puzzles in your head all the time you're looking at the canvas, and- ‘what do I need here? - what do I need there?’. It keeps the old grey matter ticking over. I find I get a lot of my better paintings through working fast.
If I’m working slowly, I think I procrastinate too much. Paintings can become too messy, too washy - A bit overworked, quite often. So a lot of my paintings come together quite fast. But then, I might then leave it for three months and come back to it later, and do a bit more. But, generally, they come together in hours, rather than days
Is your work here, at Tullie House, influencing your work as a painter?
An exhibition we had which I think particularly influenced me was Alex Katz. He's a guy I’d not really heard of, but he's quite a big deal. He's in his early nineties now - New York artist. He was almost doing photoshop style paintings- you know, these blocks of colour - long before computers were invented, never mind photoshop. And very pop arty. He was there through the Warhol era and was brought up with that. And his work- I didn't think I'd like it, at first looking, but the more time I spent in that exhibition, the more I grew to love his landscapes, in particular- I am always drawn to landscapes, I do do some portraits- it is of interest, but landscapes draw me in. His landscapes in particular: the economy of mark, the colour, composition. His work really influenced me, and I've looked more into his work since. But, yes, working here has, without doubt, helped me and influenced me.
You’ve mentioned your focus on landscapes, but it's not a singular focus. You do still work on the occasional portrait and still life.
I think it's good to go out of your comfort zone, a little bit. And to experiment. I think you can take it back into your landscape painting. I would still class myself as an expressive landscape painter, but trying to use my style within portraiture, within still life, is a challenge. And I take a lot from that, and I'll always do that, going forward. There'll always be portraits, there'll always be still lifes, but my first passion is landscapes.
Is your painting changing the way you look at the landscape?
Yeah. I would say definitely. I started painting more seriously in the last four or five years, and I'll go on a walk- I got a dog a year and a half ago, so I go on a lot of local walks- But now I’ll looking a little bits of light, bits of shadow, colour, composition, ‘wheres the sun in relation to that tree, that river?’ ‘Where's the shadow falling?’ ‘How would that work on a canvas?’ So, I suppose I look at what's around me from a creative point of view, quite often. I work from photography, at home, I do some painting outside, and have done in the past, but I work in my studio more often, from photographs. And I won't paint an exact representation. It's a very loose- I use that photograph as a starting point. When I go on walks, I think I store this information as well. I'll remember how the sun looked in relation to the river, and I'll bring that into a painting. So, yeah, it has, definitely.
Is there much of your work that gets left in the studio, never to be seen, or do we get to see most of what you paint?
Obviously, with the advent of social media, I do tend to post a lot. Quite often I'll go back and look at a painting and say ‘why did I post that?’, ‘it's not finished’, or ‘ i don't like it’, but that's the age we’re in. I post videos as well, of process, and sometimes you look back at the process and say ‘why did i do that?’. I think that helps with the learning, as well.
There are paintings that- well, I've got one still life that I've been working on for about 3 years now, and it's just sat in the studio, with my palette and paints, and everything. It's an experimental piece, but that's still a work in progress years later. So there's a few sat in the dark corners of the studio that haven't seen the light of day.
When I first saw your work, I was particularly captivated by your use of greens. There were splashes of vibrancy that betrayed a leaning towards the contemporary. Tell us about that?
I take influence from the colours in front of me, for example, in the image of Martindale, in the lakes, and the painting looking towards the water in Dalton Wood. Of course the light is changing in front of me, quickly, in the lake district. You'll get, on cloudy days, the sun shining through in places, hitting a field, a patch of forest, etc., and really illuminating that area. So that's inspired these focal points of colour. Bright greens- there, you've got your golds and reds. But the bright green really catches the eye.
I think that’s light, and what my eye sees. Obviously, my eye sees differently to how others might, and of course, as I say, it's not an exact representation, just a way of portraying the light.
Some artists can find a blank canvas quite intimidating, and think of the first mark being the hardest. Do you find this to be true for you? And is it the same on a blank wall, for a mural?
It probably is, actually, yeah. You've got a picture of Aira Force, there- my first mural. When I looked at that wall, it was pretty intimidating. But I just fell back to how I work on canvas, in the studio. So I worked fast and laid down some outlines with a can of black spray paint. I had my paint, I had my ladders, and I just went for it. Once I had a rough shape, and a rough layout, I immediately felt better. I guess it's a bit of a cliche, but, if you stick that first mark down on your canvas or your wall, then you're away. That's the way I think about it.
A wall can be an unpredictable and challenging canvas. How did you find that?
Yeah. We did prep the wall. But a wall’s a wall, and bits are gonna fall off, it's gonna be rough, and it's gonna be a challenge, but that's all part of the fun. It gives it texture, which I like in a painting. And it gives it character. At the end of the day, with the way I work, if something is not quite right, I just paint over it. I'm not… precious, is the word. I wouldn't say I'm too precious when I'm painting. Maybe when they're finished. I don't like accidental marks after the fact. Once they're done, they're done. But in the process, it's all part of it, and I enjoy that challenge.
What is your relationship with finished work? Some artists will never like their own paintings, or feel satisfied with their work.
My favourite painting tends to be the one I've just finished. Some do get painted over. I've painted over a lot of paintings in the past. I think that can add to the texture, and the character, as you keep little bits of the old painting that you like, but you reinvent the rest of it. But, yeah, looking back to what I was doing five years ago- and it goes in phases. I'll maybe look back and think ‘oh, that's terrible’ or ‘I really don't like that’, but I'll look at it again a year later and think ‘you know what, that wasn't too bad
You mentioned, painting over work. I particularly remember a self portrait in which you scraped off the paint on the canvas, leaving the stained canvas underneath, and you really liked the result.
Yes, absolutely. It was an accidental success. I was getting a bit picky doing this little self portrait, and getting the paint on and adjusting it. I wasn't happy, so I scrapped down it with a squeegee, and then had a painting I was really happy with- literally just with that act. It gave it a bit of character, it was a different style, and again, it was experimentation, and I learnt from that. It can happen in the blink of an eye. Run a squeegee or a paint roller over it, and see what you get.
You recently did a workshop with prism arts. How was that experience?
Yeah. I did a couple of workshops with them recently. Street art landscapes, we did. So, for all the participating artists, I did a couple of demos, then we just worked on our landscapes. It was a really cool thing to do. I really enjoyed it.
The whole point of it was for it to not be intense. It was just to be free with the paint and the paint brushes and spray- Spray paint went down really well, so we did some spray painting. And we worked on a collaborative piece. So in the afternoon, we would pick a landscape and we'd all add a bit.
We've just had an exhibition there, just a short one, but a couple of the pieces are going to get fastened to the wall outside Prism Arts.
What has your experience been, creating your most recent mural, in the Tullie House Nature Area?
Our new curator, Wednesday, has been updating and refreshing our natural history area, and she very kindly asked me to get involved. I think someone told her I was an artist and she had a look at what I do, and we discussed what was needed in such a child friendly area. With my work being quite bright and bold, it worked quite well.
We've done a woodland scene, with a stag and birds flying, and a nocturne scene. It's been a challenge, it's all very new, and it's very nice of them to let me have a go at it. I think it came out well.
The nocturne mural features a light that visitors can press to illuminate the wall. I had to keep pressing that button to get the light on. I wanted it to work both ways, with the light on and off.
This is your first mural that isn't on one plane. On the woodland scene, you have a corner to consider, and on the nocturne you have two.
Yeah. So working in a sort of 3D was a challenge, but, again, it's that problem solving aspect of painting which I quite enjoy. Going back, I maybe would’ve done something different with that tree that goes right on the corner. But then, like we were saying earlier, you can always look back at previous work and pick holes in it. It's all just part of the learning experience. I've only done three murals, it's not something you get to do everyday, so you learn loads with each one, because each one is slightly different. The first one was external and really big, this one is inside, and in a more awkward position. The youth zone was squared off on one wall. So each one is unique.
With this mural, we’d discussed what needs to be in there: the stag and the birds, the grass,- the elements, but I was given free rein on how to compose them on the wall. We knew we wanted a stag, we knew we wanted the long tail tits, it was just a case of fitting it all together.
This has really come together since the animals in the cases have been put on the wall. It really ties it all together. I wasn't told exactly where the cases were going to go. That's part of the reason that the woodland is sort of- there's not too much variety, as I knew these boxes were going somewhere over the top of it.
Was it important that this mural, unlike your others, is intended as a backdrop to the exhibit items?
Yeah. It was in my mind. I was aware of that, which is why I didn't go as ‘over the top’ as I might on some aspects of it. I knew it was a backdrop. Especially the nocturne. I could've gone on for a while with that, but I thought ‘no, it's a backdrop’. There's no need to think about too much detail. And, I was chosen to do it because I paint like I do.
Has your confidence grown in murals? Each one has had a resoundingly positive response.
Yeah. I feel a bit more prepared for the next one I do. Because, you're also learning about the materials you're using, how paint works with different wall surfaces, things like that. It's all stuff you just don't know about until you have a good go at it. You can read all you want online, but until you have a go at it… It all depends on what the next mural is. We'll see what it is, and if I can put all that i've learnt into practice.
Looking forward to doing more?
See Martin Evan's Collections page.