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Who are the artists in your neighbourhood? Gregory Alexander

A man in a navy shirt wearing glasses standing next to a painting of a series of 10 trees in a grid like pattern.

Bayside artist Gregory Alexander was born in 1960 in the seaside town Ramsgate, England. Alexander studied at Canterbury College of Art, Kent, and at West Surrey College of Art and Design, Surrey, England. At the age of 24 he became one of the youngest associate members of the UK’s prestigious Royal Watercolour Society. His career has led to painting watercolours for the Queen Mother and his paintings have been used to illustrate books including the 1991 edition of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In 1993 Alexander migrated to Melbourne and completed his Master of Fine Art at Monash University where he now teaches drawing and painting.

 

Interview with the artist

Bayside Gallery (BG) asked Gregory Alexander (GA) some questions about his art practice and his engagement with the beauty of the Bayside environment and its community.

BG: You have had a long career as an artist. Can you tell us about the most rewarding time in your career and what is it that you love about being an artist?

GA: I have been extremely fortunate that I have spent my life working as an artist – either directly making paintings, prints and drawings – as an illustrator, or a facilitator for others (teaching in schools, University and Adult Education) and coordinating art programs (I worked for many years at ArtPlay a community art centre for children in Melbourne). All these activities have been a great privilege and it is great to be able to use a passion to make a living.

BG: Your immediate environment features heavily in your paintings whether you are travelling abroad or walking down the street to your local café. Can you explain how the Bayside environment and its community has informed your subject matter. Where do you find your inspiration for your artworks?

GA:  Inspiration is all around. As I look out the window of my studio, I can observe the play of light on a tree in my street, it’s a warm golden light just catching the top branches and leaves, turning the leaves Indian yellow, the branches violet and the sky a dark indigo blue. My years of observational painting mean that I see subjects and colour almost everywhere I turn – I see oil paintings, watercolours, charcoal drawings etc everywhere. I just need the time and energy to produce them.

BG: I would like to ask you about your painting, Ten Wednesday’s at Ricketts Point which was acquired by Bayside City Council last year. It is a multi-panelled work of the same tree painted from the same perspective over a period of a few years. How did that work develop?

GA: Ricketts Point is a regular destination for me – I like to kayak from the beach and for years my wife and I have ridden our bikes there to enjoy a coffee from the café, often taking our drinks to a quiet bench. This bench looks out towards the sea and towards the Banksia tree in the work you ask about. It’s a lovely quiet spot for reflection and for many years I promised myself I would paint the tree. It took me a few years to get around to it, but eventually I made my first painting of the tree. As I said it’s a lovely spot; quiet, sheltered from the wind, in the shade, tucked away out of sight, with a beautiful hundred-year-old (at least) coastal Banksia tree full of character. So I painted it again and again. At first I thought I was simply repeating the same painting each time – the sky was blue, the tree was a subtle grey brown the leaves were green – but when I got back to my studio and compared that day’s painting with the previous one I notice how the observations of colour were all different – sometimes subtly, but other times, startlingly so. The blue in the sky was always different, the greens always different and the trunk and branches all different greys. This seemed to me to be fascinating – how the light on the day and even my psychological state would change my perceptions and therefore the painting. Over the years this has developed into a series of paintings where many elements remain constant: my position, the size of the work, the medium, the composition, all of which help to highlight the different observations of light, weather and colour, as well as growth of foliage and even loss of branches. I continue to visit and paint the tree – recently observing how strong coastal winds brought one of the main branches down.

BG: The process of documenting changes in the landscape demands discipline and focus. What is the process of creating your artworks?

GA: I work in a variety of ways. I generally have a practice of painting in situ – landscape, portrait or the figure once a week – but I also have other work on the go in my studio most of the time. Much of this studio work is a chance to develop ideas further – or take an idea discovered whilst working in situ and develop it in a different media or at a different scale. Most of the time I am frustrated by not having enough time or energy to pursue all my ideas. It’s important to keep working regularly as I find that it is only whilst working that ideas arise.

BG: You describe yourself as an en plein air artist. What are some of the challenges that this brings to your painting and why is working out in the open so important to your practice?

GA: En plein air is a French expression that was probably coined by the French Impressionists or their critics in the late 19th century when artists like Monet and Sisley insisted on making paintings directly in front of the subject rather than in their studios. These artists were extremely interested in getting a direct response to the subject and observing their perceptual impressions of form and colour and how these changed according to the light.

Similarly, working in situ is extremely important as it is one of the ways I collect information and expose myself to the vagaries of observed colour and light. I find it so valuable to carefully observe my environment and notice the colour relationships in the landscape. Of course it is also extremely frustrating as the light is constantly changing – with shadows moving and clouds flitting across the sky – one can also be exposed to the elements (rain, sun, wind – even a moderate breeze can shake the easel). However I generally find it satisfying in the long run (even if I mostly feel like throwing my painting away when I complete a day’s work).

BG: Are there any artists that you admire or aspire to? How have they been influential to your practice?

GA: There are so many artists that have influenced me over the years but some of my most formative influences came from landscape painters like Alfred Sisley (1839 – 99) and Claude Monet (1840-1926) who pioneered working en plein air prioritising the observation of colour by noticing how light changes colour in the landscape. I also fell in love with the German artist, August Macke’s (1887–1914) watercolours of Tunisia. These had a profound effect on my own watercolours in the late 1970s and 80s. I also admire the nineteenth century printmaker Charles Meyron (1821–1868) who produced beautiful etchings of Paris and who I tried to emulate with my own teenage etchings. In 1978 whilst still at art school I visited a wonderful exhibition of Indian Miniatures from Rajasthan at the British Museum in London. This cemented a love of these superb tiny watercolours – with their heightened colour, different representations of space, and decorative strength. In 1990 I was able to actually visit Rajasthan, during a visit to India to do research for my illustrations to the Jungle Book.

BG: Over the years you have worked in many types of mediums, from charcoal, collage, printmaking and watercolour. How does the medium inform your work? Which has been the most challenging?

GA: The British contemporary artist Tacita Dean (1965-) speaks about the importance of resistance from a medium. She says,

Any artist who works in paint or chalk or film or whatever knows that sometimes the medium itself will give you something entirely unexpected, and something far better than what you intended, ...you follow the medium. [1]

I understand this to refer to the ‘pushback’ from the medium that occurs when one attempts to paint or draw something. In Dean’s case, she uses traditional analogue film to make her photographs and films (rather than digital) and this has a profound effect on her work. The subject is translated through the medium and influenced by the limitations and peculiarities of the medium.

This resistance actually guides the work and the artist, and Dean very nicely describes how:

Content happens as a result of the medium; they cannot be separated. The content without the medium is profoundly altered, and is not the work. A painting is not just a picture, but a painting. A film is not just pictures but a film. [2]

Often for me the subject dictates the choice of medium – I actually see the subject filtered through my understanding of oil paint, watercolour, etching – and can see in my mind’s eye the completed work. But equally, circumstances can and do dictate a choice of medium. For instance, whilst travelling I may only have watercolours with me, or I am excited about using a particular medium and less interested in the subject. Sometimes it’s great to try to work in a very different medium because it will resist so much – for example my collages are a real challenge as they force me to simplify to essentials – and I love that.

BG: Can you describe your studio for us.

GA: I actually have two spaces in my home – I’m very lucky. One is a spare bedroom with a lovely window facing east that gets the morning sun. I know you are supposed to have a constant light source (traditionally a northern light in the northern hemisphere (southern here) where you don’t get the sun streaming through the window, but I actually like the bright morning sun that welcomes me into the room in the morning. I have a large drawing table under the window and I work on smaller watercolours, collages, and drawings here. Bigger work is produced on an easel or on the walls. My other studio is downstairs and does have a good constant light. This is a larger room and I use it for storage and bigger easel work, sometimes getting people to sit for portraits or figure work.

BG: What advice do you have for artists just starting their career?

GA: Be careful to whom you show your work, and don’t put too much value on an opinion. Select people who are sympathetic and whose work you admire; a careless comment can really disable, especially early on. Find your tribe – whether this is by attending Art School, going to night classes or simply finding people of like mind. You need to build your confidence and develop real resilience – and get used to rejection – my work has been rejected many many more times than it has been lauded. Remember that as an artist you are always searching and trying things out, and this is rarely popular.

To find out more about Gregory Alexander, follow him on Instagram @gregalexander1

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/mar/11/tacita-dean-interview-celluloid-heroine-london-exhibitions-film

[2] https://www.artforum.com/print/201508/tacita-dean-54974

Workshop Activity

Gregory Alexander has created a fun workshop 'Recording observation of colour caused by light and weather' which is suitable for all ages. Please download by clicking on the link below. We would love to see your creations from this activity, please share them on Instagram and tag Bayside Gallery (@baysidegallery) and use the hashtag #baysidegalleryartactivity

Workshop activity (PDF, 787.82KB)

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