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Colin Willey: being there

PUBLISHED: 13:07 23 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

Charmouth Paddlers

Charmouth Paddlers

Stephen Swann talks to a landscape painter who draws his inspiration not just from the Dorset landscape but from our ever-changing weather

Colin Willey can't remember a time when he didn't make art. "As a child I would sit for hours drawing - copying things," he tells me. "I still need a reference point, even now. I observe things and paint what I see."

That child who drew things grew up in Uxbridge, the son of working-class parents. He was educated at state schools and did art, history and maths at A level, an interesting combination, to say the least, and one that seems to point to a somewhat original mind. Colin did his Foundation Year at Harrow College and then went on to Cheltenham College of Art from where he graduated in 1995. "The college looked out onto the Cotswold hills and towards the end of my first year I began to take my paints out into the countryside," says Colin.

It was whilst at college that he met his wife, Amanda, herself a student. "When we left we both worked together in an old people's home for a year. I was a cleaner, Amanda was a care assistant," says Colin. "I felt we should try to get into teaching. We did our Post-Graduate Certificate of Education at Brighton. Amanda took to it; I didn't, though I did qualify."

The couple moved to Dorchester in 1997 when Amanda got a job at The Thomas Hardye School, where today she is Head of Art. As for Colin, he was determined to keep painting. "I got a job as a cleaner at Iceland for a few years," he explains. "I was painting too. I had a one-man show at The Gallery on Durngate in Dorchester in 1998, which was something of a turning point, and in the same year I exhibited at The Wykeham Galleries, Stockbridge, and at The New English Art Club show at The Mall Galleries, London. Since then I have exhibited regularly both locally and in London."

The student who first began painting out of doors back in the mid '90s is now a full-time painter who continues to brave the elements in search of inspiration. Needless to say, painting outside in all weathers is not easy. "It's a battle sometimes.The wind can make painting difficult. I like weather and clouds. I don't like days of endless blue sky, I like the light coming and going. Sometimes I drive around just looking for a scene, other times I will aim to be at a given place at a certain time of day. A lot of the work done outside is good enough to be worthy of sale, it works as a picture. Some work done outside has the potential to be worked up into larger paintings. In these larger paintings I aim to combine the life and freshness of the smaller paintings with an interesting build-up of paint."

So, what can be said to define a landscape painting by Colin? Well, the first thing to say is that he is not what might be termed a topographer. That is to say, he is not concerned with painting places in order to render them in something approaching photographic detail. He does paint places or, more often, scenes in a specific landscape location, mostly in Dorset, but what interests him is not the location per se, but how it looks at a moment in time.

In other words, Colin's work is all about light and its effects. His aim is to record "one brief moment caught from fleeting time". To do this he is required to paint quickly. The technique that he has evolved involves an almost intuitive freedom of handling. In Colin's hands, seemingly random marks and brushstrokes, rich and dense colour, become convincing and powerful representations of light and weather and of his direct experience of being there.

Some might see this seeming sketchiness as an excuse for sloppy work or as a demonstration of ease and mere slickness. This would be wrong on both counts. Colin's freedom of handling results from his direct engagement with the sight, sound and smell of the landscape and his deeply felt communion with the weather itself. He is in full command of a virtuoso technique that somehow conveys the drama of the act of painting and the drama of the weather as well. And nowhere is this more obvious than in his treatment of the sky. For Colin, like his great hero, John Constable, the sky is what gives a landscape painting its primary expressive potential, so much so that in many of his paintings the sky takes up more that two-thirds of the scene depicted.

"Painting the way I do can be frustrating. You don't always catch what is there. There is always another day though and there is enjoyment in the search for that scene and that effect of light that will inspire good work. When you do get it right it's a great feeling."

Well, when this quietly spoken, gifted and modest artist does get it right, as he puts it, there is great enjoyment to be had from the resulting work: the ever-increasing band of collectors of his paintings certainly thinks there is.


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