Andrew Button:back to the future

PUBLISHED: 12:27 02 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013

'Hengistbury Head'

'Hengistbury Head'

Stephen Swann meets an artist whose move to Dorset inspired him to concentrate on landscape painting

Few of today's art-school students have any interest in traditional landscape painting. Conceptual, performance or video art turn students on these days, and if the 21st-century art student takes up a brush at all, the chances are it will be to paint à la Hodgkin or Hockney. Landscape painting is seen as old hat, unchallenging, the stuff of amateurs and of retired folk with time on their hands. Yet some young artists are drawn to landscape painting. Andrew Button is one such. I met him recently at his home near Puddletown and I began by asking him how he came to be a landscape painter.

Andrew was born in Bristol in 1975. Both his parents were teachers. "They are very creative," Andrew tells me, "but as for painting, I'd have to look to my aunts. Both went to art college, though neither of them painted professionally."

Andrew grew up in a village on the Mendip Hills, went to local schools, did an Art Foundation Course at Weston-super-Mare and went on to Kingston University to do a degree. "I didn't finish my degree," says Andrew. "As an art course it was too restrictive, too commercially orientated. It was partly my fault and partly the fault of the people who advised me to take up the course."

Married and living in London, Andrew continued to draw and study art history. His wife, Kim-Marie, who was working in the fashion industry, landed a job in Weymouth as buyer for New Look and so they moved to Dorset in 2003. "I had begun to get very interested in art history and in particular the history of landscape painting. I did a lot of life drawing in London but it was Dorset that really inspired me to take up landscape painting seriously. I exhibited some landscapes in Somerset Art Week in 2004 and sold three pictures. Encouraged by this, I set off on a process of learning how to paint landscape."

Andrew's pictures relate to actual places - Wimborne from across the meadows of the Stour, or a lane near Up Cerne, say - but they are not 'passive' like a photograph of the same place would be. They are the work of a human hand wielding a brush loaded with oil paint, a hand guided by an aesthetic sensibility that creates composition, pattern, rhythm, light and shade and chiaroscuro, that is, the distribution of light and dark masses across the surface of the canvas. As such, Andrew's work goes far beyond mere topography, what the great 18th-century artist Fuseli called the 'tame delineation of a given spot'.

Here's Andrew: "I go out for a walk or a drive. I see a spot that I think would make a good picture. I revisit it several times. I sketch, take photographs, make notes. I might do an oil sketch on the spot. Then I come back and do the painting in the studio. This, I know, could be seen as a very old-fashioned way of doing things, but I am not worried about being fashionable.

"Since the Impressionists, painting outside before the subject has been seen as almost the only way of making a landscape painting. It was not always so. Artists working at the end of the 18th and the early-19th century, a period I see as the golden age of English landscape painting, worked in this way. Men like Turner, Richard Wilson, Girtin and the painter who I regard as the greatest landscape painter this country has ever produced, John Constable.

"When I paint I go in feet first. I work quickly. I like making 'mistakes'. I paint the illusion of detail. Work slowly and the painting becomes too static and lifeless. I aim for loose brushwork, texture. Skies have to be loose."

Looking at a landscape by Andrew, what strikes you is the way it works as a picture. This is not to say that feeling has been drained out of the painting in order to produce a work of art that conforms to some academic ideal. A picture by Andrew shows an intensity of response to the natural world that is obvious in every mark on the canvas. Not for him is nature a way of exploring his own interior landscape, rather what comes across is Andrew's essential humility when confronted with nature.

Not for him, either, are rare and exotic locations. Like his great hero Constable who is quoted as saying 'I should paint my own places best', Andrew draws his inspiration from the 'ordinary' landscapes of Dorset. He might paint a specific location but in the end what we see are the beautifully painted trees, hedgerows and fields, the sunshine and shadow. And as for his skies, not for Andrew are they seen as something to put behind the landscape, he paints cloudscapes and he paints them brilliantly.

I end our chat by asking him how he sees the future. "I've got a direction and I am learning every day," he tells me. "I hope I never become satisfied with my work because all I will produce then will be paintings that are stale and dry. I would like to paint bigger pictures - six-footers at least - and I would like one day to have a bigger studio. I cannot ever see myself falling out of love with landscape painting. I suppose it is a kind of disease, but a nice one though."

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