Profile on the Dorset artist Phyllis Wolff
PUBLISHED: 12:53 02 April 2013 | UPDATED: 21:19 05 April 2013
The rolling countryside around Shaftesbury in north Dorset is an inspiration for artist Phyllis Wolff who uses a vibrant and rich colour palette to capture its wild beauty and changing seasons writes Robin Capon
Phyllis Wolff can see Melbury Down in all its beauty from her kitchen window. In fact all the windows of her house and studio reveal the landscape that she knows, loves and paints. She has lived in this part of north Dorset, near Shaftesbury, for the past 37 years and it is chiefly this north Dorset landscape that inspires her wonderfully vibrant, colourful, expressive and personal paintings. She moved to Dorset from London, where she had been teaching part-time and earlier had studied fine art at Goldsmiths School of Art and St Martins.
An admirer of artists such as Rembrandt, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Czanne, Dufy and Hockney, Phyllis works principally in oils and sometimes in watercolour and ink with reed pen or charcoal. She also makes prints, including woodcuts, linocuts, etchings and digital original prints produced from drawings made on her iPad. As well, some of her paintings are available as limited edition reproductions. Her work is figurative landscapes, portraits and still life and Impressionistic, with drawing, colour and instinctive composition being the most important elements.
Having such a strong knowledge and affinity with the surrounding landscape, Phyllis now relies less on working on site. She used to go out in all weathers, sometimes with her easel weighed down with stones to prevent it being blown over. Now, plein-air painting is no longer always essential, especially in the winter! In good weather she paints in the landscape or in the garden she made with her husband. This has two beautiful ponds that have featured in over 30 paintings so far. Away from home she makes sketches and iPad drawings.
Phyllis was trained to draw from observation, starting life classes at the age of 13 at Epsom Art School. She has always frowned at the idea of working from photographs, although now she has grown easier about this process. I know my subject intimately and there can also be advantages in not working directly on site, she explains. It helps you get away from being too literal. You are free to make an interpretation, rather than copy. It was for this reason that the painter Bonnard is said to have painted with his back to the landscape.
I agree with the painter Emile Nolde about the dangers of trying to copy nature. He said: All art is abstract: only reality is not, because reality is not art. A copy of a fruit or person, interchangeably close to reality, belongs in a waxworks show. There is a kind of painting which has to be painted straight off, it cannot be fussed over. Rubens and Rembrandt knew how to do this, Manet and Czanne too, though less tender and spiritual. With visible brushstrokes and an intense glow of colour one can raise charm and beauty to a height that makes the heart beat wildly with contained joy.
The business of painting is much more than just skill, technique or facility. Its about being in touch with something interior, and integrity being willing to be guided by something instinctive. If you develop this, then it reflects on other aspects of your life in the same way. I play the piano, I knit, I make attractive labels for my chutney, and so on its all part of the same thing.
Similarly, I try not to agonise over my painting. I used to, and it doesnt help! Paintings are best when they are playful and about love. They often develop in a way that I hadnt expected in a good way if Im lucky. I have learned to allow the unexpected to happen and not always try to control the way things go.
Phyllis has always painted in oils. She has never been impressed with acrylics and in any case has found no need to change. Oils suit her work perfectly their sensuous quality, resonance of colour, subtlety, and even their smell. She works the colours with driers, retouching varnish and Griffin Alkyd white to help speed up the painting process. And she points out that, perhaps surprisingly, she is very good at looking after her paints, brushes and other equipment. However, she doesnt need to clean her palette, which is a sheet of white melamine board. She was introduced to this while a student at the Byam Shaw School of Art.
For many years Phyllis prepared her own canvases for painting, now, because of a lack of strength in her hands, she happily uses ready-prepared cotton or linen canvases. The size and shape of the canvas are always important considerations in relation to the concept and composition she has in mind. She paints directly onto the white surface, except when she is working over a painting she has rejected for some reason, perhaps because it was becoming overworked. That can be really interesting and useful, because it means you are not hanging on to the idea. So it becomes more about the fresh marks you are making and how gradually the new idea is developed.
Phyllis is always eager to get on with the panting. She starts with a brush drawing to work out what is going on, and develops the painting from that. It is all splashy and runny at this stage, but then I will quickly get to the bit that I most enjoy, which is the colour, the yellow leaves and so on, which is probably the reason why I chose the subject. I get as much colour down as soon as I can, gradually introducing more paint as necessary and more careful brushstrokes.
Phyllis uses a mixture of round hogs and flat brushes. Sometimes I choose sable riggers for the drawing, using rich colours such as alizarin crimson with Prussian blue or purple or burnt umber. I pay a lot of attention to the drawing: it is of the greatest importance and consequently the aspect that takes the most time.
A vital quality in painting, says Phyllis, is honesty. Paintings should not be pretentions or overtly clever but express something that is direct, true to yourself, comes from within, and has integrity. I hope my paintings show these qualities and have some depth. I want them to express something that is not to do with my clever self, my knowing self, but to do with my human beingness.
To see more of Phylliss work and to read her blog visit phylliswolff.co.uk or call 01747 812610 to arrange a visit to her home and gallery