Jo Denbury, Features Writer
Vanessa Bowman comes from a long line of artists. When she was a child, growing up in Dorset, she remembers her father setting up easels in the garden for the three sisters to paint pictures of the local church. It is no wonder that after gaining a first from Winchester College of Art and dipping her toes into textile design, Vanessa returned to her first love, painting.
I always wanted to paint,’ she muses, but I studied textile design because I felt I should do something more practical. It was after just a short time in Winchester following college that she moved back to her home county of Dorset and settled into life in the village of Cattistock. She began by sharing her father’s studio but after a while he suggested she start her own studio, and now she works in a lofty hut at the end of her garden.
Filled with light, even on the darkest of days, it is noticeably tidy. Her easel and palette stand at one end while her work surrounds the floor, all in waiting for her contribution to a group show this month at the Jerram Gallery in Sherborne. The notable calm of her studio is reminiscent of the subtle palette of colours that fill the background of her landscape paintings. They have an ease that doesn’t hound you but invites you to investigate them further. When you do, you discover their detail and it is that which makes you want to return to them again and again.
Every morning Vanessa walks across the neighbouring fields with her Westie terrier called Smartie. ‘I do it to get my head in the right place before painting,’ she explains. ‘That’s when I see the landscape and begin to focus.’ Her work pays attention to the details in the landscapes, with a focus on the workings of the land punctuated by seasonal landmarks and detailed foregrounds which feature the vibrant colours of hedgerow flowers or Autumn berries.
‘I like Winter as well,’ Vanessa remarks, ‘because the landscape is laid bare. You can see the strip-lets in the fields and the workings left by man.’ She prefers to work seasonally because, in her words, ‘there is a rhythm in the land with what you see’. Be it snowdrops and catkins, or bluebells and Summer poppies, it is clear that Vanessa is very much at home with the landscape that she grew up in and the Englishness of her palette is rooted and comforting.
‘I work on board or card using oils but in a way its closer to watercolour because I thin it down quite a lot,’ she explains. Vanessa’s method is to begin by mapping out the arrangement she wants, she then does an overall wash in a neutral colour. When it comes to the actual painting Vanessa can then move the paint around easily because of the smoothness of the support, and add the detail. Although the paintings are set in the landscape, the work is focussed on design, colour, pattern and spacing rather than topographical and this decorative method crosses over naturally into her still life work. On a table to the right of her easel - she is fanatical about the position of her easel, ‘if it was moved I would be lost’ - is her collection of objects for her still life work. ‘I just collect objects as and when something catches my eye,’ she says and spends time looking for interesting bits and pieces in junk shops and flea markets. Today among the objects is a pretty jug and a shell but tomorrow it might be a vase of flowers and an unusual tablecloth.
Whereas her landscapes are worked from memory, the still life paintings are worked in situ and have a wonderful poetic feel that at times is reminiscent of Matisse’s ‘Nice’ paintings. The vibrancy of colour comes from her early years whenshe worked in pastel and watercolour. But it was her father, who, eight years ago suggested that she switched to working in oils so that she could find the depth of colour she wanted. She says it was wonderful to have had his input but laughs at that fact he suggested she have her own studio, saying ‘painting is a solitary thing and requires discipline’. Nowadays Vanessa works in her studio from 10am until 3pm when her three children begin to trickle back from school. But as she builds up to a show and as an artist who has to earn a living, she has to timetable her work to make sure the paintings are finished. A small painting can take a day while the larger paintings will take two or three. Despite the pressure that any new show can bring, Vanessa seems remarkably at ease with her work. As she nestles a cup of coffee in her hands and looks out of the window of her studio towards Cattistock’s church and her beloved hills and fields beyond, a sense of calm pervades. It is clear that she is at one with Dorset and it will always be her greatest source of inspiration.