Entrancing light plays a large part in this scene by Emma Cownie. She explains, “I was drawn to this painting because I love the colours that come alive in misty backgrounds illuminated by the sun, viewed from the more darkened interiors of the wood.”
Contemporary painter Emma Cownie tells us about her influences and inspirations, how she has developed an abstracted landscape style, called "refractionist", and how art helped her recover from post-traumatic stress
What themes do you pursue?
I am interested in how light imbues colour; how the play of light and shadow evoke such powerful emotions. I am also interested in the way that images, broken down to a pre-perceptual degree, express not only emotions but illustrate how the mind veers between emotion and cognition, trying to ‘figure it’ out in order to respond.
Is there anything that particularly inspires you?
Light! As a young person I was very inspired the treatment of light by nineteenth century British artists such as Ford Maddox-Brown (The Pretty Baa lambs -1848), the colour in Millais (the Blind Girl 1854-6), the combination of both in William Inchbold (A Study in March 1855), Constable’s oil sketches, Walter Richard Sickert (Palazzo Eleonara Duse, Venice 1901), French artists such as Rosa Bonheur’s Ploughing at Nivernais (1849)! As the years have rolled on I have been increasingly drawn to the use of bold colours in the work of Lucien Pissaro and Emil Nolde. I also admire the strong use of colour in the flowers and landscapes of Swansea artist Cedric Morris and the energy in the paintings of Frank Auerbach and Oskar Kokoschka. In recent times I have been drawn to the work of Robert Bevan and various other artists such as the Colourists, especially Cadell, the Camden Town Group, Harold Gilman, plus Paul Gaugain, Gustave Caillebotte, Charles Filiger, Andre Derain,Tom Thomson and Edward Hopper’s paintings of buildings (which have inspired my own paintings of buildings which I have yet to upload).
How many years have you been an artist?
I have always painted in some way since a child, so thirty plus years at least!! Professionally, only in the last year or so.
Where is your studio?
My studio is in the converted attic/loft at the top of my house overlooking Brynmill and Singleton Parks in Swansea, although I barely notice them; too engrossed in painting. It is nice to paint and listen to nature (although Radio 4 is strangely conducive also).
If you couldn’t be an artist, what would you do?
Well I have previously been an academic, presently a teacher as well as an artist but I have always had a secret yearning to be a writer.
How important is light in your work?
Light is the essential ingredient in my work as Andre Derain suggests “The substance of painting is light.” I love light and colour. In my art I am drawn to light and shadows and how they shape our emotions. I remember visiting the South of France as a teenager and being mesmerized by the dazzling light, I have been attempting to capture that excitement about light in my paintings ever since.
Do you have a composition in mind when you start painting, or do you go with the flow?
I usually work from a photographed image so it is more structured - any spontaneity comes within a structure as such, like the best jazz, with coloured textures improvised. This is particularly the case with the ‘refractionist’ paintings which breakdown images into segments of colour, or ‘colour-contained light’. I call this technique 'refractionist' as it, according to my sister, is like a 'stain glass window' effect of breaking down the light into different colours in the similar way light is 'broken' into separate colours in a spectrum. It is about breaking down the effect of light on colour into ‘component’ pieces of colour.
How do you create your works?
I look for inspiration in all around me in my locality, in my local park, on the beach, in the woods down Gower, Irish Cottages and landscapes I have seen on holiday and in the Churches and Chapels of Wales. I will work from sketches and notes that I have made as well as from photographs, I started with photos I found on the internet but increasingly I work from pictures either myself or my husband have taken.
What’s the process?
I use oil on linen canvas. I like to paint directly onto the canvas, as pencil will show through in time. I will sketch the outlines of the basic shapes and blocks of colour in dark blue or browns. I then will fill in the blocks, often starting with the lightest colours and trying to keep my palette as “clean” as possible so my colours do not become muddy. I try and make my colours bold and bright but as realistic as possible. I aim to make people look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary beauty in it.
Please pick one of your works on Artfinder and tell us how you made it or what inspired it.
I will pick a challenging work. I had a car crash and ended up suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and this ‘scar on the soul’ manifest in completely new ways of painting, techniques until then never explored. The painting “Fractured Light” is an important painting in this change and illustrates one of my main techniques (the others being the simple catching of light in colour and the interplay of light and shadow). In “Fractured Light”, which is essentially sunlight spilling through a woodland grove, the yellow or lime green leaves represent the light peeping through the top leaves of the various trees and the blue light suggest sky-hued light around edges of leaves as well as illustrating light falling in the distance, providing a depth of perception in the painting. The various stripped or striped lines of colour on the right of the painting express a rippling stream in the sunlight, although one has to step back some 9 feet to appreciate this fully. It is a very difficult, time consuming technique, almost as if I am painting a pre-perceptual stage of vision itself. By this I mean, that it is similar to the pre-construction phase that is said to occur when we actually construct perception, as perception is constructed and not an automatic process. So in looking at this painting our brain can both enjoy the painting and also ‘construct’ our wood.
What do you think makes an artwork successful?
An ability to express, evoke emotion and engage those viewing art in some emotional response. As Cezanne suggested “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” I suppose my work is inspired by post-impressionism and expressionism in expressing emotion or feelings. I have been told my work is uplifting, or that it’s like ‘being there’ in the painting’s location. It appears to draw an immediate response and emotional reaction. Hopefully it also ‘transports’ the viewer elsewhere to somewhere tantalisingly familiar, as one person remarked, to a fondly remembered place in the heart.
Aside from the studio, where do you hang out?
I volunteer in a ‘soup kitchen’ which helped me in the darkest days of my post trauma - helping others helped me momentarily forget about my own troubles and worries. Only two things could do that and the other one was painting. Also see http://www.emmacownie.com/about/ for supplementary images
Spotlight Interview With Landscape Painter Emma Cownie
We featured landscape painter Emma Cownie’s website a couple of weeks ago, when we were instantly drawn to the vibrant, rich colours so prominent in her work. In this spotlight interview Emma shares the influences and ideas behind her paintings, of which you can see more at http://emmacownie.artweb.com/
Being An Artist
Please Give Us A Few Words Of Introduction About Yourself…
I was born in Hereford to a Welsh mother and an English father and have lived most of my adult life in Wales. I have a PhD in Medieval History and work part time as a History teacher at Secondary school. Any spare time I have is spent painting.
When Did You Decide To Pursue Art As A Career?
I have always painted as a hobby but after a car accident in 2012 and I developed PTSD and started painting all day and every day as part of my therapy.
Did You Train In The Arts? If So, What And Where Did You Study?
I only have “A” Levels in Art and Art History. I have taken courses in Screen Printing and Ceramics but my first love is Oil Painting.
What Has Been The High Point Of Your Creative Career So Far?
My first solo exhibition which took place this summer.
What’s Your Favourite Quote?
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” ~ Edgar Degas
Do You Have A Favourite Artist? What Do You Like About Their Work?
Robert Bevan – Most people have not heard of him. He’s a British artist who lived around the turn of the last century and spent time in Brittany with Paul Gauguin. I like his use of colour and his interest in the structure of natural forms. I also like the Brittany paintings of Gauguin. I like his use of flat, bright colours and the simplification of the forms. I think they both have produced very beautiful paintings.
You And Art
What Feelings Or Reactions Do You Hope To Inspire In People Who View Your Work?
I hope that I inspire people to really look at the natural world around them. I am interested in blocks of colour and natural forms. I notice little things, tiny details, really. I can become obsessed by things like the colour of shadows on sunny days, patterns of fields in the distance or the branches of winter trees. Looking at such things gives me enormous pleasure and I like to explore those things in my art.
Are You Ever Surprised By Reactions That You Get?
I am surprised that people like all sorts of the paintings I do. Some people love my cows most, others prefer the expressionist-style landscapes.
What Mediums Do You Prefer To Work In, And Why?
Oil painting – by a long way. I love the richness of colour and the way the paint moves on the canvas. I have found that acrylics paint doesn’t blend in the same satisfying way. The colour often seems “flat” to my eyes. I love to buy different colours and I have my favourites shades and frequencies.
From Start To Finish, How Long Does It Take For You To Create Your Work?
It varies enormously. Small paintings may take a few hours, the larger ones can take three to four full days of painting. My favourite sort of painting is one that I can complete in two days.
What Music Do You Like To Listen To When You Work?
All sorts – anything from Kate Bush, Talking Heads to Country. I more usually listen to Radio 4 or the World Service on my laptop.
What Are You Working On At The Moment?
A large painting of ice skaters, skating at the Swansea “Winter Wonderland”. It’s taking quite a bit of time but I like the way it’s developing a life of its own as it progresses.
Being Inspired By Art
What Feelings, Subjects Or Concepts Inspire You As An Artist?
Colour. Nature. Trees. Animals.
Is There A Particular Place That Inspires You?
I love looking at the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the National Gallery, Cardiff.
What Is Your Favourite Work That You’ve Produced So Far And Why?
My favourite work is “Penmaen Bend” which is a winter scene of Gower. I like it because all the elements hang together and I enjoy looking at it.
An Artist’s Advice
For Those Thinking About Turning A Passion For Art Into A Career, Could You Give Any Advice?
Try and paint as much as you can, daily if that is possible.