“I always paint directly from life”, says Andrew Gifford, a Sheffield-based artist best-known for his landscape painting. “Because the sun is constantly moving, it means the painting has a natural urgency to it. Marks are more expressive when you have to make them quickly.”
He travels the world to paint busy cities and quiet pockets of nature, working quickly to capture subtle nuances of colour and light that he couldn’t get through reference photography. He says these intangible aspects are a huge part of his inspiration, depicting things that wouldn’t manifest themselves unless he was physically experiencing them, like "colours trapped within shadows or light." He also notes the sensory element to painting En Plein Air, “the cold, the wet, sunlight on your skin, sounds of nature in the wood or of the buzz of cars and people in the city, these all feed into a painting subconsciously.”
Represented by John Martin Gallery, his forthcoming exhibition Alone With Trees at Cromwell Place focuses on a series of recent paintings of Hawthorne trees. The series, first conceptualised when the artist was working in India, was an instinctual response to escape the urban and retreat to nature. His fascination with conservation and rewilding led him to focus on creating work more locally, painting works featured in the exhibition from a coppiced woodland just outside of Brighton.
The exhibition is based around a series of trees and shrubs commonly known as the hawthorn. Despite being one of the most common plant species in the UK, he recalls being heavily drawn to them during a walk earlier this year. He was taken back not only by their physical beauty, but also by the sense of comfort he felt from looking at them. While he notes the hawthorn’s celtic themes of love and reawakening, it was simply their visceral charm and peaceful nature he wanted to convey. “The Hawthorne is quite a normal tree, humble and often overlooked. A plant that you will drive past endlessly in hedges beside the roads of the United Kingdom and yet seldom depicted in paint.”
Working directly from life, he would wander around the woodland, “almost getting lost” until he found a composition that attracted him. Works would be done quickly to harness the best light, often done within two hours, with additional tweaking afterwards in his studio.
Andrew created the series during the UK’s first nationwide lockdown and says the process of painting in the woodland had an “immensely calming effect”. A growing body of research shows that being surrounded by nature, or even looking at images of it, has calming neuro-psychological effects on the body. In a time ripe with anxiety, Andrew wanted to share this with his following, “There was a lot of fear in the first lockdown, and I found that my Instagram posts of the paintings that I was making in the woods seem to help, so I tried to post daily pictures.”
The Hawthorne is quite a normal tree, humble and often overlooked. A plant that you will drive past endlessly in hedges beside the roads of the United Kingdom and yet seldom depicted in paint.Artist
The evolution of these paintings is extraordinary, not just as a record of the subject but also in themselves, as paintings, as abstract ideasFounder, John Martin Gallery
John Martin Gallery started representing Andrew 28 years ago. It was the artist's first year out of art school, and John was opening his first gallery. Since then they have put on over 20 exhibitions together, each marking an end of a chapter in Andrew's work. “He will never go back over previous success,” says John. “For him there is always a door that’s been opened to a new idea and he chases those with incredible energy.”
John notes Alone With Trees as a significant step in Gifford’s career, namely in the contrast from his early works of bustling city landscapes, to then pivot into depicting solitary natural forms. “If you know the hawthorn tree with its tangle of branches, thorns and blossom, it is a tricky subject visually, he says, "but he persisted with them and as the series evolved it seemed that the paint took over, so one minute you are looking at the tree, and the next your eyes become mesmerised simply by these intricate patterns of colour. The evolution of these paintings was extraordinary, not just as a record of the subject but also in themselves, as paintings, as abstract ideas.”