Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

Cézanne – Muse, Guide And Maestro: Interview With Phil Fraser – Watercolour Artist

Landscape watercolour artist Phil Fraser works from his idyllic, light-filled studio situated in Grassington, surrounded by the dramatic majesty of the Yorkshire Dales. Hiking around this verdant countryside is to marvel at nature’s capacity to delight the soul as well as the eyes. Serendipity enabled me to stumble across Fraser’s gallery, his artworks all sublimely aesthetic responses to the picturesque beauty inspiring this gifted practitioner.

Fraser’s dextrously nuanced use of light dazzled me, as did his apparent creative sympatico with that most delicate and infamously difficult of mediums, watercolour. His work is lit from within, the multihued radiance shimmering like a beneficent flame within a bright lantern. His avuncular personality and near consummate knowledge of his craft and its icons, held me almost as captive as the fruits of his labour! Having admired his scintillating, emotive work, I decided to interview this humble, yet prodigiously talented creative for our readers.

His path to Grassington has been both circuitous and formative. I wanted to understand that journey, its origin and the signposts encountered along the way.

‘French Impressionism is a very seductive/indulgent style both for the painter and spectator. Once discovered I was an immediate convert, even as a school child. I also had an inclination towards figurative art which was very unfashionable at art college in the 1970s and feeling somewhat defeated I pursued my interest through Art History. I loved that course and amongst the many revelations about art I encountered was the overarching discovery that ‘great art’ is underpinned by philosophy and psychology ie. the idea of what art ‘is’ or ‘should be’, coupled with the emerging theories of perception in the 19th century and the process of ‘how’ we see the visual world’.

‘Two years after my course finished, I was on my way to live in Venezuela about to be married to a Latin girl I’d lived with in Oxford and about to discover the sun-drenched tropics. It all felt like a bit of a dream. In amongst earning my living as an English language teacher I quickly became enchanted with allures of the tropical light and colours and began drawing and painting with vigour and application’.

‘It wasn’t until my then wife said to me one day, rather intolerantly, “don’t think you’re going to be a painter ….. I don’t want to be poor for the rest of my life” that my fate was sealed. I was going to become a painter, albeit a divorced one! In my naivety I had not realised until then how liberated and devoted you need to be to become a painter’.

I wanted to understand how the cultural and physical habitat of Catalonia had affected his artistic senses: ‘The daily encounter of painting ‘en plein aire’ and the exhibiting opportunities were extensive. I painted during the day and taught English in the evening. Barcelona and Catalonia are rich cultural areas and the legacy of Picasso, Dali, Miro and Gaudi was very much in evidence, legitimised the artistic life. I was already in love with watercolour and the heat and drying time aided the medium. I painted all the landscape I came across and the early morning light made everything radiant’.

I had noted the distinct parallels with Cézanne in Fraser’s work - his blocky, yet translucent use of light and impressionistic rendering of the local countryside, reminiscent in style of that of the great French master, yet entirely original given the application of this technique to the rural quintessence of the Dales. Fraser told me, ‘Cézanne rather than Monet was my ultimate role model and more pertinent to watercolour than Monet’s oils. His famous ‘late watercolours’ have intrigued artists and art historians ever since the painter Émile Bernard tracked down the reclusive Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, urging him to vocalise and theorise on his ‘plein-aire’ technique’.

‘Unlike the ‘dazzling shimmer’ of Monet and other impressionists with their ‘coalescing dabs’ of oil paint, Cézanne was more intent on fragmenting and structuring his planes of colour to give them properties of perspectives and modelling. Space and depth were everything to him and he was not prepared to sacrifice those aspects for a surface ‘flux of colour’ as were his contemporaries. He was, and remains, a titanic figure and I have always endeavoured to follow his approach, all be it as a very poor disciple’.

The intriguing luminescence of Fraser’s landscapes had me keen to further explore how Fraser had translated Cézanne’s understandings of light to the Dales: ‘As a landscape painter returning to England from Spain you have to ‘exchange’ instant heat and light of contrasting colours for the ‘verdancy’ of your native landscape, so idealised and romanticised by Turner and Constable respectively. I have retained my bright pallet and always endeavoured to paint sunlit landscapes. My subject matter very often revolves around woodlands, rivers and open landscapes and living in the Dales provides all of those subjects in abundance’.

‘While the Dales provides a ‘ready made’ rural idyll one does need to reinterpret it with one’s own stylistic vision of light to avoid a mere emphasis on the picturesque appeal. Certainly the great distance and depths one can observe in the Dales landscapes results in the light always being different and can thus eclipse and transform the same views from day to day’.

As an amateur artist myself, I can report that working with watercolours is rather akin to hoping to be a poet, and finding that language itself can be frustratingly recalcitrant and blatantly unforgiving of incompetence ! Possession of the materials is inconsequential without mastery over them. Perhaps the reason my own efforts are mostly displayed in the gallery of BIN!

‘Ever since working with watercolour back in the 1980s I have been hooked on the medium. Unlike the opaque qualities of oil and acrylic it relies upon its thin washes and transparency and its ability to build up successive layers of colour and tones. The ‘light’ in my work is on one level, a manipulation of the white paper aided by the use of masking fluid to describe highlights. No actual paint can affect or produce brightness as the white paper can. As the surrounding layers of transparent washes of colour accumulate, creating harmonies and contrasts, the luminosity of the work grows. The light in my work is everything and the subject matter is really a pretext for its effects’.

‘The other aspect of my style is the challenge to balance concise description or portrayal of landscape details while allowing the ‘flow’ of the colour to surround and submerge that detail in the form of poetic dispersal of paint. By this I mean watercolour, wetness and paper create their own beautiful dynamics and harnessing and ‘liberating’ the medium is a big part of the challenge’.

The life of the professional artist may seem blessed, however Fraser knows that without the support of his family, the tenacious pursuit of his creative impulses and the odd nudge from benevolent providence, things could have been rather less idyllic: ‘As a professional artist you are constantly aware of your responsibility to your work whilst also trying to make a living. I can balance the two things as my gallery is also my studio. In this privileged position, being paid for what you love doing is indeed a blessing but making a living remains a constant uncertainty for myself and all artists I know. I owe a huge debt to the support of my wife and family without which I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my work and career with the same sense of freedom and security’.

Fraser’s professional aspirations were voiced in a particularly apposite manner; through the genius of Leonard Cohen, though Fraser admits he has not yet signed his own masterpiece…

“I came so far for beauty,
I left so much behind,
My patience and my family,
My masterpiece unsigned.”

Pushed for another inspirational quote, Fraser cited one of my personal favourite - the words of G.K. Chesterton when referring to the quest for the sublime expression of vision and beauty : “At the back of our brains, so to speak there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this sunrise of wonder”.

I left the gallery wishing his munificence had extended to persuading my own brushes to be a little kinder to my own infinitesimally miniscule talents. Thankfully, whilst fate did not bless me with artistic aplomb, it certainly bestowed such upon Fraser !

Grove House Gallery, Grassington, BD23 5BE: