For accomplished abstract painter Lesley Birch, painting is never a chore: it’s a compulsion. From her studio in York – which has become something of a creative sanctuary during multiple lockdowns – she paints places from memory. She chats to us about keeping up creative momentum during times of uncertainty, and her latest works inspired by the wild West Coast of her beloved homeland, Scotland.
Q: Hi Lesly, for those that aren’t familiar with your work, how would you describe your art practice and what would you say are the main threads through your work?
A: I have a daily art practice where I always have paintings on the go. The ebb and flow of the seasons affect my paintings, whether it’s landscapes or flowers.
The main threads running through my work are a love of gesture and expressive marks on canvas or paper.
The paintings express my state of mind with choices of colour reflecting my mood and the marks my energy and emotions. There is often a sense of nostalgia and a distinct love of colour.
Q: Do you prefer to paint in the studio or en plein air?
A: Since all these lockdowns I stayed in the studio and so now it’s become rather a preference. In fact, I love it!
Painting from a memory of a place has helped me distil my feelings about it. And it becomes less literal. I’ve also delved into florals – picking flowers from my garden and painting them in the studio.
‘Creating every day, putting paint to paper and immersing myself in colour empties my head of troubles, filling me with energy and hope.’
Q: Do you think it’s important to be reflective as an artist, and how would you say your work has evolved from your early days of painting?
A: I think, in my early days, it was a bit of hit and miss and reflection didn’t come naturally. It’s difficult to reflect whilst you are actually making a painting because you’re in this special creative zone.
So, for me, times of reflection happen between projects or after each individual painting. Reflection involves a sincere and honest critique about what I’m producing. Where I am is where I am!
I feel my work has evolved since my early days in my ability to use varied media for what I want to say and I’m much more consistent.
I am able to accept the days when paintings are just not working for me. And I have learned to trust that the next day will be better.
Q: What value would you say art plays in your life? What specifically about it keeps you going?
A: Art IS my life. I’ve been going through very difficult times recently with my family life and without my art, I just don’t know how I would cope.
I share a studio with other artists in York and without that community, I also don’t know how I could cope.
Creating every day, putting paint to paper and immersing myself in colour empties my head of troubles, filling me with energy and hope.
When I’m not painting, I feel rubbish, because I’m THINKING about painting, which is ok for a while, but a week or more and I’m desperate to get back into the studio. It’s a compulsion.
Q: You run a 30 Paintings in a Day Course. Can you tell us about that?
A: This will be the fourth year of my 30 Paintings in a Day course. I created this particular course for beginners and experienced artists and I run it just once a year.
The 30 Paintings in a Day is just that – a day course, designed to help folks get into a creative flow through experimentation and play.
It’s really about working in quantity to produce quality. It’s also about facing the fear of using a lot of paint or a hated colour, or an unusual brush or tool.
It’s an intensive, challenging day with lots of exercises I have invented to allow for challenge and expression. I supply all the materials, so I control the initial creative moments. This is the sort, of course, I would have loved years ago!
Q: You’re exhibiting with York Open Studios and Hampstead Art Fair soon. Can you tell us what things you have been working on?
A: York Open Studios is in the first two weekends of April and I shall be opening up both my home and garden studio for this event.
I have accumulated a lot of paintings from lockdowns in the studio and I can’t wait to show landscapes, abstracts and florals on my own walls.
It’ll be a blast! Hampstead Art Fair comes later in the year in May and I shall be exhibiting with Carina Haslam Art Gallery.
Q: What advice would you pass on to aspiring artists?
A: I would say try and do something every day. Or, at the very least, set up a habit of regular painting, sculpting, or whatever you do.
Always be honest with the work you are currently creating. You can’t be something you’re not.
The paintings tell you where you’re at. And challenge yourself to try different mediums and different subject matter.
‘I believe, for most of us, the landscape of our birth is somehow etched in our minds and for me, this is definitely true of Scotland.’
Q: Could you tell us about your new collection of fine art prints for King & McGaw?
A: I’m delighted to be working with King & McGaw on these new editions. They are a series of eight pieces, mainly about colour, mood and energy. All stem from my love of coasts, seas and hills and my love of paint.
They’re nostalgic paintings created from pure feeling and memories of Scottish lochs and coasts. I believe, for most of us, the landscape of our birth is somehow etched in our minds and for me, this is definitely true of Scotland.
Sometimes I don’t know exactly how the paintings appear but, when they arrive, I recognise the place and the paintings speak back to me.
From my aunt’s house on the Isle of Arran to youth hostelling around the West Coast and sunbathing on the Isle of Lewis, or climbing up a rock edge from the sea in Kintyre – it’s all there in my feeling and vision.
I love to build layers and make expressive brush marks to convey movement of air and sound on the canvas.
Mainly, though, it’s all about colour and a sense of abstraction to convey my deep love for the beauty and energy of Scotland.
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