Born – Marsden, Yorkshire
Studied at Nelson & Colne College
Exeter College of Art
Awarded First Class Honours Degree in Fine Art (Painting)
Finalist – Visual Artist of the Year, Cumbria Life Culture Awards
North of England Regional Prize winner, Discerning Eye, Mall Galleries, London
First prize winner of the John Moores, 24 – Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Commissioned to produce a painting of the newly re-built Paternoster Square, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, which was presented to The Lord Mayor of London, and which now hangs in The Mansion House.
GCI Financial Purchase Prize at Discerning Eye, Mall Galleries, London.
From a very, very early age, I wanted not only to be an artist but I wanted to be a painter. I was aged six, when a young man who had been a pupil of the village school I was attending, brought in his oil paintings to show the class. Drawing, painting and making was already my direction but this visit impressed me so much that being an artist became my goal. My father was an amateur painter and even my mother attended oil painting classes and I was fascinated to see the gradual build-up of their paintings from day to day or week to week. The smell of oil paint in my father’s study on cold mornings was all part of the attraction of this very grown-up thing to do. It was so much a grown-up thing that when, at the age of eight, I was taken to a department store to spend a gift token I had been given, instead of buying the toy lorry I had so much wanted, my father steered me to a wooden box-set of oil paints and brushes and this gesture, being given the opportunity to do an adult thing at such a young age felt like such an honour, I didn’t resist it. Of course, oil paint in those days was for me a difficult thing to handle though I still have some of those earliest works and for my age, they are fine. Skipping a few years when my desire to be an architect came and went (mainly because at the age of seventeen I finally hit teenage rebellion and I dropped out of A levels), my interest in design was diverted when on (two year) foundation, my tutors, for whom I had great respect, and still do, suggested, seriously, that I should instead study fine art. It was a big decision to make because I knew that life as an artist would be difficult. There are no jobs for artists and even though there are commissions, the artist is still a lone, self-employed figure.
Whilst studying fine art, a visiting lecturer told us the realistic fact that only one percent of art students go on to become successful artists (I think that it is now half a percent) I became even more determined to become the thing that deep inside I always knew I would become. It is now thirty-two years since leaving art college and I have never stopped painting or making money from selling my paintings. It has not always been a living but I have always exhibited. My first solo show was actually when I was just twenty, before I went on to study fine art but my first proper commercial exhibition, i.e. one where it was important for me to sell work, was in 1987, a year and a half after leaving college. At that time I was subsidised by my parents while part-time jobs also boosted my income but for much more than twenty years, being involved with a number of galleries and exhibitions, I have been, using that suspect word, ‘professional’; being a painter and working mainly with oil – doing those things I knew I wanted to do when I was six.
I have lived and worked in Cumbria and the Lake District since 1985. I never actually chose to live here. My parents had moved here in 1983 and I came ‘home’ after college, intending to only stay for a few months, always (for a while) intending to move on. When I was studying, a tutor said that we should do our two years in London or as he put it, ‘the London thing’. I know that in a way he was right but even though I attempted to take a post-graduate degree in London, it never happened. Interviewers at the Slade in 1990 convinced me that I had already developed my own strong language in painting and didn’t need London in that way; a way that would change me.
My involvement with the capital has been in working with galleries and staging exhibitions there. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I had gone to London to study or live; I am the only John Moores winner who has never done ‘the London thing’. My painting and what it contains has become inextricably interwoven with the influence of this northern landscape where I live, from its broad to its intimate spaces. My reinvention of often very personal places has become a tribute to this world-famous landscape and my knowledge and understanding of it has added to all the other places I have known, whether real or in my head.
It is fortunate that I have always had just the right amount of naivety and self-belief (and a certain amount of ego) to push myself onwards and know that what I am doing is significant.
There are people who think of my painting as old-fashioned, either in a fond or slightly derogatory way. I myself never think of it this way. I have always seen my work as modern as any other modern art. It is always modern to me. My invented landscapes are reconstructions of the world as I find it today. A knowledge of the history of landscape painting and its significant practitioners and my fascination with the way these painters achieved their results has influenced the way I work, naturally. I wrestle with composition and idea until the painting begins to speak back to me, to resonate in a way that says I am getting somewhere near to what I set out to do. I dislike the idea that there are do’s and don’ts in painting and composition and sometimes I set out to break these unwritten rules. However, I am fully aware that just as the ancient Greeks discovered perfect ratios, there are things which seem to become universally successful or unsuccessful which one cannot ignore and it is then that my painting becomes ‘traditional’ not because I want it to be but because it cannot work any other way. It is then that I work within this tradition; to draw the viewer in and then, if the viewer is willing to spend time looking and reading the painting (landscape is a language) revealing the twists and surprises which plant my work firmly in the ‘NOW’.
There are two driving forces behind what I do. The first is a commitment to inventing, to creating a whole image, a believable entity, entirely from ‘scratch’. This pursuit brings with it personal triumphs, feelings of self-satisfaction when it goes well, when I am able to create the illusion of reality. It is also like running towards the horizon. There is no finish line; there is always more to learn or explore or discover no matter how successful I judge my work to be. I have come to realise lately that what it really is about is a test to myself and in the paintings, the results of this test reveals just how much or little I know about the way the world (in my experience) looks and works. What I have discovered and to what extent I have mastered the technical complexities of painting to reveal this knowledge is revealed in each new painting. Very often I have to be content that all this is something between me and possibly that being which might watch over me. In this world of instant images and the photograph I have to reluctantly accept that most people who look at my work will automatically assume that it is mostly ‘done from photographs’. After all, most artists whose work is representational have chosen this method. It is true that not one of us can avoid being influenced by the nature of the photograph but what you see in my work is the result of thirty-plus years of shunning the use of the photograph. What you see is the result of studying from life with drawing and painting but most importantly by looking and questioning, constantly, to learn about the way things are.
The second driving force is a reluctant dedication to landscape painting. It sounds very odd to say this but I clearly remember, at the time I was beginning to study fine art that the one thing I didn’t want to do was to become a landscape painter. Landscape painting has often been described as ‘genre’ painting, a derisory term in itself and landscape painting has continued to be allotted a very lowly place as a genre. I didn’t want to end up doing something unfashionable, heaven forbid. To some extent, a family trait of shunning the fashionable (my father was a champion of the underdog) drew me closer to landscape painting. It was natural for me to use this genre to talk about the world, the landscape which I was beginning to explore and my inner feelings and discoveries made as a result of this exploration.
Landscape painting is necessarily parochial. It fails as an international language and therefore is shunned even more by contemporary artists and thinkers. It is hated because it is the chosen subject of the amateur, of the ‘Sunday painter’. All of this simply makes me more committed to it. I love (there is a dangerous word, also hated in contemporary circles) to explore, analyse, digest the ‘real’ landscape, wherever, whatever it is. I equally ‘love’ to refashion it, to invent, re-create using this language in which I feel fluent. At the same time I am firmly committed to the structure of ‘nature’, of paying attention to its laws, its physics. Only occasionally and very deliberately I will break those laws and in doing so I am able to do something which I have the ability as an artist to do, to make a metaphor, a symbol, become a concrete illusion, a surprise, a piece of surrealism, another artistic trend I also once wished to avoid. I am also committed to ‘nature’ because even after mankind has attempted to shape and distort it, it is impressively resistant, self-generating, entirely independent and completely unaware of us as humans – it is unquestionable. Yet despite all this I am drawn to and intrigued by the mark which we as humans have made upon our land.
All of what I do requires enormous amounts of memory. Some of my paintings are drawn from memories of real places. Many of my starting places are insistent, very particular yet very elusive mental images which suddenly spring to mind. These are always landscapes of some sort. I cannot summon them up; they appear whenever they like but they are seasonal and only come to me at set times of the year. Painting is pretty much a conscious activity and the difficulty I encounter is trying to set these sub-conscious images down in paint in a very self-conscious way, when all too easily the image dies.
All of my paintings combine elements of things I have encountered in the best part of fifty-one years (I can remember things from the age of two), whether strongly or vaguely remembered. What can be safely said is that these landscapes and every single element within them, exists only in these paintings.
I don’t find it really necessary to talk about what interests me; it is actually too complex and would be too lengthy to try here. I suppose a good cross-section of what interests me is visually evident in the paintings. I am interested in everything to different extents; a small proportion of what I am particularly drawn to finds its way into my paintings. If it is there in the paintings, it is there on purpose. I am engaged in each tiny part and the whole. I have my own aims, what each work is attempting to say and each work has different aims. The individual viewer also has their own life’s experiences and will interpret my aims and the evidence they find in each work in their own way.
I rarely come to start any work with the structure or concept fully formed. These works can best be described as improvisations. Sometimes strong images which exist somewhere in my head at the beginning form the resulting work. More often these starting forms radically change; the painting finding its own course. This is when I can describe painting itself and watching the landscape come into being and evolving, as exploring, going into new territory. I often find the reason for the painting or its concept, as I am part or often well on the way through. Very often I begin paintings with just pure paint, pretty abstract. I put paint down in fairly spontaneous ways to give me the unexpected which is always there ‘in nature’ (I always use ‘in nature’ for that which confronts us immediately beyond our eyes). The subsequent painting layers see the painting come into focus, the section 50%-85(+)% being the most difficult, when the painting has lost its vague freshness and has not yet become ‘gilded’ in the almost tactile reality I strive for.
Martin Greenland, 2017