22nd November 2022 by Imogen in Blog

An interview with our gallery artist ahead of her upcoming winter exhibition.

Elaine Turnbull‘s new exhibition When The Cows Come Home opens this week at Westcotts Quay. We spoke to the artist ahead of the opening about painting, wild swimming and never feeling alone in a graveyard:

“This collection came out of a suggestion from Catie that When The Cows Come Home would be a good title for an exhibition, which was such a lovely idea to work from. The collection has some images of cows but also it is very much about how I work: slowly and methodically layering up colours. It also made me think of the passing of time, ritual, tradition, and a sense of place.

When I look at a landscape I see the human impact on the landscape, the buildings, the cows that have trampled the paths, the feet that have walked across it, the human actions that have shaped the landscape. Those layers are fascinating to me, and I try to explore that through my work. One of the paintings that tugs at my heartstrings is From Barnoon Chapel, St. Ives – when I stand in the graveyard looking out to sea there is such a feeling of timelessness. You feel strongly that you are not on your own, that people have been there before.

I try to paint little and often, and get into my studio as much as I can. Ideally, I’d like to be in there a lot more, but life gets in the way. I try to get in there every day, even just to sit and think. I don’t think if you’re an artist you ever get away from working, it bombards you.

Every painting has a lot of drawing in it – working en plein air and being outside is a massive part of my practice.  I have piles of sketchbooks in my studio, I cover my floor with canvases and work on quite a few at once. I’m quite a messy worker – I tend to mix colours and have a pink day where everything will turn pink, then come in the next day and everything will come off again. Then the next day it might be blue. Colour is a very important aspect of my work.

I’m inspired by the simplicity of the drawings, and ultimately, I often end up wiping the paint away to create a condensed feeling of what the drawing expressed. I have the words ‘Space and sacrifice’ written on the wall of my studio, and I’m always trying to do that, to make things simpler and simpler. Children can do something really simple and joyous; I’m always trying to get that joy and freedom. It’s harder as you get older as there are so many preconceptions that you take with you.

I don’t start with any idea of what the painting is going to be, and each canvas takes a long time – I had one canvas for eight years and I painted it, and then painted it out and scraped it off, and then repainted it. But there comes a point in each one where I see an idea in the canvas and take it from there. Cottages with Smoking Chimneys is one that came together quite suddenly – that painting went on and on over two years, with me painting it, and then taking it back, and then I went for a walk one afternoon and saw the smoke rising from the chimneys and thought “that’s it. That’s what I want to paint”. So that resolved itself in one hour. Sometimes a painting is finished by you going out on a walk and seeing the light in a certain way and you think “yes, I know how to finish that one now”.

I grew up on the Northeast coast and have always lived by the sea. I’ve been coming to Cornwall since I was a teenager, and I loved the open, rural lifestyle. Then I got a chance to move down here permanently – we gave it two years and now we’ve been here fourteen years. Everyone says about the light, and there truly is something very special about it, but also I’m drawn to places with a strong sense of social history and St. Ives has a palpable sense of history. The timelessness, ancientness, the hard work living in a rural area.

The swimmers paintings came about this summer. I always used to swim with a wetsuit, but without it, you get such a feeling of freedom in the water. We went in three days ago at St. Ives, without a wetsuit, although it was a bit chilly. That joy of swimming just had to be captured. I’m fascinated about how the swimmers stand in relation to each other, how they use their bodies. Often they have dogs waiting for them on the shore, and I love watching how they interact with each other and their owners, the attention and unselfconsciousness. It’s hard to be unhappy when you’re with a dog.

When The Cows Come Home opens this week at Westcotts Quay, and all works are avilable to purchase in the gallery and online.

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