Robin Richmond 'Turner's Cloud'

Robin Richmond: The Lyrical Colourist

With her 26th solo show this year, Robin Richmond continues her engagement with the land, inspired by a cycle of poems. And right now, she’s doing what she’s always wanted

When you look at one of Robin Richmond’s paintings, you step into a breezy, fragrant moment: you step into the landscape itself. Yet there is no recognizable scenery: no woodland, lake or mountain to capture the glance. It’s more of a feeling of travelling; moving through somewhere you know deep inside.

But one thing you do notice, amid the raw energy of the elements and the landscape: there is no human footprint.

Robin Richmond is finally doing what she feels she was meant to. In 26 solo shows, plus countless group appearances, she has gone from portraits and figures through to free, almost abstract landscapes: and it is this current work that feels most right.

“I think that what I’m doing now is what I’ve been aiming to do for a very long time,’” she says. “I’m very keen to mine this seam I’m mining now.”

A common theme that has run through many of her shows is that of geology. She began with From Bone to Stone 25 years ago, while her recent show at her London gallery, the Curwen and New Academy Gallery, was Stones of the Sky. The paintings were based on Las Piedras del Cielo, a 1971 cycle of poems by Pablo Neruda,.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to follow this geological theme; just a fascination with the bones of the earth.

“I’ve always been very interested in the geological history of the earth. I used to paint recognizable bits of landscapes . There were always bits of archaeology hidden in the earth – you could see bones and shards of rock and pottery. I think it’s not a coincidence that my house in France is about 20 minutes from the caves at Lascaux, which have always been very important to me as an artist.”

This fascination found its most direct focus in the paintings of beach stones she did last year, Mineral Histories.

“I don’t see those paintings as being very different – they are shaped differently; they are round and oval – but you could see the history of their formation in the stone, not that different from what I’ve always been interested in.

“At the same time I was interested in the Neruda poems. Neruda was also a great beachcomber, like me. He wrote a lot of poems about what he felt about history and time, and that seemed like a good template for work.

“You have a show, then it ends and no one sees your work for a few years. Then you have another . Artists need some kind of anchor to hold them to a theme and that’s how the Neruda poems work for me.”


Sculptural Painting

Despite her love of stone, Richmond has never been tempted to venture into sculpture. On the other hand, her paintings have become more sculptural over the years – she is currently using a moulding medium to build up texture on the canvas, and in the past she made her own paper to provide substance. She loves trying to achieve a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface.

“Some of my paintings look like old, bashed-up walls or leather or terracotta. The great thing about the way I’m working now, I can sand off this moulding medium; I can add to it, I can sand it off.”

She turned to acrylics after becoming allergic to oil paint and, despite initial reservations, found a new way of working: rubbing in thin layers of acrylic with a soft cloth, followed by numerous glazes in oil.

“I always start a painting in acrylic but always finish it in oil. The acrylic is a very good ground. You can get a very strong colour, but I never find that it’s subtle enough. I build up layer upon layer of acrylic and the paintings often take a long time. Then I put layer upon layer of oil on top of them in very thin glazes, and that’s how you get that depth of colour.”

The Colour of Light

It’s that depth of colour that most defines Richmond’s work. From vibrant reds and oranges to cool blues, she is not afraid of exploring the natural shades she sees in landscapes around the world. She has recently been painting the midwinter light of Norway.

“Those paintings are kind of icy and I’m quite aware that my palette has changed. You get this extraordinarily weird light in Scandinavia, and colour just fizzes and bubbles in a strange way.

“My husband has this really rather disgusting yellow rain mac that he wears on his bicycle to go to work in London. In London it looks lemon yellow, but he was wearing it in Oslo and it went chrome yellow in the light there – which got me interested in light. So I started walking around at dusk, and I realised that reds and yellows look extremely different in that northern light.”

Another revelation was visiting the Edvard Munch Museum, even though, at the time, she “loathed” his paintings.

“An amazing thing happened to me. I suddenly fell headlong in love with his work and understood it. And ever since I’ve been looking at the light in Munch’s paintings. The painting Waves (After Munch), has a very strange sky and that was a direct transcription of a sky that I saw in Oslo in the wintertime after looking at Munch.”

Richmond has often been compared to the St Ives artists because of the clear light that shines through her paintings – viewers have told her they feel they are falling into her pictures.

“Any artist that celebrates colour – like Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Ivon Hitchens – means a great deal to me. I was taught at Chelsea by Prunella Clough and there’s some kind of sensibility in her work that transposes to mine. But also, I grew up in Italy, and you can’t do that without being affected by colour. I also spent a lot of time in India and Mexico – I would call myself a lyrical colourist. Mark Rothko means a lot to me; so does Turner.”

Drawing on Memory

Richmond’s paintings sometimes appear in her head fully formed; other times they are triggered by words, memories, sketches.

The Hard Shell of Night is an Oslo painting, and it came to me absolutely in the middle of the night, completely formed. I literally raced down and wrote the word ‘black’ across the middle, just to remind myself how to go about attacking it in the morning. Sometimes that happens – that they come fully formed – and it feels like I’m snatching them from somewhere else. I also find out what I’m thinking as I’m painting; one mark leads to another mark.”

She is constantly out in the landscape, absorbing, observing. Sometimes she writes; sometimes she makes watercolour sketches – but she does not copy these once she gets back to the studio. Instead, she works out where the moulding medium must go, then begins the layering, letting the painting resolve itself.

“I’m very much a landscape painter. I know some people think of me as an abstract painter, but titles are very important in my work and there’s a lot of specificity of where the place is. I’m very clear that I want to communicate where I am in the world. So I have a notebook with me all the time. I might have a glance at it before I start working in the studio again, but then it’s kind of memory, I suppose. It’s a direct response to the light, particularly of a place. It’s not really out of my head.”

Focusing the Mind

Another aspect to her talent is writing art criticism, but she has put the books on hold for the time being in order to focus more fully on her painting.

“I go a little nutty when I’m not painting. Painting for me is a way of organising my thoughts. It’s like a filing cabinet; I’ve got to file away these ideas. If I have nowhere to file them I don’t know where they go – they just start driving me crazy.”

Richmond made her name painting portraits, but now she says she couldn’t face painting another one.

“I found, for a start, I burned out with dealing with other people’s vanity – that really upset me. I realised that I needed to be alone when I paint. I always painted from life so there was always another person in the studio with me, which I found disturbing.

“Then we bought this house in France in the middle of nowhere and I started looking around me and thought – Oh, there is enough subject matter to last me the rest of my life. It’s right by a lake, there’s lots of forest, there are wonderful hills. Like in the Neruda work, there’s no human footprint. I really like that.”

LYNN PARR

Robin’s solo show at City University Atrium Gallery in London continues until 2011. Her next solo show in the US is at Yale University’s Morse Gallery in January 2011. www.robinrichmond.net; www.curwengallery.co.uk