Artist Katherine Hamilton has a keen eye for adventure
- Credit: Archant
Katherine Hamilton is a landscape artist with a cinematic vision. She’s a world traveller who loves to soak up the cultural influences of the places she visits and transfer them onto her canvases.
The result are paintings which have that widescreen feel similar to images captured by film-makers like David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia or Anthony Minghella in The English Patient. Film-making is frequently described as painting with light, this description is equally valid when discussing the work of Katherine Hamilton, whose latest exhibition has just opened at The Chappel Galleries outside Colchester.
Katherine’s paintings are just as much about place and atmosphere as they are about the physical topography. Her work is about shapes and shadows as much as it is about colour and dynamic vistas. She has an amazing ability to capture the spirit of a place by combining all the elements which make up a painting.
A photograph may capture a view but a painting, particularly a Katherine Hamilton painting, captures the atmosphere of a place. You get a feel of what it must be like to live there, open your windows each morning and gaze out at the natural wonders before you.
The forword to Katherine’s exhibition book has been contributed by film camerman Dick Pope, who has shot such films as Vera Drake and Mr Turner, and confirms the cinematic nature of her work but also highlights the fact that she is also a storyteller.
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“Her perfect compositions, captured effortlessly within the frame, are always quietly observed from a very natural point of view,” he writes. “They all tell a story, lightly atmospheric in tone here, mysteriously and darkly brooding there, fleetingly observed or meticulously studied but always reeling me in with their underlying narrative, their calming affirmation and global celebration of people and places across the planet. This marriage of narrative, light and composition is what I strive to achieve when I photograph a film for cinema.”
Speaking from her home in Reydon, near Southwold, Katherine takes these compliments with a modest smile and then quickly moves the conversation on. I want to hear about her travels and her adventures but she is more concerned with extracting information out of me about my daughter’s trip to Canada and how she found the lakes and The Rocky Mountains.
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You can tell she loves travel because even my secondhand anecdotes are hungrily devoured and further questions are forthcoming. It seems that travel does broaden the mind and Katherine is always looking for new destinations and new experiences.
One of the reasons why Katherine’s paintings are so powerful is that she doesn’t ignore the human influence. She recognises that in many places man has not only shaped the landscape, he continues to live off it. Humanity is part of the landscape and it is not unusual to see her painting people in a bustling market place, capture children pushing a trailer or drop a fisherman mending a net into a seascape.
In other paintings, man-made field boundaries create a network of regular lines across the canvas and are a silent testimony to man’s presence in some of the most isolated corners of the world.
Talking to Katherine, it’s clear that she has an adventurous spirit. She loves going off the beaten track and finding unusual places to paint like an abandoned, yet perfectly preserved, diamond mining town in Namibia or finding herself billeted in a brothel in an isolated community in the African bush.
The exploration and the new experiences are as rewarding as the creative satisfaction of getting some of these remarkable sights down on canvas.
“This exhibition is quite diverse and represents quite an extraordinary journey I have taken in the last three years – going from Burma to Namibia to the Arctic, so it’s a great cross-section of different landscapes and different cultures to assimilate.
“I would describe my work as glimpses into everyday life – everyday life for different people. You are in these places for such a short time that you can only ever offer a snapshot, a first impression of what these remarkable places are like.”
Although she tries to go to places without a preconceived notion of what she is going to find, there are occasions when the scenes that confront her are not what she was expecting. “You wake up in the morning and it is not what you expect it to be and then you have to dig deeper within yourself. You have to let the place speak to you. For instance, when I went to Namibia, it took me two days to get to this place. It was in the very far south-west corner. I arrived by bi-plane in a thick, thick fog. You couldn’t see a thing. It had rolled in off the Atlantic and it hung there for four days.
“I was only going to be there for eight days, so I was getting frustrated but then the fog started to lift and it revealed a landscape that I didn’t want to paint. I had gone all that way and there was nothing but you see I had gone with too strong a preconception of what I was going to find.
“But, I started talking to the local people and I met a local woman whose family had been associated with the diamond towns. These were towns built to support the diamond mines which are now completely deserted but are preserved in pristine condition. She gave me access to these places and out of nowhere they became the inspiration for my paintings there.
“I had a wonderful time wandering around these ghost towns. They have been empty for 100 years but they look as if everyone upped and left yesterday. They even had a sports centre built at the turn of the last century. They were incredible, really innovative buildings with amazing architecture and it was so easy to just lose yourself in the atmosphere of the place. Nothing had decayed because in the desert everything is so dry.”
In contrast she also made a journey to Dyer’s Point where the Atlantic quite literally smashes into Africa. “The water is freezing and the sea is so ferocious. There are no palm trees of anything like that. Dyer’s Point is the furthest west you can go on the African continent and you are just looking at this wild Atlantic Ocean and it is magnificently inhospitable.”
Katherine says that she wants to be surprised. She says one of the reasons she loves to travel is that she doesn’t want to know what’s around the next corner. “As a painter you want to make work that’s new. You want to be challenged. You want to be enthused and you want to share this enthusiasm with others.”
Also, she believes that if she is being challenged then her skills as an artist are being developed because she is always breaking new ground, learning new techniques and learning to see things in a new light.
The other aspect of painting that thrills her is that in an increasingly technological world, painting is still a purely human endeavour. “It’s done by hand. It requires skill. It needs the hand, the eye and the brain to speak to one another. I think that it is so important to have something which is created purely by people over a period of time. Today everything is instant. A painting requires time and that is part of the appeal.”
She says that over the years it is inevitable that her focus has changed. Currently she is drawn to contours and the broad sweep of the landscape but as her trip to Namibia proved suddenly she can become preoccupied with interiors and the way light bounces around a room.
“I don’t really have any set plans or ways of thinking. I try and keep myself slightly open, receptive to what’s around the next bend. I don’t tend to use guides because they can be profoundly annoying. I don’t go with a set idea. I may have a vague notion of wanting to do something with colour but it’s nothing more than that.
“If you are travelling in Africa, everything is unpredictable. If you are travelling on a bus it may take six or seven hours to get somewhere and you are never entirely sure what you are going to find at the other end. I do like to rough it when I am on the road because then it means I can change my mind on a whim and jump on the next bus and go somewhere else.
“On one occasion I was in a remote African town and discovered I was staying in the local brothel. During the day it appeared to be a rather respectable hotel and a fairly upmarket bar with a very charming, beautifully dressed manageress in charge. She was incredibly elegant and she showed us to our rooms. But, in the evening we became aware that the atmosphere had changed. The manageress was wearing something quite different. By the time we realised where we were, it was too late. Not that they did anything to us or made us feel unwelcome but there were some interesting sounds coming out of nearby rooms that evening.”
Katherine says that a spirit of adventure and love of the landscape will always keep her on the move. Even when she is back home in Suffolk rarely a day goes by when she doesn’t venture out, drawing book in hand to capture something of the spectacular landscape on her doorstep and she sees nothing strange about placing an image of Southwold alongside a fishing village in Ghana. “it’s all part of the same remarkable world – just a different corner.”
Katherine Hamilton: Landscape Journeys Inside and Out: 2013-2016 is at the Chappel Galleries, Chappel, near Colchester, until December 11.