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Wednesday 20 May 2020

In conversation with Mike Cole

Continuing our conversations with the artists exhibiting at Beyond the Frame, local artist Mike Cole takes time to explain why he started painting, the creative process behind his work and how Hilditch’s ‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’ inspired his own response to this familiar scene.

Artist Mike Cole

How and when did you start painting?

I would paint and draw constantly as a child. Most children draw, and I suppose some of us never grow out of it. I didn’t go to art college and I went through a period in my twenties of not doing it at all, then a spell of unemployment gave me the time to start sketching for the first time in years, mostly doing drawings for friends and family. This soon led to me picking up my paintbrushes again, and I’ve been doing it more seriously ever since. It’s only in recent years that I’ve had more formal training. You never really stop learning.

Looking at the works that appear on your website, they include landscapes, seascapes and contemporary portraits. They are quite varied in terms of subject matter…

I have never wanted to focus on just one subject, that feels very limiting to me. Someday I might find my niche but for now I like to vary it and do whatever appeals to me at any particular time. Most of my recent paintings have been landscapes. I love mountains and generally being outdoors, so I expect this will always be a big part of my work, but inspiration can come from anywhere.

I just try to keep doing it. When inspiration strikes it’s a great feeling, but, as I’m sure many artists can relate to, that doesn’t always happen! Sometimes it’s just about practising the craft, experimenting and trying something new. These experiments can often end up being the most fun and the most successful paintings.

Twickenham Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge, oil on board

What made you choose the Hilditch in particular? How did you know about this painting?

The gallery has a great selection of work showing daily life in different periods of history by artists local to the area, and I wanted to continue this trend. I had seen the George Hilditch painting on a visit to the gallery about a year ago and instantly recognised the scene, as it is a bridge I walk under every day. It was the obvious choice for me when I saw the brief for the Beyond the Frame exhibition. It’s a fairly typical 19th century scene, but the view hasn’t changed much since Hilditch’s time, so I thought it would be interesting to do an equally contemporary version from the same bridge looking in the opposite direction, while trying to remain faithful to the depth and the 3D nature of the original. Mine is certainly the less traditionally scenic of the views from that bridge, but I’ve seen some amazing sunsets and colours while walking through there, and this was what I wanted to capture.

Read a visual analysis of Hilditch’s painting here

Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge, by George Hilditch, c.1846

Can you describe your creative process?

It varies depending on what I’m doing. With landscapes especially, I always try to convey my personal experience of a place, maybe a particular atmosphere or light effect that I’ve either seen or imagined – a lot of it comes down to deciding what to focus on and what to leave out.

The process itself feels very practical to me. Once I have an idea in my head of how I want the final thing to look and feel, or a particular mood or light I want to capture, from there it’s all about the practicalities of turning it into a painting. With oil painting it helps to plan it out to an extent. I also cut my own wood panels and make my own frames, so my home can feel like part studio, part workshop!

I’ll sketch from life where possible and take reference photos, so no matter how far I want to go and how much I want to work from imagination, I can keep it grounded in reality. Then I’ll let it evolve as I go, but it’s important not to lose the idea that got me excited in the first place.

I usually spend a full day painting a first layer, blocking in the colours, shapes and tones, and getting the ‘bare bones’ of the piece done in one sitting. After that it can be many days or even weeks of refining, making adjustments and adding details. I love it but it can feel like a battle getting it right, and, if I’m not careful, I can labour over things for too long. The trick is not to be too precious and know when to stop!

Mike’s work can be viewed on his website or you can find him on Instagram.

You can also view the entire Richmond Borough Art Collection online, at the Collection link on our main navigation bar, or by clicking here.