As Cardiff’s Albany Gallery prepares to showcase the work of North Wales artists, we meet one of the exhibitors
"A landscape painting can often be perceived as a ‘still life’,” muses Russ Chester, who left school at 16 to study at Newcastle Upon Tyne’s College of Art & Technology. “But to sit or stand in a landscape for many hours, you become aware of the constant movement of trees, grasses, clouds, light, shadows and reflections.
“It’s my wish to emulate that movement,” he adds, “using brushwork, fingers, palette knife or anything else to hand, and to let people see how paint can be used.”
Art has been a lifelong journey for Russ, but it took on a new importance in the Seventies when, still a teenager, he moved down from the North East of England to live on a working farm in Wales.
“For a city boy this was being thrown into the deep end, but I absolutely loved it. Not knowing the rules of the countryside or where I lived, or anything about mountains, I stayed mainly on the farm exploring my unfamiliar surroundings. I also knew nothing about my new neighbours. Culturally we were worlds apart but I soon found out they were hard-working, lovely people. And through the terrifying ordeal of rally driving I discovered they were also just a little bit wild, in a way I could never have conceived.”
Subsequent decades of dry-stone walling, tree surgery and powerline clearance for Manweb took Russ all over North Wales, creating an almost subliminal foundation for his ‘other’ work.
“Well, after working for 35 years in the landscape, if I didn’t learn anything about my surroundings I must be a bit stupid,” he concludes. “I’ve been lucky enough to see parts of Wales not many people have access to; the far corners of fields, lost little lanes, into farmyards and into people’s lives. I know the cold, I know drenching rain, I know summer heat, I know weather, I know the seasons, I know the light, I know the trees, I know what stone looks and feels like, I know the countryside and the lay of the land.
“My paintings are deliberately chosen as clearly recognisable landscapes or seascapes. My purpose is to draw people’s attention to the scene and closer to the canvas where any apparent detail dissolves, and colour, technique and texture emerge.
“While people seeing my work on a small scale - on social media or in print - are convinced it’s amazingly detailed, I’m still following my interest into how the brain perceives and interprets what we see, and how I can adopt more textures and techniques to exploit this unusual trait!"
Russ admits that painting the Welsh landscape poses its own unique set of challenges “The sky can occasionally be very intensely, unbelievably ‘blue’ over the mountains of Gwynedd, while an Anglesey sky can have another more subtle paler vibrancy to it,” he explains. “More often than not cloud formations start at the tip of Pen Llyn and grow more dramatic as they move inland towards the heart of Snowdonia.
“The constant movement of light and shadows flowing across the fields and mountains is very elusive and hard to capture or replicate, especially in oil; its pigments tend to absorb the light hitting the surface of the painting. The problem seems to be intensified the nearer you get to the coast, I imagine because there’s more reflected light from the sea. To try and counteract this problem - if I’m painting on a white background - I’ll apply the paint quite thinly, almost like watercolour to get the background to show through slightly.
“When I’m painting on a dark background, I tend to use a lot more textures to get the available light to bounce back or shimmer off the imperfections. I also find it totally impossible to paint under anything other than natural daylight!”
Even after all these years, Russ is constantly looking at new techniques, driven by that fascination with how the brain interprets what we see.
“I really enjoy painting on a black panel,” he reveals. “I’ve found I can leave large areas unpainted, and by adding just a few simple brushstrokes transform these black areas into shadow or shade and let people’s imagination fill in the details of what might be hidden there.
“The only problem is one part of me enjoys trying not to paint everything, while I’m also trying to present something that appears ‘high definition’. It’s a juggling act which my own brain is struggling to deal with. I’m trying to convince myself that ‘less is more’. More or less!
Russ Chester’s work features in the North Wales Artists Exhibition at The Albany Gallery, Cardiff from 10th February (private view 5-8pm) until 4th March. For more information, visit www.albanygallery.com