Rialto

Mark Leach was a professional artist from Sussex, England. He passed away suddenly in the summer of 2008.

Mark was a leading figure in the world of contemporary pastel painting with many prizes and publications to his name. His work, whether landscape, cityscape or still life, concerns the place of man in nature and seeks an essential truth and harmony through simple colour, line and form.

Works

Many of Mark's works can be viewed on the online gallery.

a selection of works are currently available for purchase from the Bath Contemporary gallery.

Raw Colour with Pastels

Mark's book 'Raw Colour with Pastels' is available from various book stores including:

Manifesto

Mark Leach 2008

Written by Mark for 'The Artist' April 2003...

The question I continually ask myself throughout my work is whether my painting is intended as a picture of something, or whether I should be more concerned with creating an object in its own right. As a landscape artist should I be trying to capture a sense of place, the nature of the land; or is it my duty to create something new, possibly inspired by these things but having its own spirit and aesthetic. When Cézanne set out to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire was his driving passion the mountain or the painting? When we look at Cézanne's painting are our feelings more for the mountain, and the beauty of nature, or for the beauty of his art. This is fundamental to so many opposing views on painting: the subject/object conflict, the figurative/abstract argument. It is something I feel we, as painters, should be constantly aware of and question about our work.

These days landscape paintings are required to have many qualities. Even the purist of abstract works need to tell some form of story, or risk falling into the category of simple design, whilst the most photographic of figurative paintings is only ever a combination of abstract colour and form, and can be viewed simply as such. These days we expect paintings to be much more than a Renaissance window on the world or a historical allegory. In addition to subject matter, we look for pleasure from harmony of form and colour. We see this as a key to the artist's feelings and sentiments, and, hopefully, a trigger for our own emotions.

Harmony and balance

My personal view is that painting should be concerned primarily with harmony and balance, and that this must apply to all aspects of the painting to achieve a properly satisfying composition. As well as a pleasing construction of line, form and colour, we should consider a true balance of subject and object matter, of representation versus aesthetics, and similarly our desire to express ourselves and the needs of the viewer.

This applies to modern landscape painting as much as anything, especially with regard to representation. Ever since Turner strapped himself to a mast to experience the full force of a storm, and was subsequently championed so enthusiastically by Ruskin, artists painting the landscape have felt encouraged to seek some natural truth.

Even after all the many directions that painting has since taken, many landscape artists still feel a certain guilt about working solely from the studio. If we are not out in the elements, desperately clinging to our trusty sketchbook, experiencing nature in the raw and instantly capturing those feelings, then we are not being true to our art.

Of course there is a place for this and it is an exciting and stimulating way to work, but it should always be tempered and balanced with the needs of the painting. We all know that Monet often completed his works back at the studio. His stated aim was to capture the light, a fleeting moment in time, but at the end of the day it was probably the beauty of the painting that concerned him more. He was no doubt prepared to bend the truth for the sake of a good painting, and a fine thing too.

We should always remember that we are artists, not scientists. Our job is to explore the beauty of two-dimensional form and colour in a way that stimulates the intellect and emotions, not necessarily be bound to any truth to nature.

Form and colour

As a landscape painter, I feel my duty is to work like this: not letting the subject matter dominate, and approaching the work in the way a composer would music. To be stimulated by the world around me, but make form and colour my main concern. When we listen to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, say, our minds may wander to the land, the joys of spring, whatever, but it is simply music we are listening to: notes and harmony. There may be sounds reminiscent of nature, but the landscape comes from inside us. In this way, I intend my painting to be not just a representation of the land, but equally about the joy of colour.

I therefore tend towards the abstract. If the work is too figurative, this may detract from what I am trying to say. If the painting is being viewed primarily as a picture of something then the qualities of that object will get in the way of the painting itself. If the tree looks too much like a tree then it is just a tree: the painting will have little purpose. I want my painting to be a lot more than this, more than just a representation, more than just a clever representation, it must have its own unique beauty. A balance of the emotional and the physical.

Feeling for landscape

This approach is something that has evolved slowly since I first started painting as a child. Although I am someone who has always loved paintings, and of course to paint, my major driving passion since as far back as I can remember has been the landscape itself: the smell of the trees, the sound of the wind in the leaves, the warmth and texture of the earth. From my early years I had a need to come to terms with this emotion, the overpowering desire to make physical these strange, elusive feelings. It was this passion which inspired the painting, rather than simply the urge to paint for its own sake. Entranced by a landscape, I felt I had to do something about it, understand what it was that gave me these feelings and make them real.

My journey has taken many turns, and continues to do so. Initially I leaned towards the Impressionists, as I'm sure many of us do. As a technical approach, this seemed a fine way to be true both to oneself and hopefully to nature. Working mostly with acrylics I would paint quickly, using a limited palette of primary and secondary colours, hoping to capture a sense of light and movement, and leaving gaps for the imagination to fill.

This was enjoyable, but did not seem to satisfy me fully. I wanted to get closer to nature, a more physical resemblance, for there to be more depth to the work. The paintings became larger and more heavily textured, in a way to match the land itself. I would mix plaster to the acrylic to give it more body, and also earth and sand or grit from the very land I was painting in hope of reaching something essential. This was satisfying, and the paintings were successful in a commercial way, but something was telling me I was going in the wrong direction. Although I was being true to the land, the works were less and less like paintings. All the texture was detracting from the simple pleasures of a painting.

Powerful oil study

At this point, I remember seeing a small oil study by Delacroix for his major work on the Sultan of Morocco receiving the Comte de Mornay. This to me was so beautiful, so powerful in its simplicity. I sought out the finished masterpiece, but this painting meant very little to me. One could appreciate the technical mastery, but I had no interest in the event, or the detail. The sketch seemed to have so much more to say. It obviously had a story to tell, but this did not matter. What appealed was the immediacy of the paint, the subtlety of the forms and the harmony of the colours.

This was the joy of art: that less really could be more. It made me realise that the balance of form and colour was as important as the story. That, to me at least, Turner's small watercolour sketches of Venice could evoke more emotion than some of his more grand oil paintings. That a simple line portrait by Matisse could say as much as a Rembrandt. I knew I had to apply this to my own art. To get away from the large expressionist works and to simplify and simplify until I reached something essential and harmonious.

For the last ten years I have approached my work this way. No more large canvases (well, not many), no more messy paints, with all the lengthy drying times and associated colour changes etc. I now work simply, usually just with a piece of paper and a good selection of chalk pastels, getting as close to pure pigment as possible. I concentrate on making the sketch not a means to an end, but the end itself.

The landscape is still my inspiration, but I am not trying to represent it, nor necessarily capture a sense of place. I am trying to explore how it has affected me: share the landscape that is inside me. Each painting is a recollection. To that end, I rarely do preliminary studies, and hardly ever work on site. This I now realise just confuses my feelings: I literally cannot see the wood for the trees. What I try to do is make use of my memory. I want the finished paintings to be like a memory, where the mind, over time, has sieved out all extraneous detail and left only the relevant.

For this approach, the further away I am from a subject the better. If working at home, my mind may well go to France or Italy; the more distant the memory the more essential the feeling. I do travel (as much as family life allows), and yes, from time to time, I sketch, make notes, take photographs, but these I use simply for any finishing touches, to put a name to a place. More importantly, I just look and remember, absorb, assimilate. This is what matters.

Setting emotional tone

Alone in the studio, standing at my easel and surrounded by my pastels, I feel like a composer sitting at a piano. Various thoughts are in my head, but like a composer striking the first chord, opting for a particular key, I sense a colour, a certain shade of red or blue say, with which I fill the paper to set the emotional tone for the whole painting.

For the sake of colour harmony, I tend to work within a very limited colour range. There appears to be no proven science to colour harmony as there is, say, to music, so it is an emotional thing we all have to develop within ourselves. Having chosen a base colour to work with, I will try to stay with that colour, composing form with changes in shade and hue. It is an intense process where I try to create and then work on an emotional high. This can fade all too quickly, so I have to work fast.

The joy of working with pastel is that I can immediately grab for the colour I am sensing as the emotion hits me. Likewise, a quick glance at the array of colours and shades before me can help to stimulate a necessary emotion, with little pause in the actual process of applying colour to the paper. Out of this composition, some form of subject matter nearly always evolves. Shapes will appear, suggesting trees or buildings, a horizon maybe. It is probably not what I originally had in mind, but this does not matter. Choosing the original colour set me off down a road, and the rest is all a big adventure - seeing what is around this corner, over the next hill, making it all up as I go along.

Eventually, having applied layers and layers of pastel, rubbed in here, brushed out there, I have a composition. A balance of texture and colour that is a place I feel I know, the memory of a small village maybe, of man and nature in harmony, a joyful moment that has stayed with me and that I can now share.

Contact

Mark's family can be reached at ws@markleach.net

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