Tom Stevenson is a plein air artist based in the South West. He works in oils and paints from life - landscapes, people, skies, the city, the sea. His paintings often stem from a compositional idea or a group of colours, creating a strong sense of place while skilfully walking the line between figurative and abstract. For Winter 22, we asked him to return to Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast, where he often works, to make a winter seascape centred around the iconic Cobb.
At the very bottom of my work is, I suppose, a strong feeling of the importance of working from life. I work mainly in oil paint which is a very tough transportable medium, but also use inks or just pen and pencil – all things which can be easily carried and rapidly used out of doors. For me, the best inspiration is the things you can find but not create, and so working and observing outside is an essential part of making new material.
Lyme and that whole bit of Dorset is really about the coast and the great light conditions you get from the beaches, so I knew I wanted to do something that captured this. I spent a few days in the early autumn drawing and making quick oil sketches on and around the beach and harbour thinking about ideas, compositions and looking at how the light changed over the course of the day.
Painting plein air is very much reliant on the weather and it’s often best to approach a subject with an open mind not knowing what to expect. The time I’d spent at Lyme earlier in the year had given me some ideas about composition and locations, so I wasn’t coming at the subject completely cold, but at the same time was keen to make sure that the work stayed fresh and was a genuine response to the moment.
When working outdoors, especially at the times when the light is lowest and most exciting, the challenge is always time. It’s always something of a race to get as much of the subject down as possible before conditions change. Often this means that paintings have a looseness or half resolved quality, which is something I really like as it tells you a lot about how the painting was made.
Having a limited time also forces you to think about what it is that’s most important to you in a view, and to prioritise e.g. a strong shape, or two adjoining colours. Sometimes it’s surprising how little you need to include for a painting to feel finished. If it’s described the effect or feeling that I found important, then for me it’s complete and it’s time to put down the brushes to avoid overworking.
Oil’s a great medium for working outdoors, it is tough and resistant, can be both subtle and punchy and you can achieve a huge range of quality of marks from thick and rich to thin and inky. It’s also very forgiving to work with and can be slid about or rubbed back as you go along.
This part of Dorset has always excited me right from when I used to come here as a child for holidays in the summer. The combination of steep hills, low valleys, cliffs and the sea really come together and I’m not sure I can think of anywhere else quite like it. Dorset also has a strong sense of time and of history being all around you.
So many things! I love the smell of geranium leaves, damp grass on a cold day just after dark, wild mushrooms, the slightly stale, beery smell of the outside of a pub, cardamom, cedarwood mothballs, orange pomdander, old timber, burning coal... I was born late in the year and love the autumn and early winter above all other times of year – looking back at what I’ve written I think this comes through in my favourite scents.
There are so many brilliant and inspiring artists in the UK. I love looking at ceramics, particularly the local north devon sgraffito pottery. I also get a lot of inspiration from printmakers, whose ability to simplify is something I really admire.
I’m currently working quite close to home and am looking forward to spending as much time as possible painting and drawing in the small woods behind my village. It’s a beautiful time of year to be drawing the trees and I’m hoping to be able to find some larger paintings in amongst them somewhere.
The hardest part of working outside is putting on your boots and stepping out the door. Like swimming in the sea, you never regret it once you get in, and looking back you’ll see things differently because of it.