Martin Greenland interviewed by Andrew Lambirth
When did you first know you wanted to be a painter?
At primary school, when I was about six, a young man who used to be at the school brought in his paintings to show us. They were probably quite ordinary, but I thought they were fantastic. I’d already shown a lot of interest in drawing and painting, and by that stage I really wanted to paint. The next thing was buying my first oil paints a couple of years later instead of toys. It was the chance to do something really grown up. My dad used to do some oil painting – he wasn’t an artist, he was a vicar, but he could have been very good – and I loved the smell of the oils in his study. I loved the way a landscape would change and build up as he painted it. He liked bold dynamic work – Franz Hals, Maurice Vlaminck, Emil Nolde.
Then there was a gap when I was more interested in model-making, and later on in my school years I really wanted to be an architect. I still have a great architectural interest. Then I thought maybe after my O levels I would do a Foundation Course at Art School and do Interior Design.
So you went to Nelson and Colne College (1979-81) in Lancashire. What was that like?
It was a very good two-year course with some very good tutors (particularly Steve McDaid) and I did a lot of life drawing and studied various disciplines. I still couldn’t make up my mind what I really wanted to do, until some of the tutors suggested I study Fine Art. Then the difficulties started because I wasn’t really geared up to it. So I took a year out and began to study on my own. At College, all the tuition was about 20th century art, until the last two weeks of Foundation when they showed us Renaissance painting. I was overwhelmed by it. So in the year I took out I spent a lot of time going to galleries and looking at paintings properly, people like Titian and Velazquez, and trying to learn how to use oil paint. And something inside me said I should be able to learn how to paint like them. I wanted to be as good as that.
Were you trying to paint landscapes then?
No, human figures, based on life drawing. Even before I went to study Fine Art [at Exeter College of Art] I painted a triptych of three six foot panels. It was influenced by High Victorian paintings I’d seen in Cartwright Hall, Bradford – Victorians as Romans and that sort of thing. I painted a kind of anti-fur social/political statement: characters in Renaissance part-nakedness with a tiger. It sounds terribly corny but actually it was a damn good painting and I loved painting it. I liked allegory and symbolism – paintings in which an idea beyond what’s initially portrayed is suggested. On Foundation we made a trip to London and visited the Hayward Gallery. There was a Pissarro show on downstairs which I found very claustrophobic – too many dots for me – and I went upstairs where there was a Michael Andrews exhibition. I thought it was absolutely amazing – I was blown over by it – it was an incredible experience. It was refreshing and exciting: big paintings and colour. But more than that – what he was trying to do with paint. His ideas.
When I finally got to Exeter to study painting it was such a confusing affair. Too many influences were coming from all sides. I remember a lecture on Yves Klein, and everybody wanting to paint blue. I remember thinking at the time “I’ve got to do that sort of thing”, and it felt terrible. After a year I was still hobbling along, but I had no idea what I really wanted to paint. I painted a scene of London outside Fortnum & Mason at night, and some girl came round and said: “It’s a nice painting but it looks like a Christmas card.” My tutors absolutely hammered it – and they were right. They said I would be best going and doing something else. I responded by studying photography for two terms, though I kept on painting, restricting my palette and painting what I could see around me. As for photography, although I was unaware of it at the time, I was using the viewfinder to learn how to compose, and growing used to the landscape, simply as landscape. I learnt about the importance of placing, and understood about the periphery of things. Also the symbolical nature of elements within the landscape. My photography tutor didn’t like us cropping images, which was very good as it made you look with the viewfinder.
I did a painting at the end of the second year which really turned it – my first proper invented landscape. This was the real starting-point. It was combining ideas, and I wasn’t trying to be anybody else. I’d gone for a walk on a very hot afternoon in June. Something about the atmosphere was like when we used to go to Denmark as children. I kept getting flashbacks of the Danish landscape. I remembered a Maypole and ferries and lifebelts and I wanted to put all these things into my painting. So I did. Then I took it into College and the tutors waxed lyrical over it.
I’m interested in you saying that you had to train yourself to invent. Was that difficult?
At first it was very difficult – some things came, some things didn’t. Some things technically I didn’t know how to deal with. I tried but they just didn’t work. That I’ve come to accept is just the way it has to be. I see myself gradually changing, moving on. The tendency to present things as you think they are – or as you assume they are – and to over-illustrate them can be a big problem. When one looks at things there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, simply because we have movement and binocular vision. Nowadays I try to force things in the painting to do something slightly unexpected, that I wouldn’t have actually planned. Some of the things in the past I used to do a lot more from actual drawings. I still do a lot of drawings in the landscape but I don’t tend to use them.
Even though you studied photography, you’d never use photographs as an aide-memoire in that way?
No. I take photographs and I still think they have the same importance to me as they did at College – compositionally. And they do have a similar effect in focusing my thoughts. But I’m also aware that if I go out without a camera it does force me to look a lot harder.
Did you have to teach yourself to have a retentive memory?
I think I have one naturally. I didn’t use it that much in the past, but now I’ve trained it. People say to me: “How do you manage to do it?” Well, it’s not done all in one go. It’s a gradual accumulation. If I’m painting a particular thing, I’ll go out and find some more information about it, probably by drawing in a sketchbook, a habit I started many years ago. Though sometimes I think I’m better just experiencing – I don’t want anything to get in the way of the experience at all, not even a sketchbook.
You live in a very beautiful part of England. Do you ever feel the urge to go out and simply record it?
I do feel that. There’s a place 10 minutes from the house and every time I go there I feel “it’s all here – why invent it?”
What stops you from making a painting just of that?
I’m inventing paintings because I want to bring other ideas together. I have to do it very carefully so it doesn’t spoil the whole thing. I’m still very concerned about atmosphere and the creation of a particular sense of space, time of day, whatever it might be. I don’t want that to be spoiled, but I want to bend it so that other things can come in to the painting in a much more subtle way, so that people don’t necessarily spot them straight away.
But isn’t it also about how you feel – not just what you know?
Exactly. I don’t even like to take a real place and do it as a straight memory. None of the places I paint exist. It’s a memory of a sort of place. The paintings I paint are places I want to see.
One of the notable features of your recent paintings is that there are no figures in them.
When I was at College I made a decision not to paint people. I thought there was far too much emphasis on the figure. People sometimes say my pictures need a figure for scale, but that would simply distract the eye and the landscape would become merely a backdrop, as is the case in a lot of painting – like Claude.
You bring landscape centre stage?
Absolutely right. The things that I put into a landscape are all painted deliberately, which is about the reason to invent rather than just to paint what’s there. Everything is there for a purpose.
And you control the quantities – how much human intervention and so on.
What is a straight natural landscape? I’m not interested in photographs of nature or TV programmes about it. The effect of mankind on the landscape is something that interests me very much indeed: the way that things are put into the landscape, and how they erode.
You quite like buildings or quarries that are abandoned, don’t you? So that you’ve got the trace of mankind without the immediate activity.
Yes I do.
Tell me, how much does the paint lead you and suggest the next thing?
An awful lot. Sometimes a painting can be quite meticulously planned out in terms of drawing on the canvas, but at others I have no idea what’s going to happen and I just put marks on the canvas and see where they go. So many things can happen. A drawing has no consideration of colour and tone, so the compositional balance changes as you add to it. Things go into a painting for a reason, but sometimes it’s simply compositional.
How long might you work on a painting? I know you like to finish a painting in the season it depicts.
I try to make sure it only takes three months. But if it needs more work, and it doesn’t actually have to go anywhere for an exhibition, I might carry on working on it and make it a picture of more than one season. But I do like the particularities of a time of year. If I could, I would probably stick to painting just one day – or a moment – in a season.
Do you tend to work on more than one picture at once?
Yeah, I do. It gets distracting sometimes. There have been times in the last few years when I’ve had up to 20 paintings in the studio at once. That’s a lot, though some might be quite small.
Do they help each other?
They can do. The painting is saying “Come on, you’ve got to sort this out before you go on to anything else”. But I know the thing to do is actually to leave it, turn it round and don’t look at it. I have to force myself to do that sometimes. And I look at the paintings from all angles too – I turn them upside down, I take them out the room, I get too used to the mirror reflection. I’m always looking in the mirror to see that the painting is working – whether there’s anything that stands out, either good or bad. If the composition is wrong and I turn the painting upside down, it shows straightaway. Even a painting which has an implied realism or illusionism has an abstract quality.
Your pictures tend to be quite dark. Are you painting a particular time of day?
I like twilight. I like very close related tones, and I’m interested in darkness. I’m interested in the experience of walking and moving through a landscape and the uncertainties that go with that. Once or twice I’ve found myself in difficult situations on walks and when you do see a light then, it’s a welcome relief. A beacon of hope. But when I put a light in a painting it has a dual purpose because it is just a light, and not necessarily positive.
I know you like to listen to tapes of the landscape that you’ve made – ambient noise. Do you have those on while you paint?
If I’m painting the implications of a thunder storm – that very tense, electric atmosphere – I play one of the recordings I’ve got of a thunderstorm at the right time of year. Then I’m actually in that landscape. There’s usually something playing in the studio, though sometimes it’s music. I’m very selective in my music listening, which again tends to be seasonal, though not because it’s illustrative of a particular time of year. It’s to concentrate my excitement or thoughts about that particular time of year. So Shostakovitch I’ll listen to in the autumn, because I first listened to it in the autumn back in 1988. I feel I’ll be spoiling my painting – or spoiling the quality that the music has – if I listen to it at another time.
Do you think about other painters much when you’re working?
Over the last few years I’ve come to be very interested in Courbet and the painters of the Barbizon School. I see things happening in my own paintings and I see similarities.
Is a sense of mystery necessary to your painting?
It’s not strictly necessary but it does crop up. Sometimes it’s deliberately there, sometimes people see it whether I like it or not. Actually, I’m not trying to imply one thing or another. I like ambiguity. Everyone brings their own experience and interpretation to looking at a painting.
Is it easier to invent a landscape or to copy it, do you think?
Interesting question. It’s easier for me to invent because I find it much more exciting. I get a bit bored when I do anything more than a sketch of straight landscape from observation. Whenever I have taken a canvas out into the landscape, I’ve been disappointed with the result.
You’ve talked about your work being a balance between the believable and the unbelievable.
Yes. I want the landscapes to be so convincing that you believe them, but there has to be something else there… to make people think a little bit more, but not so much that it destroys the atmosphere of the painting and makes it unbelievable. I think that people won’t be that interested if everything is explained.
How literally do you want your titles to be taken? Lots seem metaphorical.
They are. Titles are never put there just for the sake of it. Some come after the painting, some before. Sometimes the title actually prompts the painting.
It is the English countryside you paint? Because sometimes there seems to be a touch of the Mediterranean in there. Do you paint some sort of Golden Age?
The Golden Age possibly, that never existed. But the English landscape is the landscape I’ve most experienced, and at the moment there’s enough there for me. And at different times of the year round here one feels one could be in a different part of the world. I do like that – the hint of a certain sort of exotic otherworldliness in the Lake District.
What about the visionary aspect – that you are sometimes painting places you’ve never seen or been to?
Oh yes. I suppose they are visions. Sometimes I paint a landscape and later I find myself in it.
You mentioned that you often begin by writing rather than by drawing an image. What would you write?
It doesn’t always happen, but quite often. I write in my sketchbook. Sometimes it might start with just a word or two, an idea. Then I probably embellish it. It’s a way of getting down thoughts and being precise about them. Occasionally it’s like a narrative, but usually it’s just strings of notes: finding words that truly mean the thought that’s in my head.
Do you think you aim for a kind of serenity in your work, or for something less comfortable?
A bit of both. I like the idea of serenity, but not necessarily the comfortable armchair for relaxing in. Occasionally I want to create a sense of unease because I like that charged atmosphere.
This interview was recorded in Martin Greenland’s studio at Bowness-on-Windermere in January 2014, and subsequently edited.