Fordingbridge artist Cliff Brown and his individualistic works of art
PUBLISHED: 10:52 10 December 2015 | UPDATED: 10:52 10 December 2015
When suggesting to Cliff Brown I sense the presence of a rebellious streak, we are an hour or so into our Sunday afternoon interview, time enough for me to detect, if not cultivate an admiration for, the free range approach which underpins both his lifestyle and passion for painting.
“Although I don’t think of myself as rebellious,” he ponders, “I have always advocated that the first rule of art is: there are no rules, or at least only your own rules. This is the only way one can paint freely. If it feels right to you, whatever you do on that canvas is right.”
Refreshingly uncomplicated, I suspect this attitude is more nature than nurture. In rejecting stereotypical styles and traditional techniques, Cliff is simply being true to himself, standing his ground in the face of convention and being all the more spectacularly creative in the process.
He continues: “I don’t want to be contained. Right now I’m diverging – on one road my artwork is more sellable, probably landscape based, the other is more experimental and expressive, actually saying something, to me anyway. I almost think of it as art for everyone else and some for me.”
Cliff paints in one of the downstairs rooms of his home, valuing the intimacy of being close to work in progress and living with each piece as it develops. On days when he isn’t painting, he captures ideas via his camera.
“My one rule is I only paint from photos I’ve taken and I know exactly what photo I want for the preparation of the painting I want to do. That might mean going out at 4.30am and waiting in the woods for the sun to come up.”
An affinity with animals and the environment has long been an inspiration. Indeed, Cliff’s childhood ambition of becoming a zookeeper was realised when he joined the team at Marwell. During that period a friend urged him to apply to Winchester Art College where he was accepted but, with the grant marginally less than his earnings and his heart set on purchasing a bike, he remained at the zoo, a decision he now confesses was ridiculous.
Nevertheless a lack of formal training has not inhibited his development as an artist and images such as Frosty Morning epitomise Cliff’s bond with the countryside. The two horses here, dark and solid figures, contrast with the frosty foreground against which they are silhouetted. Despite the chill, they continue to graze. No matter the dawn, they majestically continue their routine, oblivious of the onlooker and seemingly indifferent to the climate.
Such contrast, I notice, is a common theme.
“That’s me, there’s no subtlety! I take a white canvas and paint it matt black with oil based paint. I’m now using stage paint which is more of an emulsion but it produces the mattest black. I’m in search of an ultra matt texture so there’s no light reflection. I like light and the best way of showing it is with dark. Black gives the opportunity for contrast.”
Is the same effect achievable by painting black on white?
“Once I started with white and then added black but it came out way too light.”
In Cliff’s eclectic portfolio, Coleus is equally eye catching, the outline and body of the leaves seemingly luminous in their intensity against a black background whilst Dormant, a subject also brightly captured in the foreground, immortalises nature but with a nod to mythology.
“I’m a bit of an environmentalist and the beauty of mythical subjects is the fact that you can just let go.”
This ability to decide his own artistic destiny is admirable. Cliff is unbound by genres and liberated from professional expectations. Indeed, with no desire to conform, his artwork also stands out in terms of shape.
“Square is the only shape worth thinking about. It works in a way a rectangle doesn’t. My thoughts on a rectangle shape are that it is conventional. I just know square - at the moment either 1m x 1m or 60cm x 60cm are right for me.”
Browsing through his other pieces, I just believe I have a handle on his style when I discover Pinewood. Superficially, perhaps a conventional subject, these barcode pieces - as the artist refers to them - are more about tantalisingly soft infusions of light than the solid obstacles in their way, as Cliff explains: “I’m interested in negative shapes, the lines of light through the gaps between trees.”
Having previously used plastic bags with oil on melamine wood, which provide deep, interesting textures, Cliff currently favours brushes - though does not rule out returning to previous techniques should the right subject present itself. He avoids mock ups or preparation, preferring to experiment straight onto canvas, knowing that more layers of paint can be always be added.
When we touch on the subject of titles, Cliff’s response amuses rather than amazes me.
“A title is something you have to think up when you’re writing out your exhibition entry form. If a painting needs an essay next to it, then it should have been a book. An artist once said as soon as you give a painting a title it comes with baggage. I’ve shied away from titles, but they need to have some sort of connection so I try and do that.”
As Cliff, a self confessed country soul who loves the lushness of his home county, readily shares early artistic influences he recalls a visit to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum during his twenties - the exhibition moving him more than any other he has since seen. He admires Banksy and was shocked when first viewing an Elizabeth MacGill exhibition in a Southampton gallery as she dared to use black, a concept he’d always been told to avoid.
Having experimented with a selection of mediums including gouache during A Level, followed by acrylics and “a bash at watercolour but never really took to it,” Cliff eventually turned to now favoured oils, although having to wait for paint to dry makes acrylics more practical and appealing. He is a member of Fordingbridge Art Club and Romsey Art Group, enjoys art exhibitions in his home county because of their, “rawness and honesty,” and is beginning to discover a crossover between art and horticulture. A lack of gregariousness, he adds, forces him to shy away from social gatherings and I suspect absorption in his own artistic world fuels disbelief at his success.
But it is individuality that best sums up this likeable artist. And with a portfolio that tests art enthusiasts, prompting them to expand their mindset in terms of style and subject, his paintings have the ability to entertain, explain and inform. Viewers merely have to embrace the artist’s mentality and appreciate the world through his unique insight.
“Although my stuff sells – which is a constant surprise to me – it’s not the point. Painting is sometimes just about the aesthetics, sometimes everything is a metaphor.
Painting is therapeutic, escapism. It is great if others like it, but you can’t paint for other people because you can’t possibly access their minds. You can only paint for yourself, as that is the only psyche to which you have full access.”
Find out more about Cliff’s work at forestart.webs.com