Nature, form, colour and texture have been defining elements of Graeme Black’s life and work from his childhood on the rocky east coast of Scotland and his career as an acclaimed international fashion designer to his current role as a burgeoning artist nestled in the Yorkshire Dales.
Born and raised in Angus, Black graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1989 before heading south to pursue his career in pulsating 1990s London. From John Galliano to Giorgio Armani his life in design has always been led by colour, texture and silhouette which is evident in his latest ‘trunk show’ tree studies.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your art practice?
I was born and raised in Angus, Scotland, I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1989 before heading south to London to start a career in the fashion business. Having gained experience working with John Galliano, Arabella Pollen and Zandra Rhodes I subsequently went on to spend 15 years in Italy, working closely with Giorgio Armani on his womenswear collection in Milan, before becoming Creative Director of womenswear at Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence.
In 2016 I decided to step back from my three-decade fashion career and devote my time to the architectural renovation and regeneration project my partner and I had embarked on in the extraordinary landscape of upper Wensleydale (North Yorkshire). This is where I rediscovered my lifetimes passion for painting and my artistic raison d’etre.
The study of the seasonal changes in nature and the beauty of the forests around me gave immense inspiration for my painting. I began to investigate through charcoal drawings and oil paintings the surface textures of bark and experiment with the forms of trees on large-scale cotton canvases.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist? how did you start out?
Throughout my life, I have always enjoyed drawing and painting. One of my first pivotal decisions was to follow a creative path into fashion after my painting tutor in Edinburgh explained that I would always be a painter so I could happily have a few years of ‘fun’ with fashion before settling down into a serious career as a painter! What a wise man mapping out my early career so clearly!
Where is your studio located and how does a typical day in your studio begin?
I’m fortunate to have an 18th-century barn which I have converted into my painting studio close to home. In fact, it takes less than five minutes to walk there. We live in Raydale near Semerwater which is a beautiful part of North Yorkshire.
I always begin the day by stoking up my wood burning stove to generate some heat as the barn can be very chilly.
I tend to review what I’ve done the day before then identify areas that need work before I start mixing my first colour palette. The creative process truly begins with the mixology of the oil paints. I’m absolutely fascinated by the complexity of how small amounts of pigment completely change the hue of a desired colour. I tend to take a long time defining my first palette which helps to reset any problems or issues I feel I have on the canvas. My artistic process is very much a slow layering of colour that create the textures of bark which then evolve to bring to life the tree.
Do you remember the first art material you were given or bought for yourself? What was it and do you still use it today?
Definitely crayons from my parents which I loved to use to create fanciful fantasy landscapes. My father was a bookbinder, so he always gave me lots of interesting paper samples which came in very useful. I would say my present obsession with beautiful paper began early on in my creative career.
What do you find exciting about painting as a medium?
I find oil painting a wonderfully adaptable medium to use because of its ability to go from a light airy wash to intense textural depth depending on how you mix it. The colour intensity you can achieve is perfect for the effects I want to achieve on canvas.
How has your work evolved in recent years?
I would say my work has evolved gradually over the past few years by becoming more abstract and less concerned with recording the visual facts. The more I observed the forests around me, the more I wanted to try and capture the essence of a fleeting moment rather than create a botanical drawing. When I close my eyes what do I remember of the tree I just saw? What was the texture and colours that stand out? In this way, I’m able to achieve a more interesting interpretation.
Your career has shifted recently, from fashion to fine art, what inspired you to make this change?
I wanted to stand still to absorb and record the beauty around me. The constant demands of fashion deadlines and travel sapped my creative energy over time and left me questioning what I was doing with my life. I think it’s ironic that we had spent so much time creating a beautiful home to never be able to enjoy due to work commitments. Environmentally, I don’t want to contribute negatively by travelling and producing so many collections. Having worked in the fashion business for so long, and seen the levels of wastage, I have become very interested in environmental sustainability. I’d rather spend time restoring the land around me by planting trees and participating in the rewilding process of meadow regeneration.
You seem to focus on landscape, and close up images of trees in particular, what attracts you to this subject?
I’m obsessed with the beauty of trees. They change and evolve depending on the season, the climate and their context in the landscape. They each have a visual identity which is wonderful and inspiring. Whilst I have investigated other subject matters, nothing intrigues me more than the study of these majestic natural sculptures.
Do you have any go-to tools in your studio that you could not make work without? How do you use them and why?
Whilst I prime my canvases using paint brushes, it is the palette knife that is my true instrument of choice. I find the movement and texture I achieve using them helps build up the layers of oil paint perfectly. I have various sizes which I use throughout the day.
We have been speaking with artists about their ‘studio hacks’, how they recycle items in the studio as DIY painting tools or storage. Do you have any items you re-purpose to use in the studio?
I always recycle the cardboard boxes my canvases come in to send out finished paintings. I often come across very interesting pieces of old rusty metal panels which make for a wonderful surface to paint on. I’m slowly building up a collection of oil landscapes on reclaimed scrap metal.
Do you have a favourite colour or palette? If so, what does your palette include and why are these colours important?
My favourite colour has always been green and the multitude of variety which can be found both in nature and achieved with pigments. The possibilities are endless.
What contemporary artists do you enjoy? And what historical artists do you look at?
I enjoy the work of Jenny Saville, Charles Poulsen, Spencer Sweeney, David Tress, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer. I tend to lean towards painters like Morandi and Lee Krasner while respecting greatly the old masters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
What do you think is the biggest challenge artists face today?
The biggest challenge facing artists today is navigating the balance between creating interesting artworks and the representation of the work through digital platforms. How and where you exhibit and display your work is critically important yet to succeed is extremely challenging.
While the tendency to review work on a smartphone is now more normal, nothing compares to experiencing a piece in real life, and enjoying the scale, texture and understanding the intention of the artist. Even with the best digital technology, the wow effect is often lost. The joy of a gallery visit is fantastic and key for many collectors whether amateurs or professionals.
What was the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Never stop working… even when you are feeling frustrated and can’t see a solution to a problem in your painting, step away and come back the next day. I’m a big believer in a fresh start in the morning! Don’t throw anything away, sometimes if I really can’t quite get it right, I will paint over and start again.
Do you have one piece of advice to share with an artist just starting out?
Create art for yourself first and foremost. Believe in yourself. Don’t feel the pressure to show people if you are not comfortable with it. When the time is right to show your work, you will know in your heart.
Are there any current or upcoming projects that you are happy to share with us?
At present, I am preparing for my first solo show with Messums Yorkshire which is exciting and very stimulating. The show features approximately 45 pieces including large scale oil paintings and charcoal drawings. I want to create a warm inviting ambience which I am doing with the help of Ian Cartwright’s Mouseman furniture, bringing nature into the gallery space. It’s very important to me that the viewer can understand the context of the works and the environment that inspires me.
All images courtesy of the artist, click here to see more of Graeme Black’s work.