As the final draws ever closer, the semi-final of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2016 brought us yet another nail biting episode. Impressing the judges as a wildcard winner in the earlier heats in Stowe, Kim Whitby captivated the judges yet again with her rendition of the Margate harbour.
Kim is a BEd Art graduate from King Alfred's College in Winchester and has taught full time as an infant teacher initially in Devon and then Ceredigion, Wales for many years. More recently she can be found working as a supply teacher in Hampshire, having relocated close to Portsmouth with her serviceman husband and her three teenage children.
In December 2014 she completed a Fine Art Masters degree at Aberystwyth University, and has since focussed on developing her artwork more intently.
We caught up with Kim to find out more about what it means to be a wild card, her practice and the importance of art education…
Hi Kim! Congratulations on winning a place in the final. What has the experience been like entering the competition as a wild card?
Thank you - Well it's very strange finding myself in the final of all things! I entered as a wildcard because this year I was feeling brave enough about my work to come along to the wildcard heat and to find out what it was all about, to dispel the fear of the unknown in a way. I had had a little endorsement for my work last year, making both the final exhibition for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition and the Kyffin Williams Drawing Prize, at home in Wales.
However I never expected to win, let alone make the semi-final... or indeed the final! Being in a TV art competition is not like real life at all. Especially as all the people connected with making the programme are so nice, friendly and make things seem as natural as possible. You can hardly believe it is really happening to you.
Do you often paint in plein air or translating the landscape back in your studio?
I have preferred working directly from life since I was introduced to life drawing as a young student at foundation level in Carmarthen. I spent my Summer holidays as an undergraduate working directly, selling pen and wash drawings to visitors (and locals) in beautiful and distinctive Georgian Aberaeron, West Wales, on the harbour side - which is not unlike the harbour setting in Margate where the semi-final took place.
During my MA I worked both onsite and in a studio setting. Since finishing my Masters, I have become increasingly seduced by the process of working outdoors. That said, there is always something to be gained from refining and reflecting on your work in a studio setting - not that there was any time at all for contemplation during the Landscape Artist of the Year filming days!
The day on the set were busier than it looks on screen, with many interruptions for questions and close shots of the work. It was fascinating to see first-hand the process that goes into a television programme production.
You paint a lot of natural landscapes. How do you choose your scenes?
I gained some valuable feedback from judges last year which reinforced my suspicions that my better work is produced when I respond directly to my surroundings. I am now learning to trust my instinct about selecting my focus and subject matter.
For example, I recently set out on a fabulously bright autumnal day to paint some teasle plants close to where we currently live, but on the way I passed a bush of bright red rose hips contrasted against a clear blue sky. I stopped and painted them... their brightness and the contrasting sky were just too striking to ignore.
I try hard to avoid obvious perspective lines in my work, but try hard to find subject matter that has a sense of depth. I love structures such as boats, trees, buildings... especially if they have a heritage connection. For example, I was lucky to work in and around HMS Victory as part of my final MA exhibition, and more recently at Burseldon Windmill which is a part of Hampshire Cultural Trust's portfolio of sites.
You recently went back you University to complete an MA. Was this necessary do you think?
I had always been frustrated with my painting and as a teacher I knew that being around people who taught art all the time would get me much further more quickly. I had a very positive experience at Aberystwyth University where I learnt more about painting, but also updated my knowledge about the contemporary art scene. I learnt about websites, to talk about my work and most importantly what my process is. I now know that working within an environment for a long time, drawing, painting and absorbing the experience are all crucial for me.
Sketchbooks are the way I record these observations and are a vital part of my work. I also discovered that although we learn a great deal from artists who go before us, I will never reach a stage where I feel I have learnt all there is to know. Art is a long journey, and once you realise you will never reach the destination, and that you will meet many interesting detours and side roads along the route, then you can enjoy the challenges and just make sure you are always moving your work forwards and enjoying the journey.
You have a range of marks in your work. What materials do you use to achieve your effects?
I began my MA with the ambition to 'get better at painting' which had always frustrated me. As an unintentional consequence of this aim; my drawing completely changed. I now work from larger masses in a drawn piece, with smaller marks later on. Although I work from life I don't feel my job is to take the place of a camera. I don't need to reproduce each aspect exactly, but I do need to capture and convey the character of the things I am depicting. To get a good feel and approximation for its shape, pattern or texture, or with paint an approximation of colour.
When I work in ink I use blotting paper, both for speed to help dry the surface so I can rework on it but I also like the mottled effect it leaves behind. I use a range of brushes from house painting larger ones to watercolour brushes (Winsor and Newton professional round sable) and Chinese ink brushes, right down to tiny dipping pens. Flat square brushes are great for regular straight lines and I have a pointed flat which is a special favourite at the moment for irregular shapes (made by Stratford and York). I also like dipping a hard pencil (4H+) into ink to create more expressive lines or control the movement into tight shapes and corners e.g. window panes.
Are there any brands/products that you cannot live without and why?
Absolutely non-negotiable items are Moleskine watercolour sketchbooks of all sizes, stocked in Cass Art; they are the perfect paper for watercolour and ink work, and the pocket holds all the other scraps of paper you collect too. I have several on the go at once - it saves waiting for things to dry when you work wet.
Saunders Waterford smooth, hot pressed watercolour paper (the off white version) for ink. The ink moves over the surface well and I like to use the thickest I can get to avoid needing to stretch paper. I tend to decide on size and scale of works on the spot. Preselecting my paper is too restrictive. I make my own sketchbooks from this paper too and the smooth surface takes a soft pencil well for very quick drawings.
I am always in need of good quality blotting paper and Winsor and Newton black drawing inks are essential - I have a pint sized bottle!
I also have a very tiny box of half pan watercolour paints which I use for everything - even quite large works, and I keep the same colours in my watercolour and oil selection which is very tight - two blues, two reds, two yellows, golden ochre, burnt umber and cadmium orange.
Other than that I am keen to spend as little as possible on things that are less significant - I have spent years in infant classrooms so I am a keen 'recycler and reuser' - plastic pots and containers for inks and water and plastic vegetable trays to dump my inky brushes in. Builder’s merchants are great places to get drawing and painting boards cut to size economically.
You have painted in black and white for your submission for Pintar Rapido. Can you tell me a little more about this piece?
I had such an eventful couple of weeks this Summer, I'd heard of Pintar Rapido and as we now live within a 'doable' train journey to London I thought I'd give it a go. I sort of knew what I was aiming for in regards to subject matter; I wanted something that characterised London for me which wasn't the shops or landmarks, and for me it was the beautiful terraces and private gardens which are so unique to central London. I didn't venture very far from Chelsea Town Hall, I walked to the first square Wellington Square with its fabulous London Plane Trees and terraces - here there were lots of lovely structures for me there to get my teeth into!
The day is slickly organised - arrive at Chelsea Town Hall and get your support stamped (no pre drawing etc is allowed) - then head off across London to a spot of your choosing and you must complete the piece and have it back to the venue before the end of the day. It's great a great fun day
I met and chatted with lots of friendly artists and passers-by. The following day is an exhibition of the finished pieces where the public are invited and judging with prizes. I chose to work in ink that day too. It was lovely weather; so drying wasn't an issue and I knew I could work something substantial on paper in that timescale. I have a drawing board which I invented which folds out to fit two joined sheets of the Saunders Waterford paper. The trees and buildings there are huge so l wanted to get some of the scale into the piece.
I couldn't believe it when on my first entry ever to the competition, with all the artists there whose work I admire and follow online, to compete with - that I won a prize in the semi-professional and professional category! I really like the way Pintar Rapido have Amateur, Semi and Professional categories. It recognises people like myself, who don't yet make their living out of artwork, but are art educated and can't really claim to be amateurs!
The final is just around the corner, how are you preparing for the challenge ahead?
Before the final I am taking part in Hampshire Open Studios working as an Artist in Residence at Ashcroft Arts Centre in Fareham, so I will be drawing and painting all day there on pieces connected to their historic listed London Plane Tree and building, meeting with visitors and explaining more about my work.
In the evening and early mornings I will be trying to complete my commission piece for the final which is a much harder challenge for me as it cannot be worked plein air, and I will have to rely on small reference drawings and paintings made onsite. I don't like to work from photographs, but I might take some video. My plan is to hopefully paint something small scale on site and reproduce it larger in a studio settling, but I am worried about being at the mercy of the British weather if we aren't lucky on the visit day. I recall the rain made for quite a damp challenge on the Stowe heat. I plan to use colour because I am eager to let the viewers know that I don't work exclusively in monochrome.
Read our exclusive interviews with Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2016 heat winners every week on the Cass Art Blog.
Explore watercolour and the fluid motions of ink like Kim’s practice with our selection of materials on the Cass Art website.
Catch the final episode of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2016 on Tuesday 29th November on Sky Arts from 8pm.
Explore more of Kim’s work on her website and Blog page via www.kimwhitby.com