David Firmstone... on painting, Island living & Island light
David Firmstone, one of England’s best and most prolific artists, lives right here on the Isle of Wight in a beautiful glass home with panoramic views of the stunning coastline not far from our southernmost point.
Vice president of the Royal Watercolour Society until 2010, and a recipient of an MBE for his services to art in 1997, David is repeatedly inspired by the landscape and history of the Island when he paints his frequently large, colourful canvasses. David also travels widely and his work is influenced by his journeys, especially those to Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Thailand.
David and Jean began visiting friends on the Island in the 1980s and moved here in 2000, completing their RIBA award-winning home that was designed by Jean in 2007.
“We had a house in Cheshire and one on the Island for a while, but when we decided to move here (full time) we bought this plot in 2004. There had been an orchid house here and I realised we could build on it and we got permission to build a contemporary version. At the top there were just a few bricks but underneath in the cellars it was all complete.
“Jean designed it and project managed it in conjunction with the architect. And then we won a design award with it in 2009. The idea was that we could have a gallery whenever we wanted it and I’ve got a studio space underneath – we have a decorative pool that reflects light into the studio, which was Jean’s idea. My contribution was putting the statues in the pool.
“When I decided I was going to paint full time I got a commission to paint 66 paintings for the restaurant chain Est Est Est and when that finished we came here to buy a property and a bigger studio and I was interested because there was landscape and seascape here on the Island. The reason we moved here was because we wanted a sea view.
“I won the International Painting Prize in 2007 in Chichester and Richard Cork said I was a ‘Romantic Surrealist’ and I rather liked that. Although the work is predominantly landscape and seascape there’s always something in it – tractor circles, paths into the woods - so that they’re not just landscapes. Then I started to put in horses occasionally and figures appeared and fires.
“In Italy they used to burn off stubble and I did a series of paintings ‘Fire Burns the Land Like a Language’.
“There was a little horse that was in the field by St Lawrence Church and I’ve painted it several times. It looks very nice under that church. It’s like those Llamas on the Military Road. I look at them and I think ‘I’m sure I could put them in somewhere.’
“When we started to come here I realised that there was such a lot to paint here that people hadn’t painted. I did a series of paintings about the Island was based on a series of shipwrecks. One appears on a Penguin book of poetry as I won the Sunday Times Watercolour Prize about six years ago - the prize was to do a cover for Penguin.
“There were a lot (of shipwrecks) up near Blackgang and there are lots of old photographs of them launching lifeboats. It’s getting a twist on it. I like the landscapes and seascapes to have an historical context. I was in this shop in Newport and I saw these postcards – sepia photographs of shipwrecks on the Island. And there was one of them building the pier at Ventnor and one of the launching of the lifeboat at Brook and I’ve used that quite a bit.
“I draw with the pour. You can pour paint and tilt the canvas to draw with it. You tend to control the accidents you create by pouring and you can make the bulk of the paint move across the canvas so that it goes where you want it to. I’m not the first to use this technique but I think I may have invented the term.
“I like to work every day. My father once said it was a bit like playing snooker – if you stop it takes a few days to catch up. If you do something every day it’s much easier to get into it. I always do something every day, even if it’s just taking photographs.
“I tend to work outside in situ. You do so much work outside and then come back into the studio to finish it. I went to see Hockney (the exhibition at the Royal Academy) and was inspired by him so now I’m going to get an iPad. I think there’s a lot of mileage there.
“I like Newtown as well; the light is particularly good in the evening there. I once saw the sun coming down as I was coming home on the ferry and I nearly collapsed. I like it when I come across on the ferry, there’s something magical about it.
“One of the things about the Island is the light. All those people in Cornwall went on about the light there but I think it’s better here. It’s quite sparkly, the landscapes and seascapes, because of the sea and the reflection of it.”