After “defrosting” from a chilly afternoon spent sketching for a new commission in her local environs of Whitstable, Sarah Spencer NEAC tells Mall Galleries’ Beatrice Bowles-Bray about landscape painting for commission and pleasure, and why winter is her favourite season for painting
“I will often make a commission my own by focusing on the sky”, Sarah begins. “I have always been drawn to painting skies, and that’s why winter is the best time of year for me. Some painters love a summer sky, but I prefer the drama of wintry weather.” Sarah is particularly fond of the cool palette of a North Norfolk winter. “I spent lots of time there when I was younger, and you just don’t get bigger skies” she says. “Those early impressions have stayed with me.”
In rendering these landscapes, beloved since childhood, Sarah Spencer is unusual in her focus on tone over colour: “My artistic career began with drawing rather than painting, and I think this legacy endures in my tendency towards monochromism. I am definitely not a colourist; my paintings are tonal, and that feels fitting for the scenes I love to paint.”
Sarah Spencer NEAC, Distant Boys and Boats, Southwold
Although Sarah’s paintings are completed in the studio, the artist begins en plein air. “I will spend several days out in a landscape, doing a lot of drawing”, she says. “Charcoal works perfectly for this, because it moves so quickly on the paper - unless of course it’s raining, when it doesn’t work at all! The priority for me in these first sketches is getting the tonal relationships right, because that’s where the drama lies. I also do small oil sketches outside, and although these rarely end up in the finished work, something about the challenge of painting out of doors forces me to paint in a different way, which I really value.”
“To see me out there in the elements, it may look like I’m losing the battle, but these plein air sketches produce something unattainable in the comfort of a studio. The brush stroke you make when you are trying to make sense of what’s in front of you, amid wind and rain, is quite unique. Inside the studio it’s much easier to overwork things.”
Spencer gathers these preparatory sketches like fragments which, as with her favourite locations, she revisits and re-appropriates for different works at different stages of her career. “Each painting will typically involve five preparatory studies, and a sketch from years ago could easily come together with a sky I painted today to form a new work. In addition to this I do lots of glazes.” With characteristic modesty, Sarah likens this technique of accumulative splicing to a jigsaw, while devotees of her landscapes see them as palimpsests of experience and impression, consolidating different temporalities, perspectives, and even periods in the artist’s life.
Because her works unify a history of impressions rather than presenting a single moment, Sarah faces a challenge when it comes to commissioned work: “I like to return to the same locations to paint, but with commissions, I will often be painting someone else’s special place. This is not always easy, but I love it when a commission gives me the opportunity to discover something special in a location I might not otherwise have visited.”
The seascapes of Southwold which are currently available on Mall Galleries’ Buy Art | Buy Now platform are indicative of this happy discovering. “These were paintings I did for my own pleasure whilst working on a commission to paint Southwold pier. Painting in such a public location is unusual for me, so I went off piste to do these paintings, and to find that hook, that certain aspect of the place that I identified with personally, which would then give the finished commission its character.”
Sarah Spencer NEAC, Southwold Beach Sketch
If Spencer was commissioned to create a winter landscape with a subject entirely of her choosing, the artist asserts that she would paint Norfolk, “perhaps Holkham or Scolt Head Island”, she says. “The skies from there are fantastic. I would have loved to move there, but Whitstable faces the same way, the sun still sets over the sea, and it’s that much nearer to London for visiting galleries.”
Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of living in a remote area like Whitstable, Sarah Spencer, long-time member of the New English Art Club, praises the benefits of being part of a close community of artists. Laughing, the artist says that, “it’s lovely to be in a room full of people talking about things like how to stop an easel falling over in the wind. You don’t have those conversations outside of groups like the NEAC. Not living in London, it’s harder to connect with people who share your interests, so the Club has been brilliant.”
From the stimulating influence of her fellow artists to the daily inspiration of her local seas and skies, Sarah Spencer surrounds herself with the things she loves. This depth of feeling and enduring attachment to place becomes what is most captivating in her art.
By Beatrice Bowles-Bray