This month we’d like to welcome Francesca Owen as our Cultural Ambassador for February. Francesca is a Penzance-based artist who specialises in painting and dyes. Drawing inspiration from the wild Cornish coast she often works outside on the SW Coast path, exploring and gathering pigments from the landscape. Find out how she developed her passion as an artist and what she loves about Cornwall.
I am a painter and dyer and I specialize in painting landscapes with a combination of natural pigments and traditional oil paints. I teach Landscape Painting and Natural Pigments from my studio near Penzance and outside in the World Heritage mine sites. Participants learn about pigments and paint making and find the space to delve into the freedom of painting and be outside in small groups.
I paint outside on the SW coast path, I love to explore and to be adventurous, finding places that are off the beaten track excites me, so I go out painting with a rucksack and loose canvas strapped to my back. I gather pigments from specific areas, more locally between the mine sites of st just and st ives. I have also gathered and researched pigments around the world in India, Asia and Europe. Spending time outside painting directly in the environment, I believe helps to communicate a ‘great sense of connectedness’ to the natural world. It forces us to stop, to notice our surroundings in a deeper way and then to respond accordingly. My response is not literal, it is rather rooted in ‘feeling’, in ‘instinct’ and in ‘intuition’. In society I don’t believe that we place enough of our ‘knowing’ on our other senses and painting provides the space for this.
The pigments I use can be up to 350 billion years old. Painting with Cornish pigments directly links to the strong mining heritage we have here. The pigments are composed of various minerals and oxides. Some are direct remains of mining heritage. Using pigments involves searching for the pigment and gathering it and then processing it. This is a link to mining, it is a sense of discovery, it is a sense of taking something from the earth- in a more respectful way- and literally using what we are painting about in the painting itself. The pigment has to be lifted from the ground, it has to be sifted and broken up into small particles to be used as paint by adding a binder.
After I had finished my BA degree at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, I traveled to India and Asia, completing a residency at a centre specializing in textiles and dyes led by tribal people. I was exploring the uses of natural colour and the more I learnt the more fascinated I became. Over a small fire by the river I could extract colour from exotic plants and bark to colour silk and cotton, it was a beautiful setting and very basic. Although, as a painter I wanted to understand how I could transfer this knowledge into paint. My Masters degree opened up the space to transfer this knowledge of the exotic dyes to the environment here in Cornwall and my drive to keep painting saw me painting with mud and deposits along the estuary of Falmouth and Penryn. This was the beginning of my research for pigments and the complete practice has been ongoing for about ten years now. Combining my love for travel with art was a perfect way of collecting pigments, when I could I looked at and collected pigments in Australia, France, Spain, India, Laos and Morocco as well as across the UK. Fortunately I also have pigments sent to me from students and other people. Every painting I make challenges me in a different way and pushes the boundaries of what I can achieve and this is development.
Cornwall has a wild and rugged beauty about it. Having lived between both South West counties of Devon and Cornwall, Cornwall has more of a rawness. It is barren and bleak and often these are the days that are more preferable for painting since the sky holds its huge clouds suspended above the sea. Looking out to sea or across the moors, or painting on the beach has influenced my work. Further, the mining heritage here is fascinating and is an undeniable addition to the landscape that has influenced my work by either, directly using the mining waste to paint with or by acknowledging the mineshafts across the landscapes in my paintings and by teaching my courses at some of the mine sites.
These projects were self-initiated whilst I was studying for my Masters degree. They were fascinating to me at the time. Trebah Gardens, the Garden of Dreams, residency, gave me the studio space I needed and the physical space and quietness to develop my thoughts and skills for dyeing with plants- something I had learnt in SE Asia in a previous residency and needed to adapt to here. The residency was during the winter months and I spent a lot of time alone on the beach soaking fabric in seawater. The project with Newlyn Art Gallery gave me the opportunity to make a dye garden and importing a ton of topsoil there was a lot of fun.
I have many favourite spaces – this depends on my mood. I love painting outside on a warm early spring day where no one can find me, I really lose myself like that. Other times I like to listen to loud music and close myself in to my studio which is near Penzance.
At home! I’m not a great cook but I hate the formalities of eating out and rarely ever do.
I love to walk around St Leven, Porthcurno and Porthgwarra, anywhere that way.
I’d take my partner – of course, or else I’d be in trouble!
Francesca Owen is a specialist in pigments and dyes. Making work outside and back in her studio at Trewidden Gardens. She is deeply influenced by this wild and rugged landscape. Francesca tutors at St Ives School of Painting, leading her course: Landscape Painting and Natural Pigments from the famous Porthmeor studios. An award-winning artist, she studied fine art painting at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, under the tutorship of Phyllida Barlow, and winning two scholarships.