There is a narrow band of Magnesian Limestone bedrock stretching from Durham in the north, through Yorkshire and on into Nottinghamshire. Something reassuringly permanent and inspiring about this 250-million-year-old geological feature, that rises and dips through our northern landscape, has caught the imagination of generations of those who’ve worked to carve out their lives along its length.
So where is this seemingly irrelevant preamble going? Well, at a key point on our limestone’s journey, where melt water from the last Ice Age has hewed the Don Gorge – and Sprotbrough Flash SSSI provides a mixture of globally vital habitats, a South Yorkshire family-man, dog-walker – and all-round superb chap, recently picked up a football-sized piece of this ancient stone that had been discarded with thousands of others, from the surrounding prime arable land.
In the hands of most of us, this chunk of geological history would perhaps make an impressive door-stop, or an addition to a garden rockery, but only in the hands of an artist could a transformation occur that will guarantee further relevance for the coming millennia. That artist is Andrew Farmer R.O.I.
After first encountering Farmer’s work exhibited at Harrogate’s pre-eminent Watermark Gallery – and as he is about to embark on ‘Winterscape’ an inaugural online exhibition of his drawing and painting, it seems a significant moment to learn about his creative journey to-date.
There is something immediately likeable about this already accomplished painter, as we talk in his studio, anonymously situated at the bottom of the garden at the family’s South Yorkshire home, which backs onto the Trans Pennine Trail.
Clearly anxious to convey the philosophy behind his practice, the artist, who still appears genuinely baffled by the ever-growing appetite for his painting, explains: “I’m all about anti-commercialism. I’m so rebellious. If something’s selling – I get suspicious.”
We start with ‘En plein air’ and the fact that his recent paintings of Harrogate and district are much admired – and he has made friends of those who were able to chat while he was painting on location.
“At the moment, there’s a real thing about plein-airism. I don’t follow trends and fashions. I don’t care what anyone else is doing. It’s not tunnel vision – I am aware of what’s going on, but I don’t let things kind of sway me – and if I know that the in-thing is green as a colour, I don’t go and make loads of green paintings. I just stay on my own track and watch everything else pass me by.”
“What I see, what’s going on now is people seeing: ‘Oh plein-air’s trendy – let’s do a bit of that’. So I’m rebelling. I don’t want to be outside. I don’t want to be part of that. I’ll wait ‘till it’s over then I’ll get back at it.”
Although a key player of ‘The Northern Boys’ painting group, whose members are the recipients of three national British plein air awards and for which en plein air is in their very DNA, Farmer understands that not following the crowd is important: “For me, I think I’ve just got to be honest. Be real. True to myself – and do what I want to do – despite what might sell or not sell. That’s a by-product and it should be for all artists, in my opinion.”
Like his philosophy, Farmer’s style too is definitely his own: “A lot of my paintings are very loose. They’re not photographic. They’re not photo-realist. But when I started out, I really did the groundwork, so underpinning my looseness – this kind of fresh approach – hopefully (I hope this is how it’s perceived) is this underpinning of structure. It’s been hard-earned and I’ve not gone from zero to this…it’s been a real progression to get to this looseness.” His language of painting and explanation of his practice is an education.
“There’s a big thing about ‘finding a style and then sticking with it’ – because people will know you for what you do and then you’ll sell more. It just jars with me – because as an artist I should be free as a bird.” You can only agree.
Farmer’s forthcoming exhibition sees a departure from previous styles of working. Was that intentional? “The drawings are a maze of just dots from the distance, but they pull together and they become space and form and feeling. But look closer, they’re just thousands of dots.”
“I was doodling at breakfast (thinking about this project) and a lot of drawings start as tiny, crappy sketches (which I’m hoping to include in the upcoming show). I just started dabbing and before I knew it, this figure was just emerging on this tiny bit of paper”. Farmer has explored the technique previously, but is keen to experiment further.
Is there a term for ‘the dot’ in drawing? The artist isn’t certain: “I don’t think so, but in painting it’s pointillism. I’ve always been fascinated by Georges Seurat. He did approach his painting as a science. He researched colour and how that mixes optically.’ I guess I’m doing something similar, but a bit more relaxed. I’m kind of learning on the job as I go.”
“Surat’s conte crayon drawings are exquisite. There’s almost like a light that is switched on in the drawing. The paper is the light and everything you put on that paper is reducing the light.”
The series, focussing on sledging and winter scenes will dominate the show. With 25th February fast approaching, there is a sense that everything is coming together. Farmer: “I’ll go hell-for-leather and then cherry-pick the best pieces. If we get some snow – that will really spur me on, because I’m relying on so much memory at the moment. I’m praying for snow!”
“What I like about this approach is it really lends itself to snow/sledging scenes. When it snows there’s no definitive lines and I’m working to let the white paper stand as the light. As the snow.”
“I work from a few things in the studio. I use memories, my imagination – and I’ve also got some photographs from 2 to 3 years ago. They’re terrible quality images – which is great, because there’s no point in copying it exactly as it is. Small and fuzzy images enable me to abstract it more easily”.
Farmer is captivated by ‘light’: “A lot of artists – when starting a drawing, they’re thinking about how dark is the dark – and how light is the light? I’m thinking how much light is there in the dark? A lot of people have commented on my work – that they’re quite light. There’s no real black. Just a suggestion of darkness. And for me: that’s how I see life – there’s light in the dark always – and the impressionists knew that. Their shadows weren’t grey or black – they’re colours.”
Farmer has never previously worked to a theme for an exhibition. Again, that’s possibly because he’s anxious to avoid painting only to sell. But he admits he’s adjusting to the idea. “If you have a theme you can hit the ground running every day. Previously I’ve just gone off and tried to find something to paint. Walking with the dog, the kids or driving.”
Like so many others, dedicating himself to his art was a huge shift of lifestyle. Farmer previously worked as an Art and Design teacher in the secondary sector, which is natural progression for lots of artists. He readily admits he had a love/hate relationship with the job. There was a constant niggling that he needed to paint full-time and he was encouraged by Sarah his wife: “She told me – You’re doing well. You’re painting constantly – and you’re selling, so why are you doing that stuff (teaching)?”
From a traditional background and living in a traditional part of the world, (Denaby. Ex-coal mining. Gritty as hell), Farmer felt as the man in the house – he needed to provide a steady income – so leaving a salary was huge. Family and friends apparently thought he was crazy.
To their credit, the couple – along with children Jacob and Eden – followed their hearts and it’s worked. Farmer Now paints full-time and is also a much more involved and happier Dad at home than previously. A member of the ROI in London, The artist describes the journey so far as ‘incredible’.
Did art click for him when still at school?
“We have key memories from childhood. One when I was age 7 or 8. I was at home drawing my name in 3D letters – and found I could do it. A visiting relative said: “Wow that’s good. What do you want to be when you’re older?” “I’m going to be an artist!” That was the first time I said it – and always said it from that point.”
Farmer continues: “Mr Farrier – a classroom assistant in junior school – painted wild birds from images in magazines. He would sit and paint watercolours – and I thought it was magical. Alchemy! For a young kid to sit and watch something evolve…I could have just sat and watched him for years.”
After school, came college, studying locally in Doncaster. Initially the idea was ‘A’ levels. But at an Open Evening – talking to a lady who was from the actual Art School (which I didn’t know existed), she could sense I wanted to do art – and asked why I wasn’t going to just do art?
Farmer attended Doncaster Art College. “It was sheer luck that I found out about it and I ended up on a full-time course, in an incredible building, with incredible tutors. They introduced me to so much.”
“I’m rooted in the things that I can see around me. Observational…Lots of courses now focus on conceptual stuff. My course wasn’t like that.”
At both College and University, sculpture, print making, life drawing, still life and landscape painting featured constantly. Farmer is clear the artist learns so much from doing.
A chance encounter when at college was perhaps the greatest breakthrough to date for the painter. “He explains: “I had no idea where I was going to go to uni. A guy came in – Neil Ashton – he was a Manchester-based artist – who had studied at Canterbury, Kent – under David Shutt, who was taught by Ewan Uglow – who in-turn had learned from the Euston Road painters, so it was all rooted in observation. Shutt set up the art school in Canterbury, based on a philosophy of creating and observing the world.”
After an incredibly informal interview with Shutt, Farmer secured his place at Canterbury.
And when did it became clear to Farmer he could excel with oils? “Foundation year at college – during a landscape project. “I was entranced by the material. The buttery quality. The smell. It’s delicious.” Farmer believes there’s something about oils that acrylic just doesn’t have.
Although the Canterbury degree programme emphasis was on painting, students were also able to test sculpture and print making. The idea of testing different things is something Andrew Farmer is as committed to now, as he ever has been. A small etching press sits proudly in his studio and it’s used on occasions for dry-point etching.
And so we return to our Magnesian Limestone. A beautiful, but unfinished conker sits on a shelf. Made from locally-sourced limestone – for stone carving.
“If we’re truly an artist, someone who is able to observe – in a sense we should be able to pick anything up and will it. As long as we’re passionate and we try, something will happen.” Farmer is passionate and something is happening.
The stone carving in turn has had an impact on his painting and drawing, in the sense of dotting, chiselling and feeling his way around form and space with small marks. Farmer has previously painted a ballet series, were he describes chiselling away with colour and tone and brush marks. He explains: “There’s no outline – it’s all suggested. It’s such a tactile and beautiful way of working.”
As an artist, Farmer possibly suffers with too many ideas and interests. He’s clearly not someone who has to sit and wait long for inspiration.
Away from painting and creating, the artist loves music and in particular Folk Music. (Local lass Kate Rusby has a sketch Farmer made of her partner, whilst both were at a gig in a local pub.) Music is often playing in the studio while he works. There is also a VW Beetle called Arnold in his garage. It’s clear that Andrew Farmer is anything but two-dimensional.
He loves the sea and loves walking, as do Sarah and the children. The family ideal is to have a smallholding, preferably in a location near the coast. Although as a unit, they’re very much content with what it is now (2 purpose-built studios. Kids in good schools. Great friends. Developing rituals), the Smallholding is surely coming – and is richly deserved.
And finally, The Biscuit Tin works…Farmer won’t say that project is complete, but he has moved away from it for the moment. The original tin was a shortcake biscuit tin gift from his mum (with a Beatle on the front). Farmer cuts 7” x5” panels to fit in the lid.
“I like to question things. Why can’t you use a biscuit tin? I love small, tactile works.” Farmer was introduced to Constable’s sketch book as a student and working on a small-scale takes him back to seeing those works.
The change in style with the new exhibition is in part because he wants to shock people – and say: “I don’t have to do what you say I’ve got to do. If I don’t please the crowd, then I don’t please the crowd…”
More by accident than design, Andrew Farmer is certainly a pleaser of crowds – and the new exhibition and his wonderful new paintings and drawings are being eagerly anticipated far beyond his Yorkshire home.
‘Winterscape’ runs online from 25th February to 11th March at:
His previous work can also be viewed at Watermark Gallery, Royal Parade, Harrogate, HG1 2SZ.