Two extracts from the essay written for the publication accompanying Summer Field, Ffiona Lewis’s exhibition at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, August 2018


Whilst she is very much a studio painter, the artist’s process usually begins out of doors in the landscape. She keeps a series of what she calls ‘field books’: small, easily portable sketchbooks in which to make drawings and written notes as aides-memoire, often of fleeting moments of visual and atmospheric sensation. Though the words accompanying the drawn images tend to be factually descriptive, they are at the same time freighted in a particular poetry, potent in its simplicity. Memory is important to Lewis’s work and, along with visual records these words serve as triggers and reminders for future reference. In the studio she uses them as the source from which to make further drawings, each in response to its predecessor; a gradual process of simplification and abstraction, involving shifts in focus or emphasis, and a paring down to that which feels essential. Recently she has taken to drawing in chalk pastel, thick round sticks of the stuff, its pure colour often combined with watercolour washes. These drawings are comprised of marks both predetermined, and ‘stray’ – that is, made with the stick of pastel held quite loosely, the lessened degree of control allowing for a wider range of spontaneous motion. It is a strategy that often results in marks that are akin to fragile threads or tendrils, and especially noticeable in smaller drawings, in which delicacy and urgency – whispery traces and scurrying zigzags – coexist to lyrical effect. There is in many of these smaller works a sense of the expansive space one associates with the flat Suffolk landscape; big skies beneath which the staggered line of a ditch or path tapers through fields into the distance. These are often rendered in intermeshed pastel lines put down at concentrated speed, their downward strokes evoking the fall of rain or light. Some are accompanied by terse lines taken from field book notes, written in soft graphite: Oncoming Rain FrontSuffolk Flat FieldsFarmhouse Horizon, for example.

Of recent sources of inspiration Lewis enthuses about Gillian Ayres’ rich and vibrantly coloured canvases, also citing the heavily coagulated surfaces of Frank Auerbach’s paintings, seen in his 2015-16 retrospective at Tate Britain. The impact of these artists is evident in the broader impasto of her new work. She stipulates that her recent focus has been on, ‘colour rather than line’; and this is something of a development, in that the paintings are generally looser than her previous work, which always had a definite sense of construction and clearly delineated shape. There is too something of the unpredictable nature of pastel, the ways in which its dust scatters and smears, and the softly broken burr of its textures, all of which has influenced the artist’s approach to the application of oil on canvas. Previously her technique has been to model form very directly, coaxing and edging it from layers of paint applied with brush and palette knife, eliminating superfluity and striving to arrive at an image that conjoins the essence of the thing seen with the feelings summoned by its memory. The process is often highly physical, involving sanding and scraping to remove layers before then reworking areas. In contrast, and importantly, Lewis describes how in her recent paintings she has been ‘painting out’ as opposed to ‘painting in’, and this is a central factor in what amounts to a significantly different, expansive approach. The artist has described enjoying ‘the discipline of a sparse palette’ in the past – one tends to think of it as largely tonal, centred on ochres, buffs, yellows, blacks, greys and blues – whilst in the recent work there is a notably fuller chromatic range. And whilst informed by the hues of flowers, it is clear that the artist’s use of intensely coloured pastels has also influenced this broader palette, one that reveals Lewis as a more assured colourist. Much of her colour is remembered or noted rather than strictly observed, though it is clear that she studies it closely, for instance describing in conversation the variety of greens associated with individual plants; noting that a pale green leaf often accompanies a blue flower; whilst in yellow flowers the leaf is darker, almost viridian in hue.

Ffiona Lewis is represented by The Redfern Gallery, London:

All images are courtesy and © Ffiona Lewis

Essay extracts © Ian Massey

Posted in: Essays