Peter Nixon, British (1956 - )

Peter Nixon

Born in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, England in 1956, my artistic career started at the age of five with an inclination to draw. During these formative years the only reference books available in the family home were encyclopaedias and a book of Gustav Dore’s engravings. I was fascinated by their detail which sparked an interest in intricacy which would influence my work later. I have always been attracted to paintings with extensive content.

At the age of nine I was taken to the National Gallery and the Royal Academy in London where I encountered two drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci, the ‘Virgin and Child’ and the ‘Virgin and St Anne.’ This was my first exposure to real art and these large scale drawings were a revelation, opening my eyes to possibilities that I had not dreamed of; their complex technique had a profound effect upon me.

The first stage of my art education was a foundation course at Blackpool College of Art and Design. Though a relatively modest provincial college, it had a strong tradition for figurative art and three tutors who were excellent draughtsmen. They were responsible for sharpening my interest in what I came to consider the most complex and compelling subject for an artist: the human figure.

Study was conducted in life classes with a seated model; this was standard for the development of artistic skills; it taught me proportion, perspective, control of line and how to observe, but I did not find my individual approach to drawing until my next college.

In the life-model studies at Bath Academy of Art, one particular drawing exercise opened my eyes to new possibilities. Our group was taken to a Dance Class where we sketched dancers as they practised, gliding round the room, constantly changing poses. Through this exercise I discovered the missing elements in my work which were movement and energy. This, coupled with a corresponding interest in the constructions of Cubism, enabled me to formulate a system of abstract shapes that suggested figures in motion; transforming as they moved through space.

I aimed for a combination of opposites in my work; the immediacy of a sketch, with each stage of the drawing process visible combined with the power and colour of a finished painting. I also wanted to create figures that were simultaneously lighter than air but had a strong physical presence representing powerful positive emotions.

For a long period in my artistic career I focused on etching which taught me the discipline of a method and deepened an interest in texture. But I could not find a way to employ these interests in the ‘sketch paintings’ until inspiration struck me on a visit to Venice.

There I saw the Titians, Veronese’s, and Bellini’s whose sumptuous colour, patterning and depictions of cloth provoked a response in me and suggested a way to include the textures I had enjoyed in etching. In this ‘ornate style’ the decoration of costumes is not meant as a demonstration of wealth and finery as it was in Venetian painting; instead these textures are a metaphor for the dazzling complexity of our civilisation’s achievements. The forms and symbols from which they are constructed are based on the shapes of language scripts, musical notation and mathematical calculations; symbols that signify our magnificent intellectual and cultural accomplishments. In these paintings I am able to enjoy full layered colour enhanced with gold foils.

A positive aspect of this development is I am now able to explore a combination of the ‘sketch style’ and the ‘ornate style’ where the paintings range between complexity and spontaneity enabling me to finish a particular work at any stage with elements of both styles.

A third style has evolved recently which looks back to my first encounter with the Leonardo drawings. This is a combination of painting and drawing in subdued tones that suggest the ‘sfumato’ technique of Leonardo. The paintings are built up in smoky layers that have a depth and subtlety suggesting memory and the passage of time and are called the ‘carta una’ style. ‘Carta Una’ or ‘first sheet’ is the Renaissance term for the preparatory sketch used by the Old Masters for fresco painting.

I continue to explore combinations of these three techniques looking for more exciting breakthroughs. I believe that an artist should constantly move forward; empirically finding new avenues through experimentation and the close monitoring of his thoughts and materials.

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