Q&A With Camilla Dowse

Camilla Dowse was selected to exhibit through the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition in 2015.  In spite of being a country girl at heart, Camilla takes the urban landscape as her subject matter, and through the combination of a soft colour palette and the removal of all urban ‘clutter’ (people, litter etc.) she reveals the hidden and unique beauty of the urban environment.  In the following Q+A, Camilla tells us about the surfaces that she chooses to paint on and the immense importance of competitions like the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition as a means of generating crucial feedback for an artist.

‘Charles Street, Brighton’, Camilla Dowse

Tell us a little about Charles Street, Brighton, the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015 exhibition.

For some time I painted with watercolour on paper. Painting on gesso has enabled me to work in an entirely new way and for a few years now I’ve been exploring the relationship between the two. But I wanted to see what would happen if I took what I’d learnt working on gesso and went back to painting on paper. Charles Street, Brighton is one of the results.

Charles Street is a great street to paint, it’s many bay windows reflect the sky, and the houses although painted in various greys were green in the afternoon light. The colour appealed to me. I love greens, and blues especially.

What is it that draws you to the urban landscape as subject matter?

I should own up to being a country girl at heart! I’m not a fan of the pace of life in towns and cities. They’re generally busy and overpopulated places. They’re somewhere many of us pass through and rarely stop to look at. Even those that live there. But many years ago I started to do just that. To stop and look at my surroundings, and what I saw surprised me. They’re invariably beautiful places, and in the right light and at the right time of day they transform completely. My paintings are an attempt to look beyond the fast pace of contemporary life and stop for a moment to contemplate the beauty of the built environment.

One of the defining features of your work is the palette of soft colours which gives your urban landscapes a quiet and contemplative quality. For many people, soft, muted colours are not what they would instinctively associate with urban life – with this in mind, why is it that you opt for this colour palette?

‘Apricot Terrace’, Camilla Dowse

Most of my painting is done using British towns for reference. The light here is soft and the period buildings which I’m attracted to are often weathered and worn. Those qualities have certainly influenced my palette, but also by removing the qualities that generally assault the senses in a town or city (including colour) I’m inviting people to relax and take a moment to see the urban environment in a new way.

You often paint on hand-mixed gesso, the porous quality and texture of which evoke the exterior surface of the buildings that you paint. Could you tell us a little more about the way in which watercolour reacts on different surfaces?

I’ve always been a fan of hot press paper. The paint seems to take that little bit longer to be absorbed, and I’ve always liked the crispness of line you can get from the smooth surface. But there’s a limit to how much you can work into a painting on paper. What drew me to working on gesso is that it’s an absorbent and robust surface. For the first time I could work into the painting in a way that I couldn’t on any other surface or with any other medium. The closest comparison I can think of is that it’s a little like drawing on heavy weight paper with charcoal, in the same way that you can work ‘into’ a charcoal drawing.

In 2014 you were named Artist of the Year by Artists & Illustrators Magazine and in 2015 you were selected to show work in the Sunday Times Watercolour exhibition, the largest and most prestigious prize for contemporary watercolour painting in the UK. How important would you say that accolades like these are to the development of an artist’s practice?

Painting for me is an almost entirely solitary process, and yet feedback is one of the most important things for an artist. In almost every other artistic discipline there’s a process of feedback, such as editors for writers or directors for actors. Painting prizes are a much needed peer review process for artists. They can help an artist determine so much about their work. Prizes are also an opportunity to have your work seen by a much larger audience. We only get better at any craft skill by doing it often, and I’m now very lucky to be able to paint full time. That I can is entirely down to my work being selected for high profile art prizes and exhibitions.

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.


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