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Lockdown paintings

Stephen Robson is best known in Greenwich Printmakers for his screenprints and etchings, but he’s also a painter. When access to print studios became difficult or impossible during in the pandemic, he started work on a series of abstract oil paintings at home, which he’s now showing in his featured artist exhibition. We talked to Stephen about the process behind them, his inspirations, and how these works might be the seeds for new prints in the future.

"Repair", oil on paper, by Stephen Robson

How did the lockdowns affect your artistic practice?

The news in March 2020 was frightening, and it was the start of a year of change and uncertainty for everyone.

But after the initial shock, life for me settled into a kind of enforced period of reflection. At the end of the first week, I pulled out a sketchbook and began to make daily drawings. It felt positive and was a distraction from what was happening. So I thought, this is what I will do – we are being asked to isolate, but I will try to make this a way of learning something, to see where it takes me.

"Apple Green", oil on paper, by Stephen Robson

Why did you start making this series of paintings? How did that come about?

Any plans I had for printmaking were impossible to carry through because I rely on open access studios like Artichoke and Thames-Side Print Studio. Even though some eventually reopened, I was nervous about going there.

I’m fond of experimenting with my artwork, and I had moved to more abstract work before the lockdown, but what I started drawing was totally abstract, minimal squares and repeated lines. It was escapism, and it worked really well, it was totally absorbing.

The sketchbook work was enough to occupy my thoughts and time, and the fact that there were no galleries to see and no places to show work became less of a worry because I was able to do this small activity.

I filled pages with ideas and this led to me making some small painting experiments on wood panels, similar in size, but with the optimistic thought that they could be shown eventually.

"Cadiz", oil on paper, by Stephen Robson

You have a fantastic way with colour and your recent paintings juxtapose blocks or shapes of bright and muted oil paint to great effect. How do you go about choosing colours?

I use sketchbooks to try out ideas and sometimes cut out sections or pile things together to test different colour combinations.

A page from Stephen's sketchbook
A sketchbook page with a strip of paper to test combinations
Test sheets on paper
Putting colours together to test them next to one another

What are your influences? Were you inspired by any particular artists?

In March 2020, I’d just been to Bruges to see a remarkable exhibition of Jan Van Eyck paintings and I'd returned to London not long before restrictions were announced. The Van Eyck paintings made a lasting impression, and it was obvious that these paintings still had the power to amaze people after almost 600 years. Van Eyck wanted to make surfaces as real as possible, to recreate gold and steel, wool and fur, in minute detail, and figures and faces looked more realistic than anything seen before. But there is also an abstract patterning of colours placed side by side to create a very rich effect, and that made me want to use paint too.

Matisse is another artist who did great things with colour, and more recent artists I’ve looked at are Per Kirkeby and Stanley Whitney.

"Blue Connection", oil on paper, by Stephen Robson

Why did you decide to show all paintings for your featured artist exhibition, rather than prints or a mixture of prints and paintings?

I wanted to show something about the lockdowns, which for me meant a change from printmaking. This was mainly because I use the open access studios and that wasn't possible, but also I think I was looking for a major change too.

How do you think these paintings will influence your prints when you get back in the print studio?

I have some ideas and I want to try this kind of image as a screenprint, or possibly a colour etching.

Stephen’s paintings will be on display in the Greenwich Printmakers gallery from May 17-June 6, and his prints are available there all year round. For more information, see his artist’s page and his website.

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