He grew up making fantasy art. He now sells ‘fantasy’ landscapes. But there can be few artists who cleave to the tradition of painting like David Wightman. Nevermind that he says of his mountainous scenes: “They’re fictions. They’re not real places.”
Visiting his studio, I was struck by the minimal clutter in his space. Daylight bulbs gave the room a perfect brightness. A finished work and one unfinished hung on opposite walls. There was a concise bookshelf of art tomes and a cluster of art postcards on another white wall. In crates near the door are rolls of cheap white wallpaper, the found object of choice for this artist.
Wightman himself is youthful, genial and keen to explain his genre, his use of media, and the process he goes through to create each of his alien yet seductive mountain vistas. You might guess he spends a lot of time defending his practice to peers whose work is less stubborn and shackled to art history: “What I do has more to do with the history of painting over the last 2,000 years and less to do with the last 100 years.”
But reverence was not always a quality in the work. When still at school in Stockport, Wightman considered that: “Art was something that happened a long time ago and I didn’t really think artists existed anymore in the same way I didn’t think witches existed any more”. Instead, his visual response to schooldays was drawing “barbarian warriors fighting each other with axes”.
He moved onto painting after an imaginative stepmother took him to visit Manchester Art Gallery and then went on to art school with the support of an inspirational art teacher. It could have all been so different. The future he imagined for himself was illustration for genre literature. As things stand he is a successful fine artist on the roster of Halcyon Gallery, preparing for second solo show there, working title Arcadia.
Now he can look back and say, “The more I have looked into the history of landscapes, the more I’ve realised that I actually am part of that tradition, whereas before I thought I was removed from it.” It turns out that fantasy and serious art have a longstanding and fruitful relationship.
“What I do isn’t really that unique. Making made-up landscape, that’s always been done,” he points out. Realism in scenic art is only as old as impressionism, it seems, and even then the colours are unreal. Wightman can also reel of a list of precedents for what he now does, including Caspar David Friedrich, Poussin, Claude, even Turner and Constable. “Some of them purport to be real places and others are completely mythical or fantastical. There’s an element of fantasy to all of them.”
A typical Wightman scene will include a mountain lake, a snowy peak or two, perhaps a chalet but with an absence of figures. He’ll refuse to disclose the whereabouts of his source material, but will admit his quietly psychedelic scenes are more likely to reflect the landscapes of the Alps, Rockies or Himalayas rather than the Peak District close to his childhood home. The very next thing you will notice is the subtle relief that pervades the entire canvas.
It is, after all, 2013 and even traditional artists must break with tradition. Wightman’s trademark innovation is to paint onto raised wallpaper and collage the results to give his work a fake impasto texture. The process is laborious, precise, and time consuming, to do with the craft of marquetry as much as painting. “Most of what I do is drawing and tracing and cutting and collaging and recutting,” he tells me. “80 percent of my time in the studio is doing that and 20 percent of the time is actually painting.”
The artist’s accomplishments are quite clear from a close examination of the work. The paintwork is flawless, as if untouched by human hand. The colourfields interlock with millimetre-tight precision. The overall effect is one of balance, even as the colours have tended in recent times to move towards abstraction. None of this could be achieved without a careful system.
To this end, Wightman works in similar stages to a master of old. He plans each painting by making a sketch, he blows these up to draft the finished work and he keeps good records of the end result. And aware of the risk of being called pretentious, he is happy to call these sketches by their Italian names: modello, cartoon and ricordo. (Even though much of this working out takes place a Sony laptop.) He also shares his colour charts in which he puts together swatches and matches tones with care.
“People come to the studio, they think the whole swatch thing is remarkable, and it’s like, that’s what painters do and I’ve come to it to solve a problem.” Wightman insists he never set out to ape a prolific notebook author like Leonardo da Vinci: “I did it because I wanted to solve a problem in my studio and then I’ve learned that’s what other painters do as well”. Having a collector accidentally damage a finished work, this artist has learned the hard way that the old ways can be best.
“All painting’s technical. All painters have a system,” the artist says with just a hint of defensiveness, “Maybe Julian Schnabel doesn’t have a system but he’s the exception.” Just back from a trip to New York, Wightman is also critical of what he sees as Andy Warhol’s arbitrary use of colour.
“[Colour] wasn’t something I cared about at college,” he continues. “You weren’t allowed to care about it. It was a bit geeky, and that’s something that amateurs care about. It’s another reason why I’m far more interested in calling myself a painter.” Now he says of his methodical practice: “The colour is actually the hard part because it’s far more intuitive. In a way it’s getting harder the more I think about colour.”
So with each new work, Wightman still has a mountain to climb. But what a view.
Here’s a link to David Wightman’s website