Dorset in the right light

Middle Beach at Studland, looking east

There’s something in the light, in the way it reflects on the water and casts shadows in the sand, but Middle Beach at Studland holds the same fascination for artist Ian Hargreaves as Monet’s garden at Giverny, or the Grand Canal in Venice, or twilight on the Bosphorus at Istanbul.

‘It doesn’t matter how many times I paint Middle Beach there’s always something new to see, especially in that view out to Old Harry Rocks,’ he explains over tea in his home studio on Canford Heath. ‘The Purbecks are magical and there are so many great walks or places to take in the view, but especially Studland, it has its own very special atmosphere.’

Whatever he’s painting Ian works from the reference photos he takes, sometimes choosing single scenes from multiple variations of the same vista, at other times just a single snap. The photos constitute a kind of sketchbook – shorthand notes of things that might make it into the paintings – so a couple of figures from one could end up in a scene from another, depending on the compositional needs of the painting.

He works in acrylic and oil and embraces the change in mood and tempo that a range of subjects presents him.

‘I’ve always got a camera with me and I have an eye for recognising a scene, but I’m certainly no photographer. I look to the left and right of me and straight ahead, but I also remember to look behind to see where I’ve just been and it’s surprising how often things appear differently when you look back at them.

Ian Hargreaves with a painting of a Caravaggio poster on a street in Naples

‘Despite what I said about Old Harry Rocks, I couldn’t paint the same view in the same way over and over again, that would destroy me. I switch between landscapes and townscapes, between painting with the brush and doing something very architectural to picking up the palette knife and freeing up.

‘All my paintings come back to light and shade though, I’m fascinated by reflections, shadows and shade; that’s the common thread in all my work.’

Ian grew up in Bournemouth and as a teenager studied Technical Graphics at the old art college near the Lansdowne. Soon after graduating he landed a well-paid job with IBM but it only lasted 18 months or so before, inspired by a work colleague, he filled a backpack and set off with an InterRail pass to explore Europe.

‘It was the 1970s and not many people did that back then, but a couple of weeks later I was sitting under the Acropolis with my watercolour pad thinking life couldn’t be any better. I think I went for three weeks on the first trip then gave up the job and disappeared for six months or more. It was all very Bohemian and I loved it.’

Ever since then, in one form or another, art has provided Ian with daily bread and a roof over his head – from drawing thousands of portraits on the streets of London and Palermo, to teaching painting to housewives in northern Germany, or creating canvasses large and small that sell in galleries throughout Europe.

‘The teenage me would have been happy with that I think. I’m my own man; I can choose what I paint and I get to see some beautiful sights, then paint them. I have painted some very sombre pieces and I know I can paint to shock people, but I choose to paint beauty and generally speaking that’s what people like to put on their walls. It’s very special to think that someone has chosen my work because it brings them some joy. Art is a luxury, even for people with a lot of money to spend, they don’t actually need a painting so the world of politics, Brexit and what have you, has an effect on the art world. These are uncertain times and people are more likely to be drawn to art when there’s a bit more stability.’

Blue Pool, Furzebrook

A decade ago Ian moved back to Dorset after 24 years in Germany. He prepared for the move by contacting galleries and putting his work in circulation, creating a base level of interest that he has been able to build on and he has since sold work from the Royal Academy, twice been accepted into the prestigious Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize Exhibition and in 2016 was named Artist of the Year by Artists & Illustrators magazine.

‘A lot of people forget the commercial aspect of earning a living from art – will it sell? That’s always in the back of my mind because this is my job and the most important thing about that is to keep doing it. I love it when everything flows and the work comes easily, but I have days when I go indoors and wonder what I’ve been doing all day because it has been a real slog. The only way to get over that is to keep painting until you get it right. An individual brush stroke in a small painting can be everything, but in a larger painting it gets lost so sometimes with the bigger pieces I find I have to work harder to keep it fresh.’

Judging by the work stacked up in Ian’s studio those days are rare and currently his most pressing problem is finding time to make the paintings he has planned from his five trips abroad this year – ‘That’s unusual, we usually only manage a couple’ – and getting his teeth into some of the local scenes that are calling him.

‘I took some reference photos for a painting I want to do of Lyme Regis, the promenade, a really busy scene. The light over there is quite special so that’s going to be an interesting one, but as for the future I’ve always been drawn to the Mediterranean, I never tire of painting Venice, I want to explore the Dorset Coast Path and, of course, there’s plenty more to come from Studland.’

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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