Sophie sat down with Mike in his Krowji studio, ladened with countless oil paintings adorning the walls from floor to ceiling, it was clear these atmospheric works are the outcome of a prolific approach. His opening statement, regarding his practice is “The last three years, for everybody, have been a very interesting time of change.” This couldn’t be more apparent in Mike’s work. Dividing his time between Cornwall and the West Coast of France, Mike found himself across the pond when lockdown became enforced. Pining for his home county, he began to experiment with his depiction of the Cornish coastline.
Mike’s aim was not to paint the landscape as he sees it but as he experiences it. It’s this innate understanding of the coastline that is so distinctly recognisable in his work. Mike explains that when you’re standing on these perilous cliffs the landscape is constantly moving around you, the sea, the sky and the wind. Hence, he no longer uses brushes but rather exclusively utilises palette knives when painting Cornwall. Seeing as so much of the work consists of harsh, solid rock a palette knife lends itself perfectly to creating dense and confident marks, as well as small quick dashes to emulate the movement of water. The challenge when using oil paint is that it tends to blend and smudge resulting in softened forms, especially when applied using a brush. However, Mike’s depiction of Cornwall is anything but gentle. Limiting himself to palette knives forces an inventiveness with his paint application. Working within set petametres and restricting himself to one tool often allows for new and exciting discoveries. Each piece is the result of multiple sessions as countless layers of oils are allowed time to dry, resulting in coatings of texture upon the surface, ultimately aiding in the process of painting the cliffs and rocks. “Painting in an experimental way, discovering new things. What else can I try, what else can I find? I believe it is my duty as an artist to take those gambles and make those leaps. That’s where the discovery is.” Mike believed, as an artist, it was those moments of difficulty that lead to the more exciting outcomes. Using the process as an exploration of the paint, the surface and ultimately himself.
Mike begins each painting by attacking the surface of the canvas with as much paint as possible. “There’s nothing worse than a blank canvas.” The initial layers are focused on applying broad information with expressive marks. Mike believes it is a kinetic energy that allows for each mark thereafter to be as expressive, however small the detail. “The paintings have travelled through the mind, body, arm, and hand of the artist. That’s what’s interesting. The view becomes humanized.” It isn’t simply, the artist stating something onto the canvas but rather a two-way conversation between the artist and their materials. Little adjustments are made on the surface, paint is applied over and over until it creates just the right form. It is this methodical approach that allows for these abstract marks to become almost hyper realistic from a distance. Yet, surprisingly Mike doesn’t appear to work with this distance in mind, it is quite simply an outcome of his talents as a painter. The pieces surrounding us in the studio vary drastically in their approach and palette, from bright pinks and sunflower yellows to cooler tones on a miserable rainy day. Each painted with differing levels of detail or an assortment of mark making. “Using a palette knife it’s as if you’re sculpting the rock’s form rather than painting.” Mike has said he wants each piece within the collection to be arresting in a different way from the last. He would resent the idea that the collection adheres to a certain aesthetic or style and would prefer visitors to both love and hate pieces depending on their tastes. “I accept that some people will like my work and some people won’t. This is me, take it or leave it.”
Never playing it safe appears to be a common theme throughout Mike’s work, from taking the reference images to painting the pieces. Risks are an intrinsic part of his practice. Mike’s favourite description of vertigo is ‘It is not the fear of falling but the realisation that a part of you wants to fly.’ This statement feels synonymous with his attitude towards risk-taking. Continuing to challenge predictability within his work, his artistic journey is constantly evolving. Often, I meet artists that are on a continuous search for perfection, however, I don’t believe perfection is Mike’s desired vocation but rather a continual exploration of the coastline and finding new ways to depict it. He isn’t precious with his approach to being a painter and has worked in an eclectic way throughout the years.
Mike explains that standing at a great height, on the edge of a perilous Cornish coastline, symbolises the precipice of change we are currently experiencing in the world. It pictorially embodies the position we all find ourselves in, from the economy to covid. Finding beauty in these wild and perilous landscapes. The compositional angles within these works are also incredibly challenging to execute. Panoramic views sweep from the ground below your feet to the distant horizon line allowing for a full array of textures. Compositionally they also enable your eye to wonder across the surface of the canvas. The brash Cornish landscapes are juxtaposed by vast and flat paintings of the beaches in France. Dividing his time has allowed Mike an intrinsic appreciation for their coastlines and the sympathetic rendering of their considerably different landscape. Unlike Cornwall, Mike uses brushes when depicting the broad and smooth beach with large voluptuous clouds pervading the blue skies. The harsh lines created by the palette knives are even more present when hung alongside the calmer French scenes. Linking the two is the Atlantic Ocean. Mike says if you trace his roots back he is of Keltic origin and so has a natural affinity with the whole of the West Coast.
As well as painting Mike is also drawn to writing as a form of expression, from short stories to poetry, his need to investigate and discover takes many avenues. He is a creative to his very core with an intense need to explore his emotional response and connection to the landscape he inhabits. Raising questions rather than searching for answers. The scenes often aid in reminding you how small and insignificant the individual is within the vast landscape. It’s humbling to realise we are all part of a much bigger thing.
– Sophie Castle.