From helicopters to horizons: a new exhibition at Bradford Cathedral many years in the making

“Abstract land and seascapes painted in oils and inspired by the incredible beauty of the English countryside.”

This is how local fine artist, Martin Cosgrove, describes the paintings that form part of his ‘Fresh Horizons’ exhibition that comes to Bradford Cathedral on the 27th April. We spoke to him as the paintings were framed up ahead of the exhibition to talk about him and his work.

Bradford-born Martin Cosgrove went to Carlton Bolling School and has been involved with Bradford Cathedral since the early 1970s. His love of art, particularly landscapes, started in childhood and has been reinforced by his lifelong passion for walking in the Dales. Once he moved to secondary school, fine art printing really sparked his passion for making art: “Looking back, I realise that I made some fantastic progress at school, and by the time I was fourteen was producing some really impressive screen-prints. Like all school children however, I had to make a choice as to whether or not I continued at the age of 14: I decided to drop art to undertake more academic subjects.”

Martin decided to pursue a career in medicine and trained at Sheffield University and then the Leeds Teaching Hospitals. During his medical training he continued to draw and paint whenever there was time. “People think that doctors just practice medicine but actually, a lot are very creative people: there are some very talented musicians in medicine, and a lot that enjoy creative writing and art. The problem is time: you can’t do everything at once and you have to make choices.”

Martin, who has now retired from medicine, enjoyed a very varied medical career including as a Senior Medical Officer in the Royal Air Force when he provided medical support to the Helicopter Force, as a GP in Cambridge and more recently as a consultant in occupational medicine based in East Anglia. Working with the RAF gave him many opportunities to be inspired by the landscape as seen from an aircraft. “I have spent enough time in the back of a helicopter to know what a landscape looks like from the air but I also know from my time supporting the search and rescue teams what it’s like to get very close to cliffs in the dark! “

After his time in the RAF, Martin settled down in Cambridge to work as a GP. There he discovered the beauty of the North Norfolk coast. “It’s completely different to the Yorkshire Dales: it’s very flat but there’s a real charm to it. You get really fantastic light.”

Whilst working in Cambridge, Martin gradually increased the amount of art he was creating, finding it a “fabulous way to relax, as I could disappear into a drawing or painting”. Eventually, he decided to take the Foundation in Art course in 2012, where he really improved his drawing and compositional skills and learned the arts of screen printing and making collagraphs. He passed with distinction. Even though painting was not part of the syllabus he still managed to do quite a lot – more for relaxation than the course. “I had a fantastic year – I was like a kid in playschool with lots of paints! I really appreciated, at the end of my full-time working career, to just have the opportunity to play!” Some of the drawings and prints Martin created in this time went on to be sold, with others appearing at an earlier exhibition at Bradford Cathedral. In 2014 Martin returned to Yorkshire.

Fast forward to the present day and Martin has converted his garage into a custom-built art studio, giving him the creative flexibility to continue with his art, whilst also containing the inevitable mess that comes with oil painting.

What does Martin think of being creative? “To me it’s like lateral thinking. It’s about my ability to see things differently – for me painting and creating art often start during a night’s sleep when I am no longer censoring my thoughts, and I can let them jumble around without ascribing any value to them. I can wake up and think ‘hmmm, that would be interesting to try’. If I’m having a good day I can paint. If I’m busy, tired, have a lot on my mind or if I am emotional, I don’t and can’t paint. Some people paint because they’re angry but that’s not how it works for me.

“A lot of the creative process however, involves just leaving the unfinished paintings hanging up in the studio and irritating me. Once they’re right, they’re fine and I can leave them alone, but otherwise I use this sense of irritation because they are not right to help the development of the painting.” He can be surrounded by up to twenty paintings in different states of development at any one time, many drying on the racks and several hanging up on the studio walls.

Working primarily on abstract landscapes, Martin gets inspiration from hill walking but doesn’t usually paint directly from drawings or photographs. We asked where Martin enjoys most of all when seeking inspiration? “Why the Yorkshire Dales of course – particularly Wharfedale and around Malham.”

“Often my best time for painting is first thing in the morning. I’ll get up, have some coffee and breakfast, and then I’m in the studio. Sometimes something happens when I’m asleep and if so, when I wake up, I will be straight into the studio before the kettle boils, to think and plan!

Martin has a tried-and-tested technique, developed over many years, to create a great painting but has to be in the right frame of mind to be able to achieve this: “I’ve got to get all the thoughts and concerns of the previous day and the chatter in my head out of the way first and just focus on the painting to be able to really get into the landscape inside the canvas.

“In my paintings I strip out everything but the land: there are no buildings, walls, people or sheep – they’re all very abstract. You as the observer can put in what you want in there, but the whole ethos behind how these are created and are to be viewed is very reflective and peaceful.

“I sit in front of the canvas and gently drop all thoughts of what is going on outside my studio. I also drop all use of words. Then, once I am relaxed and focussed, in a very meditative, non-verbal way, I explore the painting that is already inside the canvas, just waiting for me to discover it.” Martin compares this act of sitting in front of the canvas and painting to going for a walk within the canvas, feeling the contours and textures of the landscape as he paints. “It’s a very physical process for me.” He goes on to explain that he always paints to mellow instrumental music so that he can remain in a relaxed meditative state throughout his time in front of the canvas.

“After an hour or two of painting, I’ll go away, make myself a cup of tea and then once refreshed, come back to sit and think and perhaps do some further painting or, more probably, put it on the rack to dry and move onto another one, if I still have the energy and focus.

He uses a technique known as ‘drawing on the right side of the brain’. He explains: “It’s essential that when I’m creating things that I don’t talk, I don’t use words to describe what I’m using, and that I don’t draw ‘things’. Once you start putting a name on it you end up going to the left side of the brain and it throws out all the creativity.

“I make marks with the paint using a traditional compositional structure on the canvas to indicate that it’s a landscape but it’s the observer’s brain that does all the hard work to tell them what is in the painting. I use the psychology of visual perception which is something I became really interested in during my aviation medicine training in the RAF.”

He goes on to say, “It’s useful to have a vague goal when I am painting but once you put the pressure on, the creativity goes, so I have to go at my own pace. The secret of doing a painting for me is not worrying about the end result, as once I become precious about it, I start worrying about making mistakes and my creativity goes. Once you understand the rules of composition and how you’re going to use your colour without having to think about it then you can give your unconscious mind the chance to work. Essentially, I go back to my inner three-year-old, and just let things happen!”

Martin also likes drawing with charcoal, a material he enjoys because of its physical and tactile nature. The technique used for both painting in oils and drawing with charcoal is the same however.  “I feel the landscape in the canvas in a very visceral way: I feel the contours, and sometimes I draw with my eyes closed or don’t look at the canvas. Sometimes your eyes and mind can confuse things: there’s a big difference between looking and seeing. I tend to work with tones, lines, shadows and colours, not hills and clouds! I tend to paint in splodges.”

Martin favours a very limited range of colours, primarily blues and whites, with other hues like earth colours, yellows reds or purple tied into those and uses contrasting colours in different layers such as a burnt sienna underpainting and then layering over the top with blues.

He primarily uses a palette knife to paint rather than a brush but he also uses a technique involving pouring very liquid paint, part of his toolbox of styles built up through experience and experimentation, rather than necessarily training. “At the end of day, it’s just you, the canvas and the paint. You discover your own way of doing things.”

His paint pouring technique was inspired by a radio documentary about Lucien Freud who was told by Francis Bacon to not be so precious about his work and according to the documentary “should throw a bucket of paint over his paintings.” Martin adapted this idea by creating paint that was runnier than he normally used and that could be dripped onto the canvas, with the paint finding its own path. This technique features in a least one painting in the exhibition where coloured paint is dripped onto a far darker colour, forming a sunset. This painting proves to be Martin’s favourite in the collection.

“After at least five days, once the oils are dry and I have decided what to do next, I repeat the process and add another layer of paint, building up layer upon layer until there may be twenty layers in total; this can take can take many months and sometimes years to complete. Even when potentially finished they’re all essentially a work in progress.”

We asked him if he’d ever layered up a painting a little too far. “You’ve got to be prepared to take the risk. I’ve absolutely trashed a painting this week which until this point was doing really well. But you’ve got to be prepared to do that to get where you’re going. You have to take risks.”

The name for the exhibition, ‘Fresh Horizons’ came about from some time away in North Norfolk last year, where Martin began thinking about lines and how the illusion of a painted landscape can be created with as few of them as possible. “I came to the conclusion, that all you needed for your brain to think ‘this is a landscape’, is just one line that goes, somehow, from one side to the other. That’s sufficient to tell your brain you’re dealing with a landscape. The horizon nevertheless is so interesting as it’s always changing and is therefore forever fresh. An awful lot of the detail is on the horizon. The real interest in a landscape painting comes from when you start putting vertical lines in, which may be in the cloud, and that gives it a certain level of drama.”

Martin is excited to unveil the new series of paintings to the visitors to Bradford Cathedral. “I hope that people visiting the exhibition will find at least one painting that they can connect with and enjoy: that people can rest for a moment in front of the painting and then go into the landscape in their mind’s eye and explore it themselves.

As well as the opportunity to view the paintings, all of which are for sale, there is also a chance to meet Martin Cosgrove at an informal event over a glass of wine. You will be able to see a few extra paintings that are not in the exhibition and have a chance to find out more about the artistic process that he uses.

‘Fresh Horizons’ begins on 27th April at Bradford Cathedral and runs until the 3rd June. You can also meet the artist Dr Martin Cosgrove on Wednesday 8th May at 7pm. Refreshments will be served from 6:30pm. You can find out more and express your interest at bradfordcathedral.eventbrite.com

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