Saturday - Sep 23, 2017

A picture paints a thousand words, with watercolour artist James Foot

watercolour artist James Foot

James Foot is a dedicated and accomplished watercolour artist with a wonderful flair and eye for nature and the environment, in particular, the wonderful landscape and village scenes around his home in Kyparissi, Lakonia, in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece, and the wonderful scenery around the island of Spetses, where he spends his leisurely summers. James talks to Innovanaut about his passion for art and painting, his rural lifestyle and why he recommends Greece as an ultimate holiday destination.

watercolour artist James Foot

First of all James, can you tell me a little about your background and how you came to be living in Greece?

I’m English, originally from Cornwall. I moved to London when I was 19 and worked there through my twenties and then started travelling. I first came to Greece on holiday when I was about twenty-five and became ‘hooked’ on the country and the lifestyle I guess.

When did you become interested in painting? Did you attend art school or teach yourself?

I always enjoyed painting from a very young age, I was the youngest of four children and my mother has told me that it was always something of an obsession, that I painted far more and with greater dedication than her other kids. Apparently, she asked me when I was about 5 why I’d drawn one cow bigger than another (we grew up on a farm) & I said because it was nearer to me so I was fairly perspective early on!

I went to art school, and took a Foundation Course in all media, in Falmouth, Cornwall and then I got into performance but never finished my degree. In fact, after that, I ended up running away to London & eventually formed a theatre company with an actor/writer, Eileen Pollock. Then, with a few other actors and writers we wrote & produced our own shows.

watercolour artist James FootWhat drew you to watercolour painting and what are the advantages over oil painting for example?

I don’t know if it has any advantages over other media, watercolour just seems to suit me, it’s fabulous for recording the clarity of light in Greece and importantly for me it’s not messy! Simply, an eight colour palette in tubes dries instantly and you can pack and move on in seconds. I started painting in watercolour in Greece after another English painter/friend gave me a set when I first arrived in 1986. I’d planned to be in Greece for six months and she gave me the watercolours saying ‘If you’re going to be an ‘Englishman Abroad’ you must record it in watercolour’! Like Edward Lear or something like doing the Grand Tour! I started sketching with the set & it rapidly became my medium.

Would you mind describing your creative process and your approach to colour?

Colour is absolutely what anyone sees. However, I’ve learnt that we all see things differently. Teaching watercolour workshops (as I do from time-to-time), I observe what people pick up on in the world, and it’s quite fascinating. Personally, I’m drawn to the great contrast that Greek light brings to almost any subject, how it illuminates colours so that they seem to glow. It’s also quite a harsh light that requires that one almost has to squint to look at things, and so the colours become separated; almost like looking at stained glass. Conversely, when the sun goes behind a cloud in Greece, it’s like someone has switched the lights off but luckily this rarely happens!

watercolour artist James FootHow has your palette selection evolved throughout your career and do you have any words of advice for anyone who struggles to get the colour right in their work?

I don’t think it has evolved really. I use the same palette as I had in the beginning. I have a colour called Indigo which is an inky blue-black and I always use this in Greece to depict shadows. I never use black. Somehow, in the manner I paint, I’ve discovered that if you paint shadows in monochrome and subsequently add the colour, laying colour over the indigo, one achieves that special quality of the Greek light and succeeds getting the colour of the shadow just right. However, I’ve noticed that when I paint in the north of Europe, I rarely use indigo.

As for advice, I would again say that colour is in the eye of the beholder & anyone should simply look & look again. Achieving colours is practise through experience and the ability to really look at things, take time, keep the palette simple and, limit and mix colours oneself. In other words, be prepared to experiment.

How did you come to find your own style?

My style evolved in Greece really, where I first used watercolour. I hadn’t really been a figurative/descriptive painter before, well, I had as a child but in theatre where I’d worked on stages/sets. I think it happened because I couldn’t speak Greek then, but I loved the country and the people, painting what was around me, what was Greek and theirs. It was sort of a way of communicating, saying how much I liked everything. It made me lots of friends and I got given a lot of coffee & ouzo. Was there ever a race of people who give so much to strangers? I mentioned this once to an elderly neighbour of mine, this ‘philoxenia’; the extraordinary ‘giving’ to total strangers, and she said ‘But you never know, a person could be a God arriving at your door & you must give to a God’.

watercolour artist James FootHow do you decide on what your next piece of artwork will be? Where does the inspiration come from? Is there some particular element that catches your eye?

I find I’m looking all the time. I have a sort of camera in my head that is constantly on reconnaissance for things to paint. It’s obsessional. Obviously, a lot of it is from this tiny village in the Peloponissos where I live, I hardly ever travel far and I’ve settled down to this beautiful place. I love to walk a great deal and would really recommend this to anyone; walk, instead of driving. The world is full of unnecessary journeys and people miss what is around them. Also, there is something about listening to what is around one too, as well as looking at it. I love the peace and quiet. There is a large element of my work which is ‘Look-at-the-World-isn’t-it-Beautiful’, so the next piece of subject matter is simply in front of me. True, I’m happy with where I am, I’m not a painter who paints my angst, I guess I would have stayed in London if I’d wanted to do that.

What major breakthroughs have you had as an artist? Were there times in your career when you were frustrated?

Travelling, coming to Greece really. Breakthroughs were barriers I thought existed, such as becoming fearless about not knowing quite where I was going, not having languages originally to cope with where I was. These are what I consider to be breakthroughs. I’ve also lived in Morocco and Spain and I’ve travelled to a lot of other places too. I’ve had some very lucky breaks as an artist and as a person. People have gone out of their way to help me or simply admired and bought a lot of my paintings. Some individuals have gone out of their way to help me orgainise and stage exhibitions too. No, I don’t think I’ve ever been frustrated. I think I’m probably very lucky.

watercolour artist James FootWatercolour painting is affected by time, temperature, light and other factors, does that restrict you in any way from the freedom to paint outside?

No, I get a rather brilliant tan! I have no problem sitting in the sun for hours,days or weeks. I’m a sun worshiper. I can’t stand the cold, damp and lack of light for so much of the year in northern Europe. The paintings themselves? I think the early ones I did might well have faded as I couldn’t afford quality materials back then, but now & for many years, I’ve used acid-free materials and good pigments, framing them with the knowledge that they won’t deteriorate. Of course, over large periods of time, they will, as all art does, they erode due to weather conditions. Interestingly enough, it’s the oil-paint & its thinners that destroy the canvas over time.

Do you prefer to always paint your watercolours in front of the subject rather than in your studio? Why/Why not?

Both. I paint a lot in the studio now as my paintings have become more detailed. My drawings are more studied, ‘academic’ and the scale is often large so they are simply easier to do at the easel indoors without the elements playing a part. That said, I often go back to painting ‘en Plein air’ in my garden to maintain that freshness of light & colour.

watercolour artist James FootWhat do you believe is a key element in creating a good composition?

Don’t know! I always start in the middle and work outwards to the edges! I tell my students to approach life this way when participating in classes with me as it is a frequently asked question. I guess any subject matter can just go on forever. The world doesn’t have edges so whatever the parameters of one’s piece of paper if you look directly ahead and start in the middle of that paper you get to the edge of what you can see & the edge of the paper simultaneously. I measure a lot too as something is always two-thirds (or three-quarters) the length or width of something else. I construct my composition that way rather than worry about actual, factual distances.

Now, tell me a little about your watercolour workshops in Kyparissi that take place in spring and autumn. How long do they last and what age group do you find is the most interested in participating in them?

They last seven days and take place here in the village. I do the whole workshop for one fee and arrange for people to get here, book the hotel rooms and provide all the materials. I find it’s a really good starting point and leveller for everyone to have the same tools, brushes, palettes and the paper that I use. My students all enjoy a home-made breakfast with our own bread and food sourced locally and I believe it’s a good way to start the day as a group too. I begin with an hour demonstration of what I’d like people to attempt that day. Basically, it’s a day of drawing followed by a second day of painting shadows into our drawings, and then a third day of using colour. We do the process twice with a ‘free day’ in the middle of the week, when we go down the coast to Geraka Limani, situated north-east of Monemvassia to draw and have a spot of lunch. At the end of each day, we celebrate it with a friendly ‘crit’ (assessment of student’s work) over a glass of local wine!

People of any age can participate in a workshop although I find that it’s mostly middle-age women on holiday who like the experience. However, I do have locals from the village who have taken part and art enthusiasts from Athens, Spetses, France, Gibraltar, the UK and US.

On a more personal note, how did you feel when you exhibited your first painting? Can you remember what it was and have you kept it?

Horrible, an unforgettable memory! I’d staged an exhibition in London, (my debut) when I was 27 and was exhibiting my first Greek paintings created during a glorious 6-month winter/spring on Spetses. I’d loved being there and the paintings were a celebration of that. At first, I was thrilled as they sold very well during a Private Viewing at the exhibition and I could see an opportunity of affording to return to Greece. However, when the final day of the show arrived, people turned up to collect the paintings they’d bought and it was absolutely pouring with rain. This meant that I had no choice, but to ask a friend to run out to a corner shop to buy black bin-liners for the paintings to go in. I then stood back and watched in horror as my fine art and representation of life in Greece left the exhibition in rubbish bags! If there was ever a moment when I utterly felt disappointed in life, it was there and then at my first exhibition. Fortunately, I had earnt enough money to continue with my painting, but I also learnt to treat my paintings much better too.

I do have some photographs that my grandmother took of my early chalkboard drawings but I haven’t kept any actual paintings from the early years.

Are there any works of art that you particularly admire or artists that may have influenced you?

I’m not sure about influence, but I admire art historically, from the Italian painter, Caravaggio and the French artist, Cezanne to the American abstract expressionist, Rothko. However, if I had a favourite, it would most probably be the Russian/French artist, Chagall for his early contemporary paintings.

watercolour artist James FootHow often do you paint and do you always finish a painting in one session?

Every day! I rarely miss a chance unless on those odd weeks when I’m away at my own exhibitions like the one coming up in Athens, where I’ll be 10 days in the big city without my brushes! Paintings take their own pace, I only ever work on one at a time, sometimes for the whole day or sometimes it takes three or four days.

I notice that several paintings show your connection to the sea, was it always your intention to live near the sea because of your painting?

I love the sea! I grew up on the coast of Cornwall, England and I think the colours are wonderful to paint for some reason. I really can’t imagine living anywhere far from the seashore now.

watercolour artist James FootMy own favourite painting of yours is ‘The Orloff Doorway’. Can you tell me the story behind this piece and why you felt compelled to paint it?

It’s one of a series of doors always with plants or creepers spilling over them that have always intrigued me from my very first visit to Spetses in the 80s. In fact, it’s the door of an old family house belonging to my best friend, and where I once lived in a downstairs flat.There are usually secret gardens behind Neo-Classical doors, all a bit unkempt or overgrown. I’ve created a similar garden here where I live that is just now, after 10 years coming to that point of being very ‘paintable’. Going back to ‘The Orloff Doorway’, since I’ve painted it and it’s been on display, residents on Spetses continue to commission me to paint their particular entrances and gardens too.

Besides watercolour and art, what other hobbies do you have?

Gardening. However, I’ve also just finished writing my first novel, a murder mystery set in Lakonia, but for the moment, that’s all I’m going to say about it. The book needs editing first before I think about looking for a publisher. I have written a few essays about Greece and the lifestyle here that have been published too.

watercolour artist James FootFinally, what is it that you like about living in Greece and would you recommend the country as an ultimate holiday destination?

It’s the best country in the world. Despite what people read in the media, Greece remains beautiful and the citizens proud and hospitable. Here in the village, we all work together to make sure that the community remains just that…. a warm and friendly neighbourhood that welcomes visitors with a smile and goodwill.

We would like to thank James Foot for sharing his time with us.

To learn more about James Foot, his artwork, exhibitions and workshops visit his website:

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