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THE ART FIVE, Issue 11, with Artist, Barbara Nicholls

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Barbara Nicholls pictured at The Turnpike, Leigh
Barbara Nicholls pictured at The Turnpike, Leigh, courtesy the Artist and The Turnpike

Barbara Nicholls' monumental watercolour works emerge by manipulating the behaviour of pigment in ever-increasing quantities of water. Founded on technical experimentation in painting and experiences in nature, Nicholls' immersive paintings recall ancient geology, organic forms, and the movement of water and sediment, in pools of vibrant colour.

Barbara Nicholls watercolour paintings
'Bountiful Deep' & 'Longimentary Span', 2016, 220 x 152 cm Watercolour on Saunders Waterford 638gsm.HP.

BN: Time is visible to me in my work in the same way that erosion of rocks by wind and water is visible. Making my works involves a concentration of fundamental elements in a similar way where I utilise gravity, wind and heat to form my paintings on paper.

The works do not relate to a specific place but I absorb landscapes believing they return in the works in an indirect way. When I made these works I spent time in the Eiffel region in Germany a high rural farming region with rolling plains and in The Peak District, England which I believe affected these works. When I make them horizontally they are like looking across a landscape with rolling hills with the pools of water being reservoirs.

I want to be immersed in the work in the same way as I am when I walk in the rural landscapes. My experience of painting is really very much about the relationship between me, the paper, paint and water. With Longimentary Span there was a yellow pool and it dried to form a strong yellow edge which I kept despite adding dark translucent pools over it. Light through dark.

Photo credit : FXP Photography


Barbara Nicholls, Slip-Fault series, watercolour
'Slip Fault no. 14' & Slip Fault no. 4', 2018 - 20, 74 x 60 cm Watercolour on Saunders Waterford 638gsm HP

BN: There was a lead in of two years before the show at The Turnpike in Leigh and it provided time to explore the area and find a an approach to the work I made for the show. A starting point was a walk around Pennington Flash a permanently flooded area. I was particularly interested in this layering of history- the water over the farms in the subsided geology, over the mine underneath buried in the rocks.

I looked at geological maps of the surrounding area along with mining maps. All this triggered my imagination and led me to try to incorporate the geological faults into my works. There are cuts and tears in the paper causing disruptions of the images.

I also wanted to disrupt the flow of the watercolour and for the painting to show evidence of having undergone some seismic shift.

Sink Hole Return, 2016, watercolour on paper in sand, NSW Australia
'Sink Hole Return', 2016, watercolour on paper in sand, NSW Australia. Photo courtesy The Artist.

BN: In Lake Mungo, Australia I made circular works for the first time based on indigenous ancient water filtration holes. This area is designated as a WorId Heritage Site and is where the earliest ever footprint dated 50,000 years old was recently discovered. I was able to temporarily insert my watercolours into the sand like paper pools beside the ancient dried out lake. On returning to my studio in England I developed this round work (After Mungo series also exhibited in Aleph’s Wavelengths). In Australia it was so remote that each day I would walk out and the only footprints in the sand were emus, kangaroos and my own. Making a mark was a big thing and I realised the need for sensitivity to site and landscape.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany I made large cut out watercolours in the shape of the course of the River Rhine and whilst in the Netherlands beside The Waal I was directly influenced by the flow of water, sediment and also seeing the raw materials in the travelling barges. Movement, repetition and calm observation using natures methods were emphasised to me.

Image, left: Still Waters Run Deep No. 1 2012 , ArToll Kunstlabor Bedburg-Hau Germany Watercolour on Saunders Waterford 300gsm 4m x 2.5m x 2m Photo credit: Michael Odenwaeller. Right: 'After Mungo', No. 1, 2017, Saunders Waterford HP 300gsm, 41 x 42 cm. Photo credit FXP Photography.


BN: I definitely experiment and I am loosely applying chromatography methods. I use organic lighter pigments and inorganic heavier pigments which move across large expanses of liquid on paper at different rates. I use fans and heaters to affect the drying times and encourage the way they travel and settle naturally. Technically I affect them as they do this.

My use of colour is not a replication of nature as seen but is affected by it and may be connected to particular sites and landscapes.

I also I want to get to know a group of colours in-depth and I rigorously explore, for example a range of blacks or reds that are relevant to a theme that interests me. Perhaps coal and heat.

I focus on groups of colours depending on what I am exploring. For the Turnpike Show I was fascinated by the textures and trails left by Mars Black especially when used with other incendiary colours that were inorganic like Scarlet Lake. I had a pool of Scarlet Lake and, as it dried, it slowly revealed a sediment of Mars Black which had settled long before in the paper’s surface.

Barbara Nicholls painting. Photo by Anita Hoff.

BN: Paper is flexible, undulates and buckles when wet, is made of compressed cotton pulp fibres as opposed to an organised weave as in canvas. Paper responds to liquid and pigment differently when compared to canvas or board. It receives the watercolour allowing it to live. I use hot pressed very smooth thick paper usually laid out on the floor un-stretched. I can cut it to any shape before and during the process. I can tear it easily.

Sometimes I use the size in the paper by releasing it to set which then acts as a resistant mask around the edge of a pool of water which I then paint over. You can’t do that with canvas.

I imagine that some of the image is hidden in the paper before I paint, as if it’s an archaeological site where I reveal the past by the addition of layers of watercolour.

Barbara Nicholls work in progress. Photo by Anita Hoff.

Thank you to Barbara Nicholls for participating in The Art Five, Issue 11.

Current and forthcoming projects and exhibitions:

- Wavelengths, Abstraction on Paper - Nina Dolan, Rita Evans and Barbara Nicholls at Aleph Contemporary, 30th November 2020 - 30 January 2021. More info

- Wavelengths - Barbara Nicholls In Conversation with The Art Five Founder, Hannah Payne: watch video

- Blueberry, Barbara Nicholls, Beelden Op De Kaart, Kunst in Millingen, The Netherlands, 11

November - 20 March 2021 More info

About Barbara Nicholls

British contemporary artist Barbara Nicholls (b. 1963) studied at Goldsmiths College for a BA Fine Art (1982-86), University of East London MFA (1996-98) and Doctorate in Fine Art (2000-06). She lives and works in London and Bollington, Cheshire. Nicholls has had her work widely and internationally exhibited, including JGM Gallery London (2020 & 2019), The Turnpike, Leigh, (2019) Städtisches Museum- Galerie im Centrum-Wesel, Germany (2019) The New Art Gallery Walsall, (2017), Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery NSW Australia (2017), Museum Kurhaus Kleve Germany (2015). Nicholls has held several residencies including Stiftung zur Förderung zeitgenössischer Kunst Germany (2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016) The Turnpike Leigh (2019) Mungo National Park NSW, Australia (2016). Nicholls has been the recipient of a number of bursaries and awards including grants from the Arts Council England and the British Council. Her work is held in the collection of Musuem Kurhaus Kleve Germany, The New Art Gallery Walsall UK,Willhelm Kaiser Museum Germany and private collections in UK, France, USA and Iran.

All images courtesy of The Artist.

The Art Five © 2021

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