Alison McWhirter explores her favourite colour in expressionist artwork, ‘Blue Territory’ at the Doubtfire Gallery, Edinburgh
“In Galloway one either fishes or paints….” quotes Dorothy L. Sayers in the introduction to her murder mystery novel, ‘Five Red Herrings’ (1931), which she based on her regular visits to this thriving artistic community in the 1920s.
Kirkcudbright was then home to distinguished artists, E.A. Hornel, Jessie M. King, E.A. Taylor, and Charles Oppenheimer and also the summer haunt of S.J. Peploe, the Scottish Colourist.
This inaugural solo show by Alison McWhirter at the Doubtfire Gallery captures the spirit of favourite coastal scenes around Whithorn, Dumfries & Galloway, through a dominant Blue theme observed in the sky, sea and blossoming flowers.
The cool colour also denotes emotion and Picasso’s Blue Period, 1900-1904, reflected his introspective mood at the time in monochromatic paintings, as illustrated in Blue Nude (1902).
In this ‘Blue Territory’ exhibition, a series of abstract landscapes evoke a sense of time and place, often inspired by music, such as David Bowie’s Bluebird, Bluegrass jazz as well as poetry.
‘Looking for the perfect blue,
water to swim in, not through ..
for a colour that was right.
Now and then he would catch sight
of utter blue as he bent down
in some remote spice-scented town.’
from Ultramarine, Michael Symmons Roberts
A line from the poem gives the title Water to swim in, not through – a tranquil scene, perhaps denoting a river or lake, the surface of the water floating with green reeds or water lilies.
A clear summer sky is portrayed in Ultramarine with its sweeping brushstrokes blending shades of aqua, mauve, sapphire and teal. The oil paint is splattered on the textured linen but contained in a central grid pattern to leave a border around the sides.
Alison McWhirter studied at the Bath Spa Academy where her inspirational tutor was the eminent artist, Maria Lalac. ‘Naples yellow’ in her series of History Paintings, comprises of multiple thin glazes of paint smoothed horizontally across the canvas. This layering technique illustrates the time and effort, ‘the literal history of the making of that particular painting’.
The art historian Nicholas de Ville comments that ‘the more minimal the vocabulary an artist chooses … the more significant the raw essentials of painting’.
Likewise, McWhirter demonstrates a similar layering method in her minimalist abstract compositions to focus on the raw essential colour, tone and texture of paint.
Jeanie Donnan, (1864-1942), the ‘Galloway Poetess’ often wrote about the seashore around Wigtown, such as this verse from ‘Drifting’:
‘But I still must strive ‘gainst wind and tide,
Still wild are the waves on which we ride.’
Swirls of thick oils, creamy white with flecks of amber and grey in the associated painting Drifting, blows like a breeze with a glimpse of a rain cloud behind a burst of sunlight.
‘A slash of blue, a sweep of gray,
compose an evening sky …
A wave of gold, a bank of day —
This just makes out the morning sky’.
from ‘A Slash of Blue’ by Emily Dickinson.
A bright palette in shades of celeste, cerulean and turquoise reflects Emily’s poetic response to the light as it changes across the day, a shimmering cloud across the pure blue sky with flowing fluidity.
The exhibition title may have come from Joan Mitchell’s Blue Territory, depicting a view of Vétheuil, France through rectangular blocks in glossy layers, thin veils and drips. As she said, “It comes from and is about landscape, not about me.”
A similar mosaic pattern is central to McWhirter’s imaginative vision to represent Isle of Whithorn Harbour View. The sea and sky seem to meld in a blur of bright azure and soft Royal blue against a slice of golden sand and block of grey rock under a rosy-pink sunset.
As well as these expressionistic seascapes, there are some charming botanical studies such as Peonies against a Royal Blue light. Thickly swirled daubs of pink and green depict the flowers and leaves in a vase with delicate sculptural effect.
Van Gogh wanted to be renowned as a painter of Sunflowers. Here, just a wild splatter of yellow splodges is all that is required to illustrate Sunflowers against sky blue, a few blooms wilting slightly with a few fallen petals.
In this ‘Blue Territory’ collection of paintings, there’s a real sense of rhythm and movement through sweeping brushstrokes and vivid, vivacious colour. The painterly technique may seem to be spontaneous but these are finely crafted compositions as an emotional, poetic response to the natural world and moody blue skies of the Galloway coastline.
Blue Territory: Alison McWhirter
Doubtfire Gallery, 28 North West Circus Place, Edinburgh EH3 6TP
5 April – 6 May, 2023: Open, Wednesday to Sunday, 12-4pm.
Or by appointment.