Susan Harvey is a Greenock-born artist and grew up in the town, where she gained early inspiration in the art department at Greenock Academy, with artist and illustrator Gordon H. Wyllie as her teacher. She then studied at Glasgow School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. Between her Glasgow studies and the RCA, Harvey worked for the Mary Quant Studio, rising to be Head of Studio. Her subsequent career has seen her lecturing in Art and Design in several academic postings over thirty years, and she has continued to paint and exhibit regularly throughout this time.
Her new exhibition, Threshold, brings her back to the water’s edge at the Beacon in Greenock.
There are 21 recent paintings in the exhibition, almost all painted from 2019 to the present day. The works are hung on both floors of the Beacon: four on the ground floor, one on the main stair and most are around the first floor central circulation space.
The artist is inspired by nature and the west coast of Scotland. Living in Greenock, the artist grew up with a view of the water, across the wide reaches of the River Clyde. Almost all of the works on show depict the sea or the water’s edge. The idea of ‘thresholds’ is explored in these works – between the land and the sea, or between day and night. Several of the works on show are of the island of Iona, a place that is special to her and which she has often returned to visit across forty-five years, describing it as a ‘liminal’ place. Harvey also enjoys observing and painting the movement of seabirds, and this is evident in several works.
The artist works in a variety of media, principally watercolour, egg tempera and oil paint on gesso panels. Harvey displays in these materials painterly qualities and a lightness of touch in conveying light and translucence in sky, clouds and sea, with a spare application of oil paint onto canvas in several works conveying fleeting impressions of land and water.
In the first work on the ground floor, Cicely and Kirsten, Hospitalfield (2021), there is a delicacy in the way that the colourful flowers of the meadow are depicted, and a lot of beautiful precise detail in the woodland area that the two figures are moving towards.
In Annunciation (2020), a much looser technique is used, with an impressionistic depiction of bright blue water. Two birds in flight are prominent. It appears that the artist worked quickly to convey the movement of the water and the speed of movement of the birds.
In the upstairs gallery are the rough swirling blue waters of Towards Holy Isle, Arran (2021) and the threshold of dark and light on a calmer sea in Between the Dark and the Light, Iona (2021). Flock (2022), painted in oils, is atmospheric and impressionistic, depicting low light, at dawn or at dusk. There is a sense of viewing from an otherworldly high viewpoint.
In Gannet Colony, Bass Rock (2021), the depiction of the gannets is precise, almost ornithological, contrasting with the loose and impressionistic seascape setting. A sense of movement is conveyed, moving waters and a brisk sea breeze, with gannets swooping and soaring around. There is a similar impression of air movement in Spring Sea, Soaring, St. Abb’s Head (2019), with a loose and atmospheric rendering of airborne sea foam and vegetation contrasting with high detail in the birds.
The artist records a very specific and distinctive piece of land topography in White Light, Iona (2021), and conveys a calm atmosphere and a particular quality of light. A winding path in The Path to the Bay, Iona (2021) leads the eye of the viewer into the distance and to the sea, in an ‘empty’ landscape conveying solitude and the calm quietness that typifies Harvey’s work.
Susan Harvey’s work is atmospheric, capturing many different qualities of light, and the effect on the viewer of looking at these paintings is calming. One senses the quiet character of the island of Iona, and the idea of ‘thresholds’ is beautifully conveyed in these ethereal blendings of ground, sea and sky.
Admission to the exhibition is free.
The artist’s website is www.susanharvey.co.uk
With grateful thanks to Artmag contributor Gordon Reid for this review.