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Issue 91 - Artist in residence

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017


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Artist in residence

Roddy Martine visits Ewan McClure in his East Lothian studio

It is not every day I come across a genuinely outstanding world talent. Not that Ewan McClure, winner of the Scottish heat of the Sky Portrait Artist of the Year Award in 2013, is without ample recognition. His breezy portrait of the Irish racing jockey Sir A.P. McCoy OBE has since given his work a major boost and led to a flow of major commissions.

Also in 2013, his self-portrait was chosen as the key image for the prestigious BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, later appearing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. Yet here he is happily working out of a studio in East Lothian, which makes him a genuine East Coast Scot.

Born and educated in Aberdeen, Ewan attended Gray's School of Art at Robert Gordon University. “I suppose I was pretty sure that art was where I belonged. From the outset I was very clear that I wanted to pursue naturalistic or 'straight' painting,” he says. “The disciplines of the North East School — which are very linear and academic — did not appeal to me as much as the more painterly Glasgow school. I was warned that the tutors at Gray's might try and steer me towards the abstract, but found that not to be the case — though they liked to challenge my assumptions about art. I was in awe of the department head, Alexander Fraser, who gave harsh but invaluable critiques.

Tall and engagingly shy with piercing blue eyes, Ewan admires the work of the American genius John Singer Sargent and the Hungarian painter Philip de László. “Aberdeen Art Gallery was also very inspirational for me when I was younger,” he says. “I loved the big Landseer paintings and the versatility of William Dyce.”

In 1997, Ewan won the Royal Scottish Academy's John Kinross Scholarship, affording him three months of artistic immersion in Florence. On returning, he moved to Fordyce for a year where he lived and worked in a cottage in the grounds of an old ruined mansion. “It was an inspirational place, but I soon felt I was becoming a bit of a recluse. So I relocated to Cookney, south of Stonehaven, then to a characterful colony of artists at Orchardton House at Auchencairn, in Galloway.”

For a time he was Artist in Residence at Broughton House, Kircudbright, the former home of the Scottish impressionist artist E.A. Hornel. “It was important for me to meet other people and really good to rub shoulders with other artists,” he recalls.

And all of this time he was experimenting with different ways of seeing, inspired by a book called The World Through Blunted Sight by Patrick Trevor Roper. This revealed how the great masters made some of their most revolutionary masterpieces late in life, despite declining eyesight. Many of the stylistic traits we admire in late Titian, Rembrandt and Turner can be attributed in part to the loss of detailed vision.

To investigate, Ewan began experimenting with diffusion glasses, which simplified his visual field to mists of impressionistic colour. “I love capturing these colour relationships, freed from the inhibiting influence of surface detail,” he says. “That’s where I find the structural truth of the subject and the feeling of that unique moment.”

“The guiding assumption that keeps me focused is that reality is simply more beautiful and surprising than anything I can make up. By striving to select and recreate the true colours and forms of the visual world, I manage to overcome my naïve misconceptions and share in the process of discovery, stroke by stroke.”
In such a way, Ewan's portraits achieve an impressive emotional depth; often melancholy, always joyful. Portraiture demands an intuitive yet discrete understanding of the subject and the painter becoming privy to their innermost fears and thoughts. How does he feel about that?

“Sergeant thought it best not to know his sitters and de László considered he'd made a friend.” he responds. However, he personally admits to loving the intensity of his sittings.

After Galloway, there followed five years painting still life and living frugally on the south side of Glasgow. A commission to paint portraits of academics Professor Ian Torrance, President of Princeton Theology Seminary, and Samuel and Irene Moffett took him to America. On his return, the opportunity to share a co-operative dwelling in Portobello brought him to Edinburgh.

It was then that he discovered the community hub that is Cockenzie House at Port Seton; it is here that we find his cluttered studio, which commands extensive sea views across the Firth of Forth towards Fife. After featuring in recent shows in Glasgow and Castle Douglas, his most recent solo exhibition has been at the Castlegate House Gallery at Cockermouth in Cumbria.

Ever innovative, Ewan has also embarked upon a video series of backward painting demonstrations, creating portraits and flowers back-to-front. These are not a gimmick and the results can be viewed online.
“It was just an idea I'd had,” he says modestly. “Working with the easel turned to the mirror answered the problem of how to paint a self-portrait that wouldn’t be a mirror image. But I noticed other advantages. It provides a comfortable viewing distance to compare subject and painting without the need for pacing back and forth, and leads to happy accidents in the paintwork. It seems awkward at first, but it's perfectly natural.”

Having witnessed first hand Ewan’s two hour portrait sketch of his fellow Scottish artist Andrew Crummie, I'd say such a talent is not so much natural but growing in accomplishment with every brush stroke.
Ewan's other great love is singing and he belongs to Skotebi, a group of 12 Scottish men who have all fallen in love with Georgian traditional music. “I love the rustic and exotic repertoire,” he says.

The group regularly visit remote villages in the Caucasus to learn of the music’s heritage and on one such trip Ewan met up with the young Swedish singer Vilja-Louise who has persuaded him to divide his time between Cockenzie and Stockholm.

Future plans? He will be back at Cockenzie House in the spring and from then will be reviewing his options.

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