Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 14, 2014
Brooklin artist Bill Irvine stars in new book
“A real artist is driven to paint”
by Tevlin Schuetz
“There are some people who think art is a career to make money, and it’s not. You’re a damned fool if you think you’re going to [make money]. Why would you spend the whole day in a smelly studio without any guarantee of a payday? But a real artist is driven to paint. As I have all my life.”
So says painter and Brooklin resident Bill Irvine, whose life’s work—thus far—has been featured in a recent book written by Carl Little and published by Marshall Wilkes, Inc. in Ellsworth, titled William Irvine: A Painter’s Journey.
Little tells Irvine’s story, lacing together biographical information with commentary on the artist’s development as a painter. The author also reveals insights by describing his own visit with Irvine at his studio and through sharing quotes from the artist. But Little lets art do most of the talking: the book features full-color pictures of a generous selection of Irvine’s paintings.
The past month has been a busy one for Irvine, whose paintings are featured at the Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth (until August 17), where the artist and author appeared at a reception and book signing July 23. Since that event, Irvine and Little were guests on WERU’s “Talk of the Towns” with host Ron Beard on the morning of July 25, and Irvine met for an interview for The Packet later that afternoon.
Irvine, a native of Scotland, began creating art early in his life, inspired by the work of Van Gogh and other heavyweight painters. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art and served in the Scottish army before moving to London. Ultimately he left that art scene and migrated to Maine in 1968, where he has remained ever since. Irvine said in an interview with Kim Ridley for Down East magazine in 2010, “All painters are born with a small set of poems. And it is the exploration of that mythology that defines you as an artist.”
To this day, Irvine continues to be a ceaseless explorer, and his search takes him within his own inner being as well as out into the world around him. “I get uneasy if I haven’t painted for a day,” he said. “Ever since I was young…I go out and see the wonder of the world around [me], which is so exciting, and even now I feel in awe of my existence.”
That sense of excitement is what Irvine seeks to channel through his art.
In addition to being inspired by his surroundings at home on the Peninsula, Irvine travels with his wife, writer Margery Irvine. He tries to visit Scotland at least once every two years, and he recently made a trip to the French Riviera. “I am looking for stimulation for new ideas and new paintings,” he said of his trips abroad.
Irvine doesn’t hit the countryside with easel, paints and brushes in tow, however; he prefers to bring the impressions he receives during his travels back to the studio. “I find to paint a place, you better have some distance between you and the place, in time as well as in mileage. You get to the core of what you want to do. You’re stripped of the visual, and what you’re left with is the feeling of the place,” he explained.
Irvine described how this allows his art to connect with people: “A painting doesn’t actually just reflect a place you’re at; a good painting should have a kind of universal appeal. The reason why people buy my painting is because it has some kind of meaning for them. It’s not [just] a place; it’s a place in the heart.”
The painting takes over
Irvine incorporates careful and meticulous layering of colors, in the artistic vein of color field painting. He described how he puts up to four layers of color on top of each other, using the end of a paper towel to thinly apply the paint versus using a brush. “I love building up fields of color. [It] looks easy, but it’s not easy. To build it up takes time,” he said.
“Quite often a painting will open a door to another painting,” Irvine said. “A painting, when it’s finished, will take me by surprise, [and] it seems to suggest a new direction to pursue. I don’t have to scrounge around looking for ideas because ideas are suggested to me by the paintings I paint. That’s just the process.”
Irvine’s paintings usually end up being completely different from his initial ideas.
“I think that is the way it should be,” he said. “A painting will dictate…what to do next. The artist really is only there to squeeze out the paint and clean the brushes. The painting takes over. When a painting is finished, it says to the artist, ‘Goodbye, I don’t need you any more.’ Then you know you’ve created something that has its own life.”
And sometimes the paint itself takes over. Irvine acknowledged that it can’t be easily contained. “It [oil paint] is all over this house. My wife—she goes crazy. And sometimes I sneak into the cupboard and take a white plate [for a palette] and she comes looking for them.”
The solution? Shells. “I’m always picking up shells, and that way I’m not using plates,” Irvine mused.
Freedom to feel
When asked if his personal mythology manifests itself through overt symbolism in his paintings, Irvine warded off the notion. Rather, certain subject matter evokes feelings in him, and he brings those feelings into a painting both by including the visual element as well as through his use of paint and abstraction. “I’ve often used white seagulls in my paintings, and the reason for that, I think, is the sense of peace and tranquility that is symbolized.” Irvine recalled how the presence of birds in a painting by Giotto (St. Francis Preaching to the Birds) had affected him when he was young. “The painting had…a beautiful sense of tranquility and a spiritual quality that lifted my senses in such a way that I’ve never forgotten it.”
Irvine’s work embodies a push and pull between reality and abstraction. As he explained, “I try to achieve the correct balance between the abstract and the object. I don’t want to lose the real essence of what it is. With abstraction it’s so easy to go over the edge, [where] all you’re left with is the pleasure of the abstract. I like to combine that with the extra punch of something felt—some experience.
“I like the freedom to…allow your emotions to wind [their] way through your mind and your soul and find the right labyrinth that gets you to where you’re going. It’s quite a process, painting, and if anyone fully understood it, it wouldn’t be any good. You can’t understand a mystery. And great art is always mysterious art. There’s no explanation for it.”
Pushing the edge of experience
When asked how he relaxes when not painting, Irvine said, “It used to be I watched the Red Sox. It doesn’t happen much now…I’m very busy at the moment. [But] there’s nothing more totally unimportant than baseball. It is great to watch it because you don’t have any worries, and if they win, great.” Irvine also enjoys music. “I love the blues. When I’m driving it’s a pleasure to listen to blues on WERU. I’m just driving…and I hate to get to my destination,” he laughed. “It’s a good life here. Beautiful scenery. Beautiful silence. And in the evening, seeing friends.”
Irvine is eager to return to his studio to produce work for a gallery exhibition at Gleason Fine Art gallery in Boothbay Harbor later in the summer. The fact that a book has been written about his life’s work—spanning seven decades—brings no sense of finality or laurels upon which to rest, and that is fine for this artist, whose journey is still well under way. “I’m 83, and I’ve painted all my life,” Irvine said. “I feel now that I’m working better than I’ve worked, and I feel excited about the future. I can’t wait to…continue working and pushing the edge of my experience.”
The book William Irvine: A Painter’s Journey is available at Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth, Blue Hill Books in Blue Hill, and Betsy’s Sunflower in Brooklin. Irvine and Little will be at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport August 19 at 5:30 p.m. for a book signing and talk and at the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor September 11 at 7 p.m. They will appear at the Blue Hill Library September 18 at 7 p.m.