From being whisked away on a private jet to draw a buffalo jump in the foothills of Canada’s Saskatchewan Mountains to meeting indigenous Amerindians while painting waterfalls in the Guyanese rainforest, Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis had some extraordinary experiences in the noughties as an official tour artist for HRH The Prince of Wales. Today, the royal heir continues to collect Mary Anne’s work, but the artist is much more likely to be found back home in Lewes, tramping across the rolling hills of England’s South Downs with a five-foot-square board balanced on her head.
Scratched by thistles and licked by the rough tongues of cattle, her supports are plunged into perilous positions, but this is all part of the process. “It’s a hell of a lot to carry and I nearly take off if it’s windy,” Mary Anne admits. “But I need to just sit there, really early in the morning, and just draw. It gives the work an atmosphere and power it wouldn’t have if I just relied on easy ways of doing it.”
For over a decade now, the landscape has been at the heart of Mary Anne’s output, renowned for its richly detailed, intricate layers and atmosphere so evocative it can cause goosebumps. It’s a body of work that not only relies on her hawk’s eye for observation but also her vivid imagination and memory. This is especially true of the paintings completed over the past five years, which are to go on show in The Woods I Know, her postponed exhibition at London’s Portland Gallery this summer.
“I’m trying to conjure up a place that only exists in my mind,” she says. “These paintings are based on very specific trees and bits of woodlands, but in the end, I’m applying my [powers of] observation to make them into something that is not just a topographical piece of work. I want them to be much more than that, I want them to zoom you into somewhere you think, god, I feel as if I’m immersed in this place, I feel as if I recognise it.”
To achieve this symbiosis of observation and imagination, Mary Anne doesn’t solely paint in the field. Just as important are the hours spent back in her studio, hidden among the medieval streets of Lewes. Born in 1966, the artist was brought up in the same Sussex town by her grandmother after her parents tragically died in a car crash. After drawing by the fireplace every afternoon to avoid disturbing her grandma’s nap, she would go on to study at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Drawing, followed by an MA in printmaking at the Royal College of Art.
In some of her works, printmaking is brought to mind in, say, the flat, graphic lines of a bare-branched tree, the long blades of grass or a patchwork of fields, yet there’s a distinct lack of actual prints in her portfolio.
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