The unlikely magic of bitumen

Leaping Through The Dragon's Gate by Nigel Shipley

Leaping Through The Dragon’s Gate by Nigel Shipley

“In a world of hard-edged technology, expressionist painting connect us with the human hand and emotions,” says artist Nigel Shipley. “My abstract paintings don’t represent things that already exists, but do have connections with the real world.”

The title of Nigel’s latest exhibition, Wine Gums and Moonbeams, sums up this ethos with mouth-watering immediacy. One is tangibly flavoursome, drumming up the inimitable sensation of a mouth full of colourful sweets (especially vivid thanks to their childhood connotations), while the other shivers with impressions of ethereal beauty, other-worldliness, potential romance and possible danger. In other words, they’re each jam-packed with suggestiveness. His work is deliciously evocative and playful.

Following on from my 2018 interview with Nigel, the artist has continued to experiment with abstract painting, finding new routes to capturing the images he envisions. “In many of my recent painting I have used bitumen paint, which is made to repair leaking roofs,” he says, “It is dreadful stuff to work with, sticky, stinking and as black as can be. It is like the dregs of a barrel of crude oil, but when dried on a painting it can be a sublime, rich, and deep black. It’s pure black like Japanese lacquer, but with a velvety softness.”

Nigel has fully immersed himself in investigating the behaviour and effects of this medium. “Oil paint applied in a thin wash over a pure white base acts like a sheet of coloured glass through which light passes and reflects back off the white base. This can illuminate the colour from behind and make it glow, contrasting vividly with the dark bitumen. The black has a dramatic effect on a thin wash next to it.”

Other materials also come into play. “I can make a simple mould out of clay and melt metal to cast silvery pieces to embed into bitumen – the black and silver challenge each other like yin and yang.”

Nigel’s influences inform his trial-and-error process. “The emotional rawness of Abstract Expressionists attracts me, as does the composition of Japanese prints and the light and movement of Renaissance painting. Like Japanese lacquer, bitumen paint gives a sublime, rich, deep black which I contrast with thin transparent misty washes of paint. It creates a hint of a landscape with objects floating in space give a suggestion of surrealism.”

Interference by Nigel Shipley

Interference by Nigel Shipley

The result is a glorious visually tactile series of paintings brimming with emotion yet utterly open to interpretation.

Nigel is an ardent fan of what he terms controlled accidents. “By painting a thin wash of oil paint over a white base of water based acrylic paint, the oil and the water may react and create natural patterns that reflect those in nature,” he says. “These patterns can have an infinite complexity that it would be impossible to design, and mirror the patterns found when frost settles on an icy winter’s window, or the cracks of a dry muddy river bed. Scraping wet paint with a squeegee can create similar accidental textures or rhythms that reflect nature.”

In The Beginning by Nigel Shipley

In The Beginning by Nigel Shipley

His approach is purely based on intuition and curiosity, which contributes to the originality of the finished pieces.

“My method of working is to follow my instincts and not to try to communicate an idea about a social issue but to celebrate beauty,” he explains. “I work on many paintings at a time. I make marks, leave the paint to dry and then come back to look at it afresh before deciding what I feel to be the correct next move. At some point I either decide that it’s finished or throw it away as a painting that didn’t work but from which I learnt something.”

Wine gums and moonbeams will be on at The Hours, Colston Yard, Bristol, BS1 5BD, from 4th-31st October. Viewings by arrangement. For details, visit 

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judydarley (at) I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, exhibitions, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Daily creativity with Ulla Maria Johanson

180329 by Ulla Maria JohansonIn 2014, artist Ulla Maria Johanson set herself the challenge of creating and completing a new painting every day. It marked the start of a period of intense productivity that has resulted in a series of exquisite work by the Swedish artist.

There’s a sense of spontaneous energy to Ulla’s paintings that I find utterly enticing, yet her habit of producing daily paintings began as a reaction to something of a painterly drought. “I was in a period when I experienced that I lacked inspiration, time and ability to paint,” she explains. “My dream was to paint big and have a lot of time for creation, which was difficult to combine with full time work. When I did find time, the white canvasses felt scary and I rarely managed to make a whole painting I was pleased with.”

Ulla’s frustration grew, until during a break at work she went to an online bookshop and sought out their art catalogue. “I found Carol Marine’s book Daily Painting,” she recalls. “Interested, I read about the simple concept of painting small and often. I immediately felt that it was something for me, and I made my first daily painting the next morning.”

180509 by Ulla Maria Johanson

Luscious brushstrokes build up abstract scenes that summon up an impression of setting, season and mood.

The biggest challenge, she says, is to find sufficient time each day. “I learned quite soon to make it easier for myself by making a little pop-up studio,” Ulla says. “At first, it was also difficult to find motives and ideas. Some days it seemed hopeless and I thought about giving it up.”

To maintain her determination, Ulla gave herself a feasible end date. “First, I decided that I should give it 30 days in a row before stopping,” she says, “and then I extended it to 100 days.”

Four years on, the habit is now a deeply ingrained pleasure.

“The joy is to take the time to do what I really want,” she says. “It’s also a great liberation to have this daily habit established. At the beginning, I was often dissatisfied with what I achieved – my internal critic shouted in despair and encouraged me to quit! However, I soon found it became easy to silence the critic – the most important thing was not that the day’s work should become a masterpiece but it should become something. Who can expect to produce perfection when time is tight?”

She adds: “The next day there is another chance to do something, and then it could only get better. Painting small and often also makes it easy to try new, experimental techniques and take chances.”

180205 by Ulla Maria Johanson

Ulla usually uses acrylic paint “because it dries quickly and you can paint over with several layers. I do small paintings (15x15cm or 20x20cm) on canvas or on a board, while larger works are always on canvas.”

Ulla prepares her surface an uneven layer of white primer “so that it becomes a structure. Once the foundation is properly dry I paint with a wide brush with short, stiff synthetic bristles, rarely cleaning the brush while I work.” This allows the colours to mix with one another as she transfers them from palette to canvas or board.

“As I work,  I turn and turn the canvas to look at it from different angles and notice what appears. In addition to the broad brushes, I sometimes also use finer round natural brushes and a thin synthetic brush.”

The early stages are the most intuitive for Ulla. “When I start to work, I do not know at all where it will go. Often, it becomes layer upon layer, before the motif emerge,” she admits.

Her own frame of mind is part of the adventure. “At first, I’m curious about what’s going to happen,” she says. “Sometimes I quickly find something that feels interesting and worth exploring and reinforcing, and at others I find that the work feels it reaches a sticky dead end where the colours do not work together and I wonder how to go on. Then something happens and I introduce a shade or shape that makes the whole thing feel harmonious.”

The biggest challenge is to know when to stop. “Sometimes I’m sure the painting is done when I finally clean the brush off, and on other occasions I need to let the painting be for a while so I can study the work when it’s dried and make a choice. Maybe it will stay as it is or maybe I will change all or part of the painting.”

180607 by Ulla Maria Johanson

Ulla lives on the Swedish west coast, which influences her artwork. “I often walk and enjoy nature and sea,” she comments. “It is reflected in my art and I also find inspiration in the environments and pictures I come into contact with online and in books.”

For Ulla the finished artwork is only the first stage. “What I want to communicate with my paintings is the beginning of a story that can grow and blossom in the viewer’s mind,” she says. “It’s wonderful to hear people tell me about the different things they see in one of my abstract paintings. I’m also happy every time I hear that my work has prompted someone to feel inspired to create something of their own.”

Find more of Ulla’s work at the following: umjartoneartworkeveryday;;

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judydarley (at) I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

A different way of looking

Up the wall by Annie Coxey

Up The Wall by Annie Coxey

Annie Coxey’s abstract artworks ripple with unstated emotions. Colours and textures nestle together to become aerial landscapes, underwater explorations or extreme close up of natural phenomena.

Becoming an artist, she says, “was a slow burner. At school I enjoyed art, but never really shone. I trained as a staff nurse and had three children, looking after them while working part time at the local hospital.”

All three of Annie’s offspring have special educational needs, which required a lot of Annie’s energy when they were small.

“When my youngest child was two years old and I was 35, I became ill with an overactive thyroid,” she says. “It took the doctors a long time to diagnose me and by then I’d lost a lot of weight and I had to go on medication to regulate my heart. So I took time out and resigned from my job and signed up for an art course on a whim.”

Annie was fortunate to have a very inspirational teacher “who opened my eyes.”

Soon afterwards, Annie signed up to do a degree at Cheltenham School of Art. “I had an amazing experience over the next three years and learnt so much about art, painting and also the philosophy of Art,” she says. “I also discovered I was dyslexic, which I had long suspected and this too made me discover so much about myself. A whole new world opened up to me and there was no going back – I couldn’t get enough of all the things I was learning about.”

Ever since, Annie has developed her practise as a painter and continues to learn. “I teach and also work in a college as an Art Technician, which I love, and I have a studio I manage to get to two days a week.”

Her preoccupations include “the balance between ‘the happy accident’ – control is something I do to push boundaries with in my work. It involves risk taking and exciting moments with the materials I use. I like to use materials in an unconventional way.”

She is adept at using collage, “particularly dress making patterns which remind me of the symbols on maps.”

Other favourite techniques include mark making, “and materials such as resin, inks and paints. I believe strongly that risks have to be taken and as an artist you need to be working outside your comfort zone. It needs to be scary and a rollercoaster of pleasure and pain!”

From Above by Annie Coxey

From Above by Annie Coxey

She adds that it’s also important “to be acutely aware what is happening with the work and to actually ‘see’ the magic moments as they happen.” This is where the control element comes in, to identify what needs to be kept and what needs to change in order to prevent Annie’s works becoming “a messy mix of materials on the canvas. Some paintings are resolved in weeks, others take months and months of work.”

Annie recognises that her ideas of shape and colour have evolved over the last 15 years. “I have an intuitive feeling for what looks ‘right’ and is an exciting combination.” She attributes this skill at least in part to her dyslexia. “ One of the perks of being dyslexic is the ability to think outside the box, problem solve and also to know visually what works,” she explains. “Due to the fact I’m using layers with paint, collage and resin, I’m able to experiment – knocking it back and adding new layers as I go.”

The real and imagined worlds collaborate in Annie’s creations. “I gather a great deal of inspiration from the Cumbria landscape around me,” she says. “However, I never work directly from photos or sketches. I don’t know what the work will look like when I start – it develops and becomes a conversation between myself and the painting.”

A fascination with maps, textures and layers all add interest and curiosities that draw the viewer in. “At the moment many of my paintings have developed from my sketches and photos taken around the time of the floods in Cumbria,” she says. “I have been interested by the changes in the landscape by the floods and the flood debris that is still evident.”

Flood Debris by Annie Coxley

Flood Debris by Annie Coxley

Annie relishes the mix “between working as an artist and working with young people at college.”

The ups, and even the downs, of making the work in the studio can be equally enjoyable. “I love the feeling I get when exciting things happen in studio.”

And all the other aspects of being an artist feed into Annie’s pleasures derived from looking, learning and developing her abilities. “I love lots of the things I do that make me an artist – visiting exhibitions, doing workshops with artists I admire, sketching in the landscape and reading articles and books.”

Annie is beginning to look beyond Cumbria and the North West of England too. “This summer I went to Italy on a residency which was an amazing experience,’ she says. “I was inspired by the landscape in Italy and enjoyed working alongside other international artists. The studio I worked in had the most fantastic view and it was wonderful to only have to think about working as an artist every day and nothing else.”

More recently she visited Art Fair Cologne “with all my paintings in my car boot – this is very new for me and is both scary and exciting! I feel I am at the stage now where I’m more confident about my work, what I do and why I do it.”

You can see more of Annie’s work at

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judydarley (at) I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, exhibitions, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)