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)

Bristol art – Autumn 2018

Before Nightfall by Nigel Shipley

Before Nightfall by Nigel Shipley

There’s so much art happening in Bristol at present that I barely know where to look first. Last weekend (6th-7th Oct 2018) was Art on the Hill – the ever-inspiring Windmill Hill and Victoria Park arts trail. The Totterdown Front Room Arts Trail will follow from 23rd till 25th November. Can’t wait!

Prior to that, HOURS Gallery is hosting Daydreams, an exhibition of Nigel Shipley‘s abstract paintings, accompanied by music and readings of poetry created in response to the works. Sounds really intriguing! I love work that transcends form in this way. The performers are all members of Bristol Tonic.

Bristol Tonic poet

  • Date: Saturday 13th October 2018
  • Venue: HOURS Gallery, 10 Colston Yard, Bristol BS1 5BD (HOURS is in Colston Yard, accessed from the top of Colston Street, through an archway between Bike Workshop and Blaze)
  • Times: Gallery open from 10am-10pm. Performance from 7-8pm. The exhibition can be viewed by appointment until 1st November, ring 07909874586 to arrange this.
  • For more details, go to:
Wind by Yurim Gough, part of her Elements artwork

Wind by Yurim Gough, part of her Elements artwork

And the RWA’s wonderful Open Exhibition has launched, revealing a spectacular array of works, including Yurim Gough‘s ‘Four Elements’. Definitely one for your calendar! The show is on until 25th November 2018.

Judy Darley in Redcliffe Caves

If you’re seeking further inspiration, don’t forget Bristol Festival of Literature, running from 19th-28th October. I’ll be reading in Redcliffe Caves on Tuesday 23rd October as a guest of Bristol Writer’s Group for an event titled Dark Confessions. There are masses of other curious happenings too, so I’m hoping to get to as many as possible. Hope to see you at an event or two!

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)

The investigative artist

Suspension Bridge at Night by Nigel Shipley

Nigel Shipley has been a firm fixture on Bristol’s art scene since beginning his Bristol Cityscapes series in 2004. Using bold brushstrokes and his own luminous sense of colour, he captures the urban landscape’s spirit as well as its appearance.

An avid curiosity and skilful use of controlled and uncontrolled accidents influence the direction of his work, imbuing his finished pieces with a sense of organic energy.

“Leonardo da Vinci urged artists to search for inspiration in the dirt on walls or the streaked patterns in stones,” Nigel explains when speaking of his own methodology. “In the same way I have found that the accidental blot, the chance mark, or the naturally occurring stain can be a starting point for my art.”

An example of such an accident led to Nigel’s painting Suspense (shown above). “Some random marks led to an idea of the tension of two blocks of colour, of the same weight, close to each other, almost touching, but apart,” Nigel says. “The intense red block in this painting became a ground lying at the bottom, and the dark blue/black block came to hover just above at a slight angle. The dark block is forever calmly suspended in space, held in place by the strength of the red block. A stormy landscape emerged behind them.”

This blend of tranquillity and vigour seems to represent the artist himself, as well, as he explores his own impressions of the world and internal emotions with equal interest.

Painting an abstract image is like feeling your way in the dark,” he comments, echoing the sentiment on his website’s About page. “In all of my paintings I try to achieve a sense of space and depth. I try to capture things such as emotions, a sense of calm or energy, a link to nature or an organic process.”

He cites as an example his painting Warm grey and yellow gold (shown above). “The creation of this included painting a board with white acrylic paint and then washing a thin grey oil paint over it and allowing it to gently slide down the front of the board,” says Nigel. “The oil and acrylic paints reacted to each other and the grey paint fractured into tiny cracks. The pattern of these cracks is similar to those you might find in nature, such as when mud dries. This natural cracking process created something of the infinite complexity that we find when we look closely at nature.”

Before falling headlong into abstract painting, Nigel’s work was far more figurative.

“For many years I painted cityscapes of Bristol, or tango dancers, and these paintings sold well and were popular,” he recalls. “Then I took a break from painting to work on building a new home for myself and when I had time again to paint I decided that my painting was becoming stale and I needed a bigger challenge. I started to look at abstract paintings and then began to create my own.”

Autumn Landscape by Nigel Shipley

Autumn Landscape by Nigel Shipley

The degree of difficulty involved in abstract painting is one of its attractions for Nigel. “I couldn’t return to my previous figurative representations of Bristol harbour, because they would be too easy and I would become bored. I don’t become bored with my abstract paintings, but I may become exasperated as I struggle with them.”

In other words, exasperation is preferable to boredom when it comes to experimenting with paint. This outlook is perhaps shaped by Nigel’s experiences of studying art in the 1970s.

“I didn’t have a happy time at Norwich School of Art in the 70s,” says Nigel. ”They wanted me to create welded steel sculptures, but I didn’t. I left art school feeling disillusioned with fine art world and went on to study cabinetmaking.”

At that time, few artists had the possibility of making a successful living, Nigel says. “I didn’t feel that I fitted in. Coming back to fine art in Bristol in the ’90s I found new opportunities to succeed. I picked up where I had left off twenty years earlier and reinvented my identity as an artist.”

Nigel lives with his partner, professional (and very talented) sculptor and art teacher Sophie Howard. “Her emotional and practical support is very important to my work as an artist,” Nigel says. “I greatly respect her opinion about my work, and sometimes she can give me insights about what I’m doing that I might otherwise have missed. We share a pleasure in seeing art and meeting artists, and living a creative lifestyle.”

Nigel’s creative life is about far more than painting, these days. “I relish how I can use creativity in everything I do,” he says. “I also love tango dancing, and dance at least one evening a week. This is a complex dance with a rich culture of music and Argentina. Recently I took part in a performance on the theme of happiness and pleasure.”

Deep Blue by Nigel Shipley

Deep Blue by Nigel Shipley

Nigel also uses his adeptness at my creative thinking in other parts of his life and work. “For example, when after years of looking Sophie and I could not find the home that we wanted, we decide to build our own Grand Design.

The result is unique home in the centre of Bristol, called Hours. “It incorporates a space that is sometimes an art gallery, and at other times a dance hall, or a venue for creative writing, poetry, yoga and much more.”

Far Horizon by Nigel Shipley

You can see all of Nigel’s currently available paintings at “I will have an exhibition of my paintings at HOURS (Colston Yard, Bristol) on 13th October. I have a studio at Unit 5, Barton Manor, Old Market, Bristol, BS2 0RL, and I’m happy to meet people there if they would like to see how I work. I have recently taken part in the Bristol Other Art Fair which was organised by Saatchi Art and included 100 artists from around the world chosen from 500 who applied. I plan to take part in this again in 2019.”

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)