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How to experience energy and movement in the Central Otago landscape when forced to stay at home? Wanaka Fine Art Gallery consultant MARJORIE COOK studied expressionist painter NIGEL WILSON.

When autumn blazes the trees of Central Otago, there is no better place to experience all that fiery energy than the cycle track beside the Mata-Au/Clutha River.

The bold and dazzling flights of red, orange and yellow leaves are calmed by the broad and powerful blue river, the pull strong enough to inspire the kind of automatic pedaling that sweeps you over the next rise and delivers you to Luggate’s Red Bridge before you know you’ve arrived.

When forced into a period of at-home contemplation, the landscape as expressed by artists can still come to our emotional rescue.

One of the many Wanaka Fine Art Gallery artists who have studied the Clutha River is Wellington-born artist Nigel Wilson.

Nigel studied at Ilam Art School in Christchurch in the 1980s and was originally an art teacher before leaving his job at Cargill High School in 1997 to become a fulltime artist.

In 2000, he and his wife Janice moved to Alexandra, where Nigel works from his home studio, painting colourful, expressionist landscapes and abstract works.

His painting style is vital and intuitive, using lots of energy and big movements.


Wanaka is a big 100 x 150 cm oil on canvas ($5500);  

Watching Nigel paint (there is a video on his website), you see a kind of step-dance unfolding as he moves to and from his palette, a glass-topped table, to scrub paint into his canvas with big brushes; the sort of strokes evident in Wanaka (above). 

I noticed Nigel did not ponder over his strokes as he piled more thin layers of colourful oils on top of the paint he’d applied to the canvas in a previous session.

As he went back over his strokes, building up expression and complexity, a scene of the massive Clutha River began to emerge, similar to From the Galloway Bridge (80 x 80 cm, acrylic, $2600) or the recently sold Willow on Clutha.

From the Galloway Bridge

 From the Galloway Bridge (acrylic 80 x 80cm, $2600)

Nigel’s prolific output includes a large body of works on the Clutha River, the Arrow River and many colourful orchard locations. Examples can all be viewed on the Wanaka Fine Art Gallery website.

Given his fascination with portraying the landscape in as many new ways as possible, it is not surprising to learn Nigel’s favourite artist was West Coast-based Toss Woollaston, one of New Zealand’s most important landscape artists, who died aged 88 in 1998.

Woollaston was also a relentless student of the landscape and left a myriad of artworks throughout the country.

“Toss, especially, was great at layering. You just keep banging away at it until something arrives and you can say “this sort of works’’.’’

Movement is important to him. “It gives the surface a charge, an energy. That’s what people recognise me for. That is what I am trying to do. It is something you arrive at, after you know what you are doing for a bit. Toss Woollaston also had that energetic quality.’’

“He was my main influence because when I started painting seriously, he was already painting in the landscape category. What really attracted me was his expressive qualities.’’

Nigel never met Woollaston but met people who knew him. He also had ample opportunity to view Woollaston’s art works, which were regularly exhibited in Christchurch while Wilson was at art school.

“I felt like I knew him. When I studied at Ilam, he had just come on the scene in New Zealand as a landscape painter. He was getting a lot of exposure when I was an art student. Peter McLeavey of Wellington was his sole representative and he pushed him all the way, made him paint huge instead of small . . . We never met, but I got to see a lot of his art,’’ Nigel said.

The Canterbury art scene inspired the budding art student. Nigel also enjoyed the works of Waimate-based modernist Philip Trusttrum [1940-]. His art teachers included Doris Lusk [1916-1990], another of this country’s leading landscape artists, and Don Peebles [1922-2010], a pioneer of abstract art in New Zealand.

“There were a whole lot of people who were just a little bit older than I was, who were painting quite modernly. They were not purist landscape painters by any means. But I have made landscape paintings my career choice. That was the way I was really able to make an income in the expressionistic style,’’ he said.

Despite being a huge fan, Nigel doesn’t own any Woollaston works. “I couldn’t afford them, especially now. But I liked his Takaka Hills series, which he did using turps and muddy paint. He got that from Cezanne. He went away [overseas], came back and did some nutty paintings. They were colour, all coming out of grey. There’s an art to doing that. I don’t tend to do that. I tend to use more colours, not grey.’’


Orchard Square (100 x 100 cm oil $3200)

New Zealand’s regionalism or provincial art movements did not have a strong influence on Nigel’s own style. Nor does he paint a record of Central Otago’s fascinating abandoned old buildings.

“There was a provincialism movement, a take on impressionism but [Central Otago landscape master Douglas] Badcock [1922-2009] and artists like him didn’t influence me so much. I steered away from that style. I am really a modern landscapist. I am not influenced at all by the older style,’’ Nigel said.

Modernism has had two sweeps through New Zealand. The first followed the introduction of cubism. It was not something that caught on particularly quickly in New Zealand until internationally acclaimed artist Colin McCahon’s interest was kindled in the 1950s.

“There were some pretty good people doing it, McCahon etc. A lot of them were very good artists and they developed in their own styles. For example, Doris Lusk, who taught me. She was also a landscape artist and a water colourist.”

A second wave of modernism followed in the 1960s and 70s when more artists began following McCahon. He and his family had moved from Dunedin to Auckland during the 1950s so McCahon could take up a job at the Auckland City Art Gallery, before beginning a career as a lecturer at Elam School of Fine Arts.

Don Peebles was also an influential character, as New Zealand’s artists moved towards modernism and abstraction. His early career was spent in Wellington and Australia before he became the head of painting department at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts in the 1960s.

“Don Peebles was my tutor in Christchurch, I liked how he painted and I like the way he objectified what he was painting. It was pure abstraction. I liked all those abstract guys!’’ Nigel said.

Sussuration 2017                        

Sussuration 2017 (oil with palette knife, 120 x 100cm, $4600)

Nigel was always drawing and sketching as a child, and commonly found other kids would invite him to help illustrate their books.

His advice to beginners is to get the basics right.

“Whatever you are doing, your first task is to capture the sense of light when you are painting. If you haven’t got that, you are not there yet. Use a lot of white. You can’t go wrong.’’ 

It’s also natural for your style to change, he said.

“I feel like my work is still evolving and changing. I am not just staying on the spot. I am still working out things to include in my paintings. At the moment, I’m feeling towards abstraction more, which is fascinating. You can do this with landscapes. But it can just be about the painting itself and the way you paint and the materials you are using. 

“During lockdown, I’ve just been painting abstractly. I have been exploring ideas about colour, movement, extension, mark making. It is a whole different thing.

“I didn’t really feel like painting landscapes. I didn’t even feel like painting. But I was lucky. I had ordered enough canvases and I had enough paint.”

When interviewed in April, it was still too soon for Nigel to say what he might do with his new works, or whether he might even show them.

“I don’t know. It depends on how they turn out. Maybe. We’ll see,’’ he said.

“Painting is hard work so I don’t mind having a bit of a holiday. And there might not be any demand for a while. Art is at the bottom of the pecking order. I am a little bit worried about that,’’ he said.

By Lyz Dozzi
18 July 2020

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