Artist Carol Lawson and her Sussex Downs inspiration

A bird's eye view of artist Carol Lawson at work in her Newick studio.

A bird's eye view of artist Carol Lawson at work in her Newick studio. - Credit: Jim Holden

The Sussex Downs have been a rich source of inspiration for the renowned artist and illustrator Carol Lawson. As her latest work goes on display in Rottingdean, she talks to Angela Wintle about the fascination of an ever-changing landscape

Artist Carol Lawson at her Newick studio

Artist Carol Lawson at her Newick studio - Credit: Jim Holden

Carol Lawson may be a native of Yorkshire, but she finds herself drawn time and again to the undulating chalky downland of her adopted county. “I think it’s the softness and the lovely swooping hills,” she muses, as she puts the finishing touches to her latest picture, an exhilarating springtime vista – all zingy greens and limes – of the downs behind Charleston, near Firle.

“The view from Firle Beacon is another favourite scene, but there’s one stretch of countryside, in particular, that I keep coming back to – it’s from the South Downs Way, looking across Loose Bottom towards Falmer,” she says. “I find it fascinating because it’s a constantly changing landscape – and it’s not just the variation in the seasons or the time of day, it’s the agricultural use of the land. It can also change hour by hour, according to the weather.

“Sometimes, I tell myself that I should start exploring other places, but then I make a return visit and there’s a new surprise in store. In early spring the soil is very light because it has been ploughed up and the chalk is showing through, whereas at the moment the fields are planted with oilseed rape and the landscape is striped with great flashes of yellow. The most dramatic moment, however, was undoubtedly in 2013, the memorable year when poppies sprang up across Sussex. Falmer was no exception and people were pulling up in their cars to drink in the spectacle.”

Carol, who lives in Newick, between Haywards Heath and Lewes in East Sussex, has spent most of her career working as an internationally renowned and incredibly versatile freelance illustrator. You may have gazed at her work while reading a children’s bedtime story, sent one of her Christmas card designs to a cherished relative or tucked into a tin of seasonal shortbread, or even a packet of pork crackling, bearing one of her distinctive illustrations.

But eight years ago, in between commissions, she decided to seek inspiration closer to home and embark on a new career as a landscape artist, working in the brave new medium of pastels.

“I’d always thought it would be nice to exhibit my artwork, but I couldn’t see how I would make it work until Peter Vincent, another artist based in Newick who also works in pastel, invited me to display my pictures alongside his as part of Lewes Artwave,” she says. “I soon became hooked.”

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When choosing a subject, Carol is principally driven by design and looks for strong patterns in the landscape, which she adapts, as artists have done throughout history, to suit her needs. “As an artist and illustrator, I have an inbuilt sense of where to begin and end, but I’ll often exaggerate the curves and swoops of the hills or introduce a tree or hedge, if I feel the design requires something stronger.”

Artist Carol Lawson at work in her Newick studio

Artist Carol Lawson at work in her Newick studio - Credit: Jim Holden

Initially, she works from photographs, then she sketches in her design in a neutral colour on a mid-tone pastel card, shifting the lines and exaggerating the curves until she finds a balanced composition that sits comfortably on the page. “All the time, I’m thinking also of colour. I always begin with the sky, the furthest point in the landscape, and gradually work towards the foreground, building up the colour as I go. With pastels, you don’t really have a choice but to work from the top because, otherwise, you would end up with a smudgy mess.

“I don’t consciously work out the tones and I can’t explain how I create a sense of recession – it just seems to happen. But it’s not always plain sailing. Often the colours can change as I move down through the page because I’ll suddenly see there needs to be a stronger green, yellow or mauve. And sometimes there will come a point when I’ll get stuck because I can’t see what should come next – either colour or tone – and then it’s best to walk away, sometimes overnight, and by the following morning the solution falls into place.”

Some people fancy they can detect a hint of David Hockney in her work, but when Carol started on her new path she wasn’t aware of his landscapes. She cites more traditional inspiration, such as the 19th century English watercolourists John Sell Cotman and Samuel Palmer, and the Sussex artists Charles Knight and William Nicholson – “not that anything I do remotely resembles what Nicholson did, but I just love the simplicity of his landscapes.”

Unlike them, however, she works in pastel. “I enjoy the immediacy of the medium; the fact that you can fill a page quite quickly just with plain colour. Not that it’s easy to use. It’s very unforgiving because once you put something down on paper, it’s difficult to change. On the plus side, the range of colours is amazing. The soft tones are the most beautiful, but they are also the most difficult to use and fix because they are soft and powdery. Pastels are quite blunt, so for detailing I use pastel pencil which complements the broad swathes of colour.”

Throughout her illustrative career, Carol has relied on specialist agents to promote her work, but embarking on a new career as an artist has presented a whole new ball game. “Taking part in the Artwave Festival across Lewes, Seaford, Newhaven and surrounding rural areas or the Artists’ Open Houses in Brighton is a great way to get your work seen and to get feedback,” she says.

“But as not everyone can afford an original, I also reproduce my work as limited edition prints and cards. I sell the cards at Lewes Tourist Information Centre and the Grange Art Gallery in Rottingdean. They spread the word and people see them and relate back to you, so it’s a useful marketing strategy. I use an online printing company, but there are lots of local businesses that will do a short print run quite cheaply.”

Carol has exhibited original work at Nymans in Handcross, the Green Tree Gallery at Borde Hill, the Chalk Gallery in Lewes, Pallant House in Chichester and the Grange, where she has returned for her largest exhibition yet. It features many new original works, as well as limited edition prints and cards. Her landscapes have undoubtedly resonated with the public and people tell her they have sent her cards to relatives as far afield as Australia, Canada and America as a reminder of their former home in Sussex.

Her most popular image to date? “People always respond to the poppies,” she says referring to her bestselling image of her favourite Falmer view wreathed in red – as seen on this month’s cover of Sussex Life. “It’s partly the colour, but also because people relate to that year, 2013, when poppy fields sprang up everywhere.”

Poppies may be fleeting, but thankfully Carol has preserved these special moments forever.


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