Artist profile - Mark Preston

'November Afternoon, Alport Heights'

'November Afternoon, Alport Heights' - Credit: Archant

Mike Smith meets landscape artist Mark Preston whose latest work celebrates his reconnection with the Derbyshire countryside.

Mark painting back in Derbyshire?? Photo: xxxxxxx xxxxxx??

Mark painting back in Derbyshire?? Photo: xxxxxxx xxxxxx?? - Credit: Archant

To experience a brilliant distillation of the natural landscape of Derbyshire in all its colourful diversity and seasonal moods, hurry without delay to Gallerytop in Rowsley, where Mark Preston’s solo exhibition continues until 28th April. Supplemented by four paintings of wild Cornish seas, the 36 Derbyshire pictures in the show are all plein air paintings by an artist who is always in tune with nature, whether that means being alert to the rhythms created by sunlight filtering through trees, reflections on the shimmering surface of a river, a breeze rustling through grasses, an approaching storm whipping up atmospheric turmoil, the play of shadows on a white landscape on a snowy day or the sudden re-emergence of brilliant sunlight after a rain shower.

The show at Gallerytop is Mark’s first solo exhibition in Derbyshire for four years. It comes after a lengthy period spent working towards several successful solo shows at the Lighthouse Gallery in Penzance and Red Rag Gallery, Stow. Describing his preparation for the Rowsley show, Mark said: ‘The autumn colours during last November and the snow-covered landscapes in the following month provided a renewed source of inspiration when I began to reconnect with some Peak District scenes that I had not painted for a while.’

Mark’s connection with the Peak District was formed from an early age walking and sketching with his father, the highly accomplished artist Rex Preston, and fellow artist Wilfred Ball. Their enthusiasm and love of the landscape rubbed off on him. Given this example set by his father, it was almost inevitable that Mark would be drawn to art as a career. Recalling his early artistic efforts, he said: ‘Miss Langhorne, one of my teachers at Bemrose School, Derby, gave me lots of encouragement. I also remember an occasion at school when we were asked to select a famous artist and produce a picture based on their particular style. I chose Van Gogh and tried to see the landscape through his eyes. The work of the Dutch painter has remained a source of inspiration for me ever since.’

After leaving school, Mark embarked on a BTech Art and Design course at Mackworth College before studying Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. In 1997, during his final year at university, he joined his father on a painting trip to Cornwall. When Michael Mosley, the owner of Bakewell’s Granby Gallery, was shown the paintings Mark had produced during that visit he offered to exhibit them. Every picture in the show was sold, causing Mark to decide, even before he had graduated, that he was going to try to live entirely by his art. For 21 years, he has done exactly that.

'Sunlit Waterfalls, Fairbrook'

'Sunlit Waterfalls, Fairbrook' - Credit: Archant

Following the example of Monet, who said ‘one hour spent in front of nature is worth ten in the studio’, Mark normally works in situ, spending very little time painting in his studio. Influenced by Constable’s declaration that ‘nature is the fountain’s head, the source from whence all originality must spring’, he has been known to remain out of doors at his easel from dawn until dusk working directly from nature, whatever the weather.

In fact, the weather will often play a direct part in his compositions, with rain or sea-spray splattering his paint or wind distorting the action of his brushes. The result is that his paintings take on the energy and character of the subject he is depicting, whether that is waves crashing against rocks on a stormy day, a thunder storm about to unleash its power, grasses waving gently in a breeze or blossom being blown from a tree on a windy day.

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There are some occasions when Mark will travel to a location where he knows that nature will provide him with a subject that he is keen to capture. For example, a trip to Hollinsclough was deliberately timed to coincide with the arrival of May blossom. Despite the extreme difficulty he experienced when trying to anchor his canvas to his easel, the strong wind on that particular day was an added bonus, allowing him to capture the dynamism of the scene in the most realistic way and to create one of his most memorable images.

However, on most other occasions Mark will simply set up his easel in a countryside location not far from his house and wait for nature to suggest a composition. This might be found in what appears to the untuned eye to be an unremarkable field or a very ordinary lane or a quiet stretch of water. Just as Constable painted the majority of his paintings within a few square miles of his home, Mark will travel time and again to the area around Alport Heights where he knows he will always come across something new that will catch his eye, no matter how familiar the terrain might be to him. He calls these his ‘nothing subjects’, out of which he is always able to create something special, again following the example of Constable, who said, ‘My limited and abstract art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up.’

'Sunken Lane, Wirksworth'

'Sunken Lane, Wirksworth' - Credit: Archant

Knowing that people will often buy pictures to remind them of a place that they have enjoyed visiting, many artists choose to paint the sort of classic views depicted on postcards, but this is not Mark’s approach. Just as Monet believed ‘the subject is of secondary importance’, preferring to convey ‘what is alive between the artist and what he sees’, Mark tries to illustrate the feelings he experiences in response to the Derbyshire landscape, hoping that his pictures will remind people of their own emotional reactions to places they have visited in the county. The popularity of his paintings is clear testimony to this hope being realised.

Because Mark’s compositions are not premeditated, they record his response to nature in the most direct way possible. He does not make use of preliminary pencil sketches, preferring to begin with the application of a light wash to create only the vaguest indication of what he is about to paint, a technique that requires nerve and confidence as he starts to apply his acrylic paint to the canvas. His use of a palette knife rather than a brush, particularly for the final touches, helps to produce the energy and movement that is such a characteristic feature of his paintings.

Mark always shows his new paintings to his father, knowing that he will provide an expert assessment of his efforts. He also seeks the advice of his mother, Sue, and wife, Mel, who will often spot something in a composition which the artist might have missed, and whose support he greatly appreciates. In addition he values the opinions of fellow artists, particularly members of what might be termed the ‘Derbyshire School’ of landscape painters. Artists such as Colin Halliday and Julian Mason will often join him on painting trips, when the group will stay in a cottage where they can share the results of their individual efforts and enjoy the results of Colin’s cooking. Mark says, ‘With three young sons demanding my attention at home, these trips are important in providing uninterrupted time for painting.’

Mark has been fortunate in having had his work displayed for many years in numerous successful exhibitions in Bakewell, not only at the Granby Gallery but also at the Ridgeway Gallery. It was the closure of these venues that caused him to turn his attention in the last few years to the production of paintings for the galleries in Cornwall and Stow, and for Peter Barker’s Fine Art Gallery in Uppingham. However, preparation for the current exhibition at Gallerytop has allowed him to return to the subjects that have been his major source of inspiration as an artist for 21 years. He says, ‘Much as I love the seascapes of Cornwall, the wonderful landscape of Derbyshire will always be the place where I can be in tune with nature in all its infinite variety.’

'Reflected Beech, Chee Dale'

'Reflected Beech, Chee Dale' - Credit: Archant

More information about Mark and his paintings can be viewed on

'Rosebay Willowherb, Ashleyhay'

'Rosebay Willowherb, Ashleyhay' - Credit: Archant

'Dark Skies and Sunshinre, Ednaston'

'Dark Skies and Sunshinre, Ednaston' - Credit: Archant