Meet Tenterden artist Karen Birchwood

Karen Birchwood

Karen Birchwood - Credit: Archant

How a background in textile design has shaped this landscape painter

Fortunately it’s a clear day when I visit Karen Birchwood at her home near Tenterden. Her studio is 200 yards up the garden and in the rain it would have been muddy and slippery.

Here there is that north-facing light artists so love, an easel holds the latest work, a large landscape. On either side are tables with containers full of brushes and acrylic paints, and a scrapbook which forms part of Karen’s creative process and indeed takes the place of sketchbooks.

We talk in Karen’s home, where the walls are covered with her impressive selection of landscapes as well as some smaller abstracts. Free and gestural brushwork characterises the older works, while the more recent examples have taken on an almost caricatural air.

The colour palette in both stages shows the influence of the textile designing that was Karen’s earlier career.

As she says: “As a textile designer you are always referring to artists who inspire design and therefore I think the desire to create my own paintings stems from this.”

Indeed, her work has recently been taken on as prints by John Lewis both online and in store.

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I ask her about genre, as some of the work I’ve seen at the Rye Gallery was more abstract in style. “Abstract is much harder than painting something directly in front of you in terms of making it look like it has guts,” Karen explains.

“I try hard to get the balance of a piece just right, it has to have depth or it can look soulless.”

There are some successful abstracts around the walls yet Karen, when asked what genre she paints in, immediately says landscape and still life.

She favours acrylic, either on canvas or on paper. “When I was a designer, it was practical as it dries so fast, but I use it now as I love that ability to work fast, enabling me to create texture and layering of the paint,” she says.

While naturally preferring to work on a large scale, more recently Karen has been getting interested in smaller works, working between sizes of 120 x 120 centimetres maximum to the smallest of 20 x 20 centimetres.

She also like the symmetry of both square canvases and particularly long rectangles, as these give a contemporary feel to which she aspires.

Working on one piece at a time, although admitting to sometimes putting a painting to one side and starting another, then going back to the first, Karen may be able to work fast, but admits she often can’t tell when a work is finished.

“I’ll bring it into the house and then look at it for a while; it’s finished when it doesn’t irritate me anymore! If there’s one small bit on a painting that my eye keeps going back to, I’ll know it’s the one area that doesn’t work.”

Karen is quick to acknowledge the inspiration of the county she both lives and works in. “Without living in Kent, I am not sure I would have been inspired to paint in the same way as I am hugely influenced by the surrounding countryside and coast of Kent,” she says, adding that colour is always her starting point and the most important element in her work.

Her artistic heroes include the British landscapist Ivon Hitchens, David Hockney, Mary Feddon, Ben Nicolson, William Scott: the British greats. Yet she is also inspired by Piet Oudolf, the Dutch garden designer, and particularly likes Great Dixter and, of course, her own garden.

I ask Karen, is painting important? Her answer is immediate and decisive: “I don’t know many people who are not affected by art, whether it moves, brightens or adds something to their life.” n