Meeting East Hoathly artist David Armitage
- Credit: Jim Holden
David Armitage never considered himself anything but an artist: “It was always my passion,” he said.
After attending art school in Melbourne, in his native Australia (he grew up in Tasmania, and also lived in New Zealand for a time), he then became a graphic designer, and emigrated to London in 1970 to pursue his artistic dreams.
“But actually,” he smiled, “when I got here I realised that there were an awful lot of really great graphic designers, and that maybe I should have a rethink.”
It was his partner Ronda who encouraged him to illustrate a children’s book, but having illustrated her stories (she has written books and used to be a primary school teacher), he was encouraged by his publisher to write his own story to illustrate. This sent him into what he describes as “a blind panic” as he simply couldn’t think of anything to write. It was only when walking along Beachy Head with his own children that inspiration came to him. “I was there with a friend and the kids, and they were asking all these inane questions, as children always do, being so curious about everything. One of them asked what the line that stretched from the cliff edge to the lighthouse was for.
“I didn’t have a clue, but every good parent knows the art of the blag, and so I blithely told them that it was for the lighthouse keeper’s lunch, so that he didn’t have to walk down all those stairs to get it. My friend turned to me and said ‘well, what about that? Sounds like the start of a story to me’, and that was that really!”
David (in collaboration with Ronda) took the story and the illustrations back to his publisher, and there are now 12 books in the series that are sold across the world, “even in really unexpected places,” said David. By this he means places where the children have never even seen the sea, let alone a lighthouse. He and Ronda took the book across the UK, demonstrating the illustrations and letting the children create their own lighthouse stories to school children, and they still do this in Sussex schools today.
But painting remained David’s passion throughout, and illustration was taking up time that he would have liked to use on art that, in his own words, “comes from me, is about me, who I am, my experiences and my view of the world.” And so he took to the studio, and has been happily painting in the garden of his home in Graywood, near East Hoathly, ever since. His paintings are vibrant and colourful, and very vivid and evocative in their composition. David told me, “colour is everything. And I love the fact that they might look like the paint has just been thrown on to the canvas, but in fact everything is considered. Every dot, every brushstroke has been thought about – at least once and probably 10 times. I often cover the whole canvas in colour, play with it for a couple of months, then come back to it about six months later and carry on.”
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Of the process of creating a painting he said “it makes me happy, it keeps me calm, and it makes sure that I can properly express myself. It makes me who I am.” Although some of his work features Sussex fauna and scenery, it is often places and experiences that he has seen and had that make up the subjects – there are a lot of holy shrines for example, and subjects as wide-ranging as Spanish carnivals and a still life of a vase of flowers.
“I never decide what I am going to paint before I paint it, I let the painting decide. It often changes its mind midway through the process, but it always comes out with the right thing in the end.”
David’s paintings are being exhibited at the Birley Centre in Eastbourne, from 27 March. They will be available to view every weekend throughout April.
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