A year of living and painting on water

Rob Pointon at Gloucester Docks

Rob Pointon at Gloucester Docks - Credit: Archant

In March last year, artist Rob Pointon set off in his narrowboat to spend a year travelling the country’s canals and rivers, capturing the scenes in oil on canvas.

'Worcester Cathedral' by Rob Pointon

'Worcester Cathedral' by Rob Pointon - Credit: Archant

The resulting artworks are being displayed in a series of exhibitions held at venues with strong connections with our waterways, and is this month coming to Gloucester Docks.

The Copper Beech at Tewkesbury Abbey' by Rob Pointon

The Copper Beech at Tewkesbury Abbey' by Rob Pointon - Credit: Archant

Rob is donating a percentage of the proceeds of the sales of the work to the Canal & River Trust to help the charity continue to care for the nation’s historic waterways.

'Tewkesbury Reflection' by Rob Pointon

'Tewkesbury Reflection' by Rob Pointon - Credit: Archant

'The Canal in Oxford, Autumn' by Rob Pointon

'The Canal in Oxford, Autumn' by Rob Pointon - Credit: Archant


'The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford' by Rob Pointon

'The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford' by Rob Pointon - Credit: Archant

Rob Pointon at Gloucester Docks

Rob Pointon at Gloucester Docks - Credit: Archant

• When did you start work on the project and what inspired you to take it on?

We bought the boat in 2011 but set off on our ‘Year of the Boat’ voyage from March to March 2012-2013. The lifestyle of living aboard a narrowboat appealed to us – the unusual experience, the simplicity that comes with distilling your possessions down to a minimum, plus the feeling of being off the grid was enough to tempt us onboard, but in honesty it was a hunger to showcase my work to a wider audience, to discover more of our country and the sheer adventure of it all that led to the national tour of the inland waterways.

I knew it would fit with the my work process; I produce all my paintings 100 per cent on location, and during my career I’ve learnt that dedicated painting trips, and physically moving to and spending time with an unfamiliar landscape seems to facilitate the necessary concentration and inspiration to produce a successful body of work. When you are moving between locations via narrowboat, the slow pace, slower than walking, almost dictates you become more observant and appreciative.

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• What were some of the challenges you encountered?

Getting through 553 locks took some time! The weather in 2012 wasn’t kind either, with some of the wettest summer months on record, flooding on some the rivers we were travelling on and then a cold and long winter. The logistics of moving the boat, then jogging or cycling back to the car and then bringing the car back to the boat to take large wet canvases back to the studio, all whilst keeping our long-term clients happy to keep our self-employment going, and self-funding this adventure was a constant challenge!


• What is your fascination with water?

I enjoy taking artworks into an unknown, so painting subjects that are ever-changing and seemingly impossible to depict. Water is one of these subjects with the changing light, weather and wind transforming a reflection study of water completely. This is not frustrating, but it means you can not have too much preconceptions of what the final piece will look like and it is an act of discovery and exploration in producing the piece.


• Tell me about some of the pieces which will be on display in the exhibition?

In total, I will have produced about 80 oil paintings from around the country in the ‘Year of the Boat’, though no exhibition can hold all of them so each show will be localised. I enjoy working in oils more than any other medium as they seem to do what I want them to do! I enjoy creating textures with them; they have a three-dimensional quality which means you can really highlight the artist’s gesture in the brushwork as well as creating a luminous scene. The fact that they do not dry very quickly enables me to blend areas together creating smooth gradients of colour. They come with their own logistical nightmares in staying wet for so long, in terms of storage, transportation, permissions to paint in public areas with them, and wrecking any clothing that steps anywhere near. The paintings are quite large. I work standing up and at an arm’s distance when painting, which leads to pieces that are full of movement, but require quite a large surface. The biggest I could squeeze into the boat was about 5’6” x 4’.


• The Gloucester exhibition is one of four planned. How did you choose the venues?

The Waterways Museum in Gloucester was suggested to us by the Canal and River Trust, the charity who have taken over from British Waterways’ role in managing all of our inland waterways. The Llanthony Warehouse in Gloucester Docks has a wonderful atmosphere and heritage and I am delighted it is one of the venues and can represent the large fraction of the year we spent in the Cotswolds area. Canal and River Trust have also organised an exhibition in Deloitte’s offices in the City of London. Other venues include a gallery in Spinningfields, Manchester, that we thought was ideal for showcasing the large body of Manchester and more northern canal work; a gallery in Brindley Place, Birmingham, that is really the heart of the canal network; and finally Weston Park in Staffordshire/Shropshire, an estate that has close canal connections and a beautiful gallery space in their Granary building.


• Are you still living on the narrowboat?

Yes, although we are not travelling in it to all the exhibitions, we are in the final stages of finishing the project off – the boat was a shell when we bought it; we have fitted out the interior living space, and are currently sourcing a professional paint job on the exterior. I would have liked to have painted it myself, although this boat was always purchased and fitted out with the next buyer in mind. I would like to own another later in life and personalise the sides with scenes from our travels.


• Did you find a natural camaraderie among people living and working on the canal?

It’s a bit clichéd but its true; people are much friendlier, chattier and relaxed around the canals. The water seems to unwind people and the unusual task of navigating it makes everyone you pass a kindred spirit. It is easy to help one another and share experiences and advice.


• Career highlights?

My proudest moment was HRH Prince of Wales unveiling a 24’ x 6’ oil painting I had worked on for six months, when he visited my home city of Stoke-on-Trent in 2010. The painting was to commemorate the Centenary of the Federation of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent, and it depicted the City Council in full session and included 91 sitters.

I was honoured to receive a bursary for postgraduate study at The Princes’ Drawing School in London in 2004-2005. On that course I won a prize for work produced at The British Museum, and presented a drawing to the Duchess of Devonshire. I have picked up a few prizes since; this Year of the Boat has already proved a real highlight and we have a planned two-month excursion to paint on the streets of San Francisco and New York.


Rob Pointon’s ‘Year of the Boat’ exhibition is at the Waterways Museum, Llanthony Warehouse in Gloucester Docks from June 1 to 22. www.robpointon.co.uk