An Interview with Douglas Bland

Douglas Bland, interviewed by John Warner, Creator of the City Hall Art Gallery, Hong Kong, on the occasion of an exhibition from 26th July – 21st August, 1963.

What would you say has been the strongest influence on your work?

About fifteen years ago, I was working for the Maritime Customs Service in China and I think it was this period of living in a small boat and working in remote places in China that had a great effect on me and my work. I was making and correcting charts of rivers and estuaries, and this brought me into close contact with the life of the rivers as well as the landscape. During this time I did many drawings. water colour and oil paintings which were figurative and quite different from the painting which I do now.

Has any particular artist influenced you more than others?

Yes, the Chinese painter, Zao Wou-Ki, whom I first met in 1958, has made a deep impression on me. I’ve always admired his work and when we met, we found we were thinking along the same lines. We both had an appreciation of ancient Chinese painting and the marvellous expression of space that you often find in it. We were both conscious that this tradition was lost and felt, in rather a romantic way, that the spirit of it should be revived using the western medium of oil paint.

Now when you start a painting, do you do any preliminary drawing or do you start immediately on a full sized canvas?

I start immediately with no very definite idea in my mind of what the picture will eventually become. As I work the paint takes on a definite character and ideas suggest themselves and it is really after this that some definite shapes and forms begin to emerge.

Leonardo Da Vinci used to encourage his pupils to look at the damp stains on a wall, the formation of a cloud and the accidents of nature for inspiration. Are you following his advice?

Not really, because then the idea was to form pictures from these accidents. The poetic myth of nature used to be in the depiction of a tree or landscape as a visual impression. I’m more interested in depicting the flow and growth of nature to convey its very root and the earthy things about it. Sometimes the surface of the paint might look rather like moss, but this is because the surface texture and tension are very important to me.

What would you say are the sources from which your paintings are derived?

The sea, rivers, estuaries are recurring themes. Chinese calligraphy also, not that I’ve never studied characters from the point of view of writing them correctly, but I’ve always admired the design and their abstract qualities and I use them in a pictorial sense, weaving their forms into the canvas.

So you work on a series of pictures which have the same themes?

Yes. My latest ones are moon paintings. In these I’m trying to retain some of the mystic charm the moon is now rapidly losing since it is the object of scientific research, strictly for being shot at and landed on.

Do you finish one painting at a time or do you paint on a number at the same time?

I usually have several on the go at once. I find going from one to the other very refreshing and it helps to give continuity to my work. You will notice that they vary in colour and texture – some cool, others warm, rough, smooth and so on, and going from one to another helps to keep me refreshed while I’m working on them.

I notice you always use canvas. Is there any particular reason for this?

Yes. I like the texture of it and the way it responds to the brush. Also, it’s very suitable for producing the particular tactile quality I want – a quality which incidentally you also find in old Chinese paintings on silk.

You’ve told us that you don’t start a painting with any rigid idea of what it will eventually become. How do you know when a painting is finished?

This is often very difficult. I often work too long on a picture. At other times I see a painting which I’d finished some time ago and want to take it up again. But I think what one always strives for is to say what one wants as effectively and economically as possible. When you achieve this, then the painting is finished.

Basically do you paint to satisfy yourself or do you want to communicate with others?

I want to do both. In satisfying myself, I find I become more difficult to satisfy and, in this way, I hope my paintings become better. I’m quite ruthless about this, and I destroy quite a lot of paintings which don’t satisfy me. But at the same time, I want to communicate and always have the greatest pleasure when I succeed in doing so.

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