Peter Hicks began painting as soon as he was old enough to hold a brush. But he tells Sarah Freeman why it’s only now he’s in his 70s that he feels he’s hit his stride.
Peter Hicks has a philosophy. It’s a variation on the idea that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. His goes something like this: “If you know how something is going to turn out, it’s probably not worth doing in the first place.”
“What’s the point?” says the 74-year-old artist. “Difference is what makes life interesting. I like not knowing quite what is round the corner.”
It was that exact feeling he had in the summer of 2012. The year had been a pretty miserable one and as June rolled into July there was no let up in the constant downpours. In need of a break, Peter, who has a home and studio in Danby, near Scarborough, had booked a fortnight away.
“I was going on a painting holiday with a few artist friends. I’m normally the one who does the driving, but as the day drew closer I was a bit doubtful as to whether my car was going to make it and I also didn’t feel particularly well. At the last minute I pulled out. It was strange because for the first time in a very long time I enjoyed a real sense of freedom. Everyone assumed I had gone away, so for two weeks the phone hardly rang and no one knocked at the door. I really was home alone.”
Relishing the silence, Peter holed himself up in his studio, turned up a recording of Horowitz playing Schumann and, as he does most days, began to paint. While always inspired by the landscapes of his home county, Peter has never been one for committing to canvas details of every blade of grass. Not even cows or sheep make it into his work. He describes his approach as the “right side of Picasso”, but while the paintings he created that summer shared that same abstract style, there was something very different about the finished work.
“It was just before the London Olympics and if you remember it has been very dark and drab. It really had been a dreadful few months, so dark and gloomy, but when I looked out of the window I suddenly noticed there were these incredible shafts of light penetrating the gloom.
“That was it. I started to paint and just couldn’t stop. I hadn’t had such an explosive period of work for years.”
Peter’s output was prolific. By the end of the fortnight he had 100 canvases, each capturing a different aspect of the light. They were to become the basis of his latest collection, which is currently on display at the Inspired by...gallery in the Moors National Park Centre. Not that he knew it at the time.
“There are some times when you really study a scene before making a mark. Not this time. It was as though the ideas were pouring out of my body. The best way to describe it was I felt like I’d dived in a swimming pool not knowing how to swim. I was putting colours onto a canvas, but I wasn’t really sure that it was working.
“As I was painting there was one voice telling me, ‘Peter, put the brush down, these are absolute rubbish’, but there was another which said, ‘No, they’re not, keep going’.”
Thankfully, Peter listened to the more encouraging voice in his head. Standing back to see the fruits of his labour, he eventually selected 25 canvases to develop further and he says now that he is convinced now that he has reached a kind of pinnacle in his career.
“My daughters are both artists and they are also very good critics. They never flatter me unnecessarily and I remember my youngest coming round to the house. When I showed her what I’d done, she said, ‘Dad, that’s the best work you’ve done in years’. That filled me with great confidence.”
Peter has been painting for as long as he can remember and it’s always been a way for him to interpret his surroundings.
“When I was younger I would come home from school and paint. On weekends I would paint and by the end of any school holidays I would have completed dozens of drawings. My dad was an actor so he had a creative side, but I do remember overhearing him and my mother one day saying, ‘What are we going to do with him?’ I think they were worried that I was somehow painting out of anxiety, but when they realised that wasn’t the case they were incredibly supportive.
“I remember going to the local library and devouring the series of Penguin Portraits on various artists. There was one on Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, but it was the book about the surrealist painter and war artist Paul Nash that I really loved.”
Nash wasn’t necessarily blessed with a surfeit of natural flair, but he diligently learnt the techniques which allowed him to express himself through painting. Peter says he adopted the same approach. After retiring early from teaching – for 20 years he was head of creative arts at Queen Elizabeth College in Darlington – at the age of 54, he went back to college, studying for an MA in Fine Art at Northumbria University.
“I needed to prove something to myself. The art world didn’t think landscape was still relevant in the 20th -century, let alone the 21st-century. The general thinking was that it had died in the 1900s. Amid the students who were into installation pieces and photography, I looked a bit old fashioned. However, I wasn’t to be dissuaded and I think by the end the sense of my own conviction had convinced them that just maybe there was something in landscape painting.”
While he might always have been drawn to the wilds of Yorkshire, there have been moments in his life when he has been particularly grateful for the escapism of the great outdoors.
Peter’s first wife died when his two girls were little and his second wife passed away 10 years ago. He refuses to paint his life in any particularly tragic light but admits he did find solace in the landscape.
“Those were obviously difficult times. The girls were very little and while I had wonderful support from my family there were some very long nights. I think some people thought there was a slight lack of humour in the house in those early days and they might have been right. However, they couldn’t say it now. The three of us have a wonderful relationship and whenever if my life I have felt down, being able to take out my brushes and paint has been a wonderful release.
“I do try to paint every day. In fact I’ve just come back from lunch with friends in Sleights and on the way back I drove back to the Esk Valley where I grew up. It’s not a place which changes very much, but as an artist I definitely see it differently as I get older.
“Some people say they can see something of Turner in my work, but I don’t get it myself. Yes, the mist might be dissolving the hills, but that’s the landscape doing the work not the artist.”
Unlike some artists, Peter’s studio door is always open. He admits there is still something of the teacher in him and he is always happy to share the lessons of his time at the easel. And now producing the best work of his career he’s an example to anyone who’s ever said they are too old to begin again.
As well as the show at the Moors National Park Centre, Peter is currently working on a number of other exhibitions and should he ever again feel that sense of freedom he did two summers ago he’ll be ready to make the most of it.
“Living in this part of the world, you are really blessed as as artist – go across the Pennines and there simply isn’t that variety of landscape that we have here. Friends thought that when I went to Cornwall for the first time I would become a convert. I do love the area, but there are some parts of it I just struggle to get. I think that unless I’ve stubbed my toe in a place, felt some physical connection, it’s impossible to feel that connection that I do when I open my front door in Yorkshire.”
Landscape for a Dark Summer will be at the Inspired by...gallery in Danby from April 4 to 11. On April 16, Peter will give a talk on the creative process from 2pm. Tickets are £3.50 and advance booking is recommended. Call 01439 772737 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org