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The magic of Melbury: artist Gary Cook shares his inspiration

Updated: Jan 16

We spoke to local artist Gary Cook about what inspires his work - instantly recognisable thanks to the astonishing light he manages to capture across our woodlands and landscapes.

The path

Ink, watercolour and charcoal, 30x20cm

What inspires you?

Melbury Beacon is a wonderful local landmark south of Shaftesbury and, luckily for me, it’s also right on my doorstep. It’s a favourite spot for me to work year-round, but when the low watery winter sun is peeking over the hillside it is particularly magical. I find myself drawn back time and again to the ash woodland on its steeply sloping northern side. The ever-changing light means it’s always different and often completely mesmeric.

I paint in situ, completing around 90% of the piece in one sitting. It is so peaceful up there on the Beacon and, usually, deserted too, which is helpful because it means I don’t get interrupted. Often, after a couple of hours, I suddenly realise that I am frozen because I haven’t moved at all but I hadn’t noticed because I am so absorbed in the process of capturing the subtlety shifting light and shadows. That’s when the flask of tea and cake come into their own.

Why trees and nature?

I’ve had an interest in trees and the environment since I was a teenager. I was a cross-country runner and used to train by running for miles through woodlands. I always felt a deep connection and a sense of wellbeing from being under the tree canopy. 

Before I earned my living standing in the woods painting/eating cake, I was an associate editor and the senior artist for The Sunday Times. I worked there for 26 years, often producing diagrams highlighting environmental problems. Covering news reports on climate change only intensified my concern for what’s happening to our planet. 

Does your work have an environmental message?

I know from my years in the newspaper industry that people are more adept at absorbing detailed information if it’s presented in a visual way. I now try and include environmental information in all my watercolours. Although I mainly paint trees I'm really concerned with how everything is being affected by our complicated relationship with and often detrimental impact on all of nature. For example, there are 1,058 species, from bats to beetles and lichens to mammals, that are dependent in some way on ash trees. Sadly, experts predict we will lose 90% of the UK’s 70m ash to an airborne fungus within the next few years. It will change some of our most iconic landscapes completely - including large areas of Dorset. It is horrifying to think that all these interconnecting species will also be affected by the gradual death of the trees.

I try not to be too militant and keep the often-depressing information in the background of the watercolours so that the viewer has an emotional response to the painting initially and can discover the messages only if they want to look deeper into the artwork. Producing these paintings really isn't just an excuse to stand among the trees, pretend that I’m working and eat lots of cake. 

Edge of the wood

Ink, watercolour and charcoal, 30x20cm

About Gary

Gary Cook has exhibited with the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour (RI), the RWA, the RBA, The Arborealists and is a member of the Society of Graphic Fine Arts.

He is represented by theartstable.co.uk kevishouse.com and johndaviesgallery.com

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