The water is forever moving and nothing stays still. Colours come and go, lights flash one moment and are dark the next’

Nick Schlee: On Painting The Thames

Artist Nick Schlee’s paintings ‘Thames Barge’ and ‘Blackfriars Bridge, Red Pillars’ are being exhibited alongside historic Thames paintings selected by Illuminated River artist Leo Villareal, at Guildhall Art Gallery from 31st May – 1st September. Also on display are paintings by Frank Brangwyn and John Atkinson Grimshaw, and architectural drawings by Illuminated River architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands. This free exhibition runs alongside Guildhall Art Gallery’s ‘Architecture of London’ exhibition, and is part of the City of London’s ‘Fantastic Feats’ programme.

Nick Schlee stands in front of his Thames paintings displayed as part of the Illuminated River exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery.

You get the best views of the Thames standing on a bridge, yet often you can see another bridge in the distance that seems to beckon you closer. But getting there takes time and a route that distracts you with other views of the river which demand recording. So it was with ‘Thames Barges’. Rather than take the route to Blackfriars Bridge along the South Bank I wanted to look into the sun across the water which could only be done by dropping down along the embankment in front of Somerset House.

I was rewarded with the dazzle of light off the river. I purposely don’t shade my eyes, even when looking towards the sun, as my retinas seem to drown in the flashing reflections, the darks melding together in deep areas of colour, sometimes red predominating, sometimes blue. Very difficult to pin down but very exciting. If you shade your eyes you don’t get the same effect.

The problem then is how to put the sensations down on paper with oil pastel crayons, my usual on-the-spot medium. The result was a tangle of coloured ribbons and dashes of blue, red, yellow and white marks that filled the picture pretty well completely. There was a long green ribbon running along the top – a builder’s barrier that happily tied the composition together. The dark shape of the barges helped anchor the eye which was driven hither and thither across the page looking for somewhere to settle.

Thames Barge, by Nick Schlee

You might think it is night time, but that is because the buildings on the bank cast a dark shadow in the bright sun. And to accent the brightness of the colour reflections I have made the contrast between dark and light very strong so the effect seems to make it look like night time.

The drawing takes about thirty minutes of hard thinking. Unlike Van Gogh I don’t carry oil paints about but work in my studio from the sketch trying to capture all the excitement I experienced before the scene, in terms of oil paint and on a much bigger scale. The bigger the canvas the more you get the feel of being right there on the spot. The difficulty of this challenge needs all the energy that is in the small drawing.

But why all the squiggles of different colours? The reason is that the water is forever moving and nothing stays still. Colours come and go, lights flash one moment and are dark the next. I remember that, as I was painting the water, it reminded me of the lines in the ‘Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Coleridge Taylor about the water snakes he watched from the ship when it was becalmed. But although the marks look so unusual I thought them just right for describing the constant swirling waters.

So the solution seemed to me to not take one photographic moment and freeze the spots of light once and for all but to keep the eye moving over the surface of the picture, copying as close as possible the calligraphic stokes of coloured crayon this time in terms of paint. If the marks work in the sketch why not use them again if you can. The task for me is to produce a dazzling experience for the viewers eye, boundless agitation and sparkling energy, exactly the feeling I had looking towards the sun across the Thames.

Further towards the City I often stood on Blackfriars Bridge looking over towards the Blackfriars Railway Bridge. What caught my eye most were the mysterious red pillars grouped alongside the railway bridge.

Blackfriars Bridge, Red Pillars by Nick Schlee

I found out that they were relics from an old railway bridge that ceased to exist. They were left neatly painted as if ready to carry an invisible structure. They were a fascination for me and I produced a series of paintings of them close up and far away. Again the action was in the water below them. But this time I used more dashes than swirls because that met my idea of the water movement on the day. The snakes seem to have been reserved for the unique sensations I had painting the ‘Thames Barges’ picture.

Blackfriars Bridge, Red Pillars by Nick Schlee

Looking up underneath the railway bridge the same flickering reflections were there. But this time it wasn’t the full dazzling power of the sun igniting them. The treatment of paint is much quieter and allows the eye to look at the red pillars just beyond the arch and towards Blackfriars Road Bridge.

Blackfriars Bridge, by Nick Schlee

The pillars have now been incorporated into the midstream Blackfriars station as a readymade foundation for the platform. Not much chance to see them now in all their former glory.

Blackfriars Bridge, Red Pillars by Nick Schlee

Over the months I tried to travel the length of the Thames looking at it in all its moods, but I will never forget the river near its source. It was only a few yards wide hidden in a dark copse. The sun was out and dazzling as before. But this time it appeared a concentrated secret cauldron of boiling colour, the very same colours that appear in ‘Thames Barges’.

Nick Schlee, April 2019