Inspired by Africa, Leonardo and Monet

Throughout August my works will be featured as Artist of the Month in the SCA's ArtHouse Gallery in Southport. The selection of work on show is inspired by the people, places and concepts that have inspired me for more than half a century.


Angela Birchall

8/4/20235 min read

I should have called this exhibition “Inspired by Peter Birch, Africa, Leonardo and Monet” because it all began with Peter Birch.

I was so lucky that as a teenager I got a place at Salisbury School of Art which was owned and run by Peter who was the most inspirational artist and teacher one could ever wish for. He taught us a myriad of drawing and painting disciplines and techniques and then inspired us to firmly believe that we could draw or paint anything. No fewer than 48 years later I’m still drawing and painting and still loving it. I’m also still using his teaching methods to help my students to realise that they, too, really CAN draw and paint.

I was also lucky that I grew up in southern and central Africa where I was surrounded by the most incredible landscapes from deserts, mountains, and rocky outcrops to the African bush and blue Cape rollers crashing onto white sandy beaches. Then add the amazing variety of creatures that inhabited those landscapes and you have a never-ending source of inspiration for your art.

As an artist, there’s nothing better to teach you about colours than watching an African sunrise or sunset change into either the sharp, bright, sunny daytime colours or the intense midnight blue dotted with diamonds of an African night sky. There’s no better way of teaching you to mix those colours than the discipline I was taught by Peter at art school in Rhodesia of only using the primary colours plus black and white.

On moving to UK and going to art college in Southport, then on to do my art teaching degree, that love of colours and the effects of changing light led me to a lifelong love of the French Impressionists, especially Claude Monet.

For five years I lived in Normandy only a few hours drive from Monet’s last home in Giverny, the location of his famous lily ponds. The first time I visited I felt like I had learned more about what he was striving to achieve in his work after 40 minutes sat in front of the lily ponds than I had in 40 years of studying him in books!

As well as being inspired by Monet, an even earlier influence on my work, which has also had a lifelong effect, is that of the genius Leonardo da Vinci. I started studying his books of anatomical drawings to improve my figure drawing when I was still a teenage art student in Rhodesia, pairing it with the techniques of shading and the discipline of really looking at what we were drawing that Peter instilled in us.

Later on I learned Leonardo’s technique of chiaroscuro in the placing of lights and darks to create three-dimensionality in a 2D image and have always used it in combination with Monet’s work to depict light and shade. That’s the reason my solo exhibition last month was called “Chiaroscuro”. While in France, I was only a few hours drive from Leonardo’s last home, the Château du Clos Lucé, and that is another truly inspiring place to visit.

Throughout August my work is on show in the side window display as “Artist of the Month” for Southport Contemporary Arts at their ArtHouse Gallery in Eastbank Street, Southport.

The selection of work on show is inspired by the people, places and concepts that have inspired me for more than half a century. The display will change during the month but it starts with this trio as being the most appropriate:

First is the “Trio of Gemsbok in the early morning in the Kalahari Desert” taking me back to early childhood years in that desert. This painting uses tinted charcoal paints to capture the smoky colours as night begins to give way to the first rays of the sun starting to clip the knife-sharp edges of the sand dunes. The warm colours of the early morning sunlight were created using watercolours. The Gemsbok – usually called Oryx outside of Africa – were familiar sights in any of the countries I lived in around the southern tip of that amazing continent.

The second picture had to be a figure drawing in light of the time I spent at art school with Peter honing my drawing skills and getting my eye “in” to both see and depict what I was looking at. I have, however, done a change in gender because this was a more recent figure study while as an art student we were always drawing the incredibly well muscled gardener Morgan who could be guaranteed to hold a pose perfectly for at least an hour.

The third one in the present display is playing with the effects of light and when you put it into a night-time setting and add water reflections it gives you marvellous scope for depicting those effects. It’s “Reflections of Albert Dock at Night” and is done in pastels based on photographs that I took of the scene one winter evening when I had gone to watch Charlotte Dujardin doing a demonstration riding her superstar Valegro. And yes, it was in Africa that I first got my love of horses and horse riding.

I aim to change the window display during my period as “Artist of the Month” and I want to include this watercolour of a misty morning in London in tribute to Monet. I will also change the pastel drawing to another one that plays with light and shade but whose subject takes me back to my childhood days playing with members of the big cat family. The third change will be to swap the seated figure for a ballerina performing on stage.

Finally, there’s another special link from my past inspiration to my current art work. The other half of my art business is “You CAN draw and paint” teaching drawing and painting using those well honed skills and techniques first taught to me nearly half a century ago on the other side of the globe.

For two of the weeks that my work is on display the rest of the gallery will be filled with the work of ten of my art students. Their exhibition “We CAN draw and paint” runs from Tuesday August 8th to Saturday August 19th. It is the first time that any of them have ever exhibited their work in public so I am delighted they have stepped up to the challenge and am more proud of them than they can possibly know.