English Gardens: Painting Vivid Color and Structure

Oil painter Louis Turpin brings an architectural eye and a sense of abstraction to capture the vibrant life of English gardens and landscapes.

By John A. Parks

Deep in the Garden (oil on canvas, 26×28) by Louis Turpin

British artist Louis Turpin makes oil paintings that bring the experience of being in a garden right onto the gallery wall. He recreates the luscious colors of blooms and foliage in English gardens in vibrant layers of paint while rendering forms, from flowers to leaves to trees, with a graphic clarity.

For Turpin, the illusion of three dimensions is always secondary to the demands of the painting in its primary role as a flat object. The resulting pictures have an immediacy that plunges the viewer into all that is best in gardens — flowers, views and architectural features — without wearing them down with anything approaching labored rendering. Rather than describing a garden, the paintings seem to stand in for the garden itself. A lightness of spirit pervades the work, a sense that the paintings were a pleasure to do.

Wildflowers from Rubble

Cold Frames (oil on canvas, 24×30) by Louis Turpin

“When I walk around a garden, I like to get deep into it,” says Turpin, whose search for subjects has taken him all over the British Isles. “It’s quite an intense experience; it’s actually communing. I’m finding something that just makes it, for me, a place where I can see the future painting. I know I’ll move things around, but in this first moment I’m arriving at a concept for the painting.”

Turpin’s strong feelings for nature and English gardens began during his childhood in London, after World War II. “There were a lot of bomb sites in the section I grew up in,” he recalls. “They became expanses of wildflowers, growing out of the rubble. They were very beautiful in many ways.”

Groundwork

Turpin begins a painting with pencil drawings done on site. “This involves both recording the subject and moving areas around on the paper to construct the painting,” he says. “Eventually I have a firm feeling for the painting, which I take to the studio. There I make an abstractly blocked-in underpainting. I have at times close to 20 of these alla prima paintings on the walls of my studio, which means that when one painting is finished, I already have another ready to start. Usually, I then work this second stage through to completion.”

These underpaintings tend to be loose. “I’m placing the tonal value but also establishing the structure,” he says. “To all intents and purposes, my underpaintings look like abstract paintings. They’re areas of color that overlap but don’t involve linearity.”

Activating Color

Red Bus Eaton Square (oil on canvas, 14×16) by Louis Turpin

Another part of Turpin’s underpainting strategy is to activate the color throughout the work. “Sometimes I’ll put down the complementary color of an element, and then I’ll often put a red under the sky,” he says. This allows for lively color action when the overpainting is in place. Leaving gaps or a degree of transparency in the top coat gives the color vibrancy as the opposing hues shimmer against each other. Occasionally the artist will simply keep the red in the sky, reinforcing it with a few more reds for greater richness.

A Layer of Gold Leaf

Turpin has a further underpainting strategy; in some paintings he initially establishes areas with a layer of gold leaf. “Some paintings demand it,” he says. “Sometimes I use quite a lot and sometimes just a spot. I’m particularly fond of moon gold, a really lovely transfer gold.”

The artist uses the modern transfer method, in which the gold leaf has a paper backing so that it can be pressed down onto a surface treated with Japan gold size. Removing the paper when the size has set reveals the gold. This is less risky than the traditional method of floating the sheet of metallic leaf onto a prepared surface.

Turpin may paint over much of the gold, leaving little gaps and small sections that flash with reflected light. “The gold gives this different kind of life to the painting,” he says. “It has a depth all its own. The other thing about gold is that sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t. From one angle the gold will disappear, and then it comes back. It’s just another element of the painting — one that gives it intricacy and depth.”

Clear Shapes, Saturated Color

Foxgloves at Painswick (oil on canvas, 18×16) by Louis Turpin

While Turpin keeps his underpaintings loose, he establishes the final layers with clear shapes and almost-hard edges. He simplifies trees, flowers and structures, honing them into clearly readable outlines. He uses highly saturated color and enjoys dynamic color oppositions, with brilliant oranges juxtaposed to strong turquoises or powerful violets sitting next to glorious yellows.

Sign-Writing Brushes

Liveliness and freshness are important and winning qualities in Turpin’s paintings of English gardens. While he achieves most of the shape-making with broad, soft brushes, he also uses traditional sign-writing brushes to create long, delicate lines weaving in and out of the. “Sign-writing brushes have marvelous properties,” Turpin says. “Some of the shapes are very long and thin, and they hold a great deal of paint so that you can pull one line for a very long way.” He’ll also group dots or dashes to suggest texture. Sometimes these read as smaller elements, such as stamens, branches, or flower petals.

English Gardens, Rooted in Abstraction

Higher Garden With Topiary (oil on canvas, 13×14) by Louis Turpin

The curiously hybrid nature of Turpin’s paintings, working as both descriptive scenes and almost abstract objects, grew from the artist’s early efforts. Turpin initially produced abstract work. He changed to representational art fairly quickly, but his earlier approach still holds an influential sway. His sense of the painting as an object in its own right is very strong. “I always quite like having some element that’s very recognizable as just an object — something that says ‘this is paint on a two-dimensional surface.’ ”

The success of Turpin’s approach is visible in Higher Garden With Topiary, above, in blooms and plants occupy the lower part of the piece. Rendered as clear shapes with added delicate lines and touches, they seem to exist right on the picture plane. In the upper half of the painting, the viewer sees beyond the blooms to a grouping of elaborate topiary hedges. These, too, exist in the painting as more or less flat shapes. Beyond them, the horizon, with a glimpse of sea and a swath of sky, has a similar directness. The unlikely sky color, a deep violet with a slightly pinker violet scumbled on top, inhabits the same color world as the blooms below. The nearly square format of the canvas further asserts the objecthood of the painting.

An Architectural Eye

New Square Towards RCJ [Royal Courts of Justice] (oil on canvas, 24×22) by Louis Turpin

In other paintings the artist allows himself more perspectival depth, as in New Square Towards the RCJ, above. Dense foliage in the foreground adjoins a railing that leads the eye steeply backward in space. The background includes the facade of a building, beyond which the towers of the Royal Courts of Justice rise. Turpin has simplified the architecture, with its geometry of rectangles and pyramidal roof forms making a counterpoint to the natural forms of the English garden in the foreground. Although it’s hard to see in reproduction, various areas of gold leaf glint through from the underpainting.

Turpin’s taste for architectural structure is on dramatic display in Cold Frames (near top of page) in which the grouping of gardeners’ cold frames becomes a grid containing plants and blooms. Beyond them, hedges and houses create a further set of geometric shapes. Note how every element in the painting has a rich color gradient built into it as overpainting and underpainting play against each other.

Gardens That Change

The Secret Path (oil on canvas, 12×24) by Louis Turpin

Asked what his favorite kind of garden is, Turpin replies, “I like gardens that change.”

Certainly, a sense of movement, progression and surprise inhabit his work, along with an enormous pleasure in the sensuality of form and the wealth of color. “People recognize that in the paintings,” says Turpin. “I think that’s what they respond to, a positivity to them that makes everything come together.”


The Artist’s Toolkit

  • CANVAS: 12-ounce cotton duck primed with acrylic primer
  • PAINTS: oils by C. Roberson & Co., Schmincke, and Winsor & Newton
  • MEDIUM: Winsor & Newton distilled turpentine
  • BRUSHES: various sable brushes with a preference for wedge and chisel shapes, and a selection of sign-writing brushes
  • LEAF MATERIALS: Japan gold size and gold transfer leaf

Meet the Artist

LOUIS TURPIN was born and raised in London. After an early interest in architecture, he studied art at Guildford School of Art and Falmouth School of Art. He has worked as a full-time painter since 1985. Turpin has exhibited widely in the United Kingdom and abroad, and his work has appeared at Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions as well as at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ Annual Exhibitions. To learn more, visit louisturpin.com.

JOHN A. PARKS is a painter, a writer and a member of the faculty of the School of Visual Arts, in New York. Learn more at johnaparks.com.

A version of this article first appeared in Artists Magazine.  

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