Published on February 17, 2014 | by Catherine Van De Stouwe

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Going underground

Ross Ashmore working on his paintings of underground stations in his studio

Hard work and determination has helped Ross Ashmore complete his extensive urban landscape documentary. [Jason Lock]

ALN’s Catherine Van De Stouwe meets artist Ross Ashmore and learns about the exhaustive process of painting all of the capital’s underground stations.

It may have taken three years but, at his studio in Hertfordshire, Ross Ashmore has finished painting all 267 stations of the London Underground for his new exhibition Underground Art.

Ashmore has always had a passion for art,being able to explain in paint what he could not in words. With a degree in Fine Art from Bristol University, he went commercial. After working in illustration for several years, he then took up graphic design for nearly two decades, though he says Fine Art never left him.

Starting in 2010, the task of putting each underground station to canvas sounded easier than the reality: “The awful truth is I did not know there were so many. I did five or six, then seven or eight, and thought, ‘how many are there?’ I began to count them and then realised.”

“The worst part of starting is you know you have to finish, otherwise you fail. Could I face failure? Could I face not doing it? No.”

By March 2013 he had completed the stations in Zones 1-4: “It could have taken less [than three years], but I had to be satisfied with it. [Each canvas] would take, on average,one-and-a-half days. The only reason I did them in a day is that I wanted them to be spontaneous. I did not want realism to make them too photo-realistic.”

Ashmore painting of underground station

Each piece painting shows the architectural significance of each station. [Ross Ashmore]

Hard work and determination has helped Ashmore complete his extensive urban landscape documentary. To help him paint without distraction,he visits the stations and uses photography to document the area.

He has also discovered that a little help from Google means he does not have to remain on location to paint: “[Using] Street View you get some great shots; it takes photographs you can never take yourself from the street.”

After creating his photo composite of the stations – either from Google or his own images – a rough sketch is created: “The sketch that I work from is the shorthand really. I did not want to refer to the photograph too much so they had that spontaneous feel. I worked the structure of the painting out on the canvas from the sketch; once done I then looked at the photo for reference.I let my sketch dictate [the painting].”

The London underground is the heart that keeps the capital moving, and with the ever-changing urban landscape around it, the network is something that is continually evolving.

“My paintings are of the year 2013. In ten or 20 years time, it is going to be different because London is changing so much. I wanted to record London at that moment; they are documentary paintings. As far as I am concerned, they’re for historical significance, for future generations to look back on. They are going to reflect the feeling there was at the time.”

Architectural

“The worst part of starting is you know you have to finish, otherwise you fail. Could I face failure? Could I face not doing it? No.” Ross Ashmore

Painting the Underground does not necessarily mean painting the outside of the station building.

Each station has its own architectural significance and the surrounding scenes captures the everyday hustle and bustle of busy commuters.

“It sounds terribly boring doing a painting of stations, and it would be if they were paintings of stations; they are all scenes of London that happen to have a station in them,” Ashmore explains.

“It is voyeurism; bobbing up from one place to another, you do not quite know what to expect; bumping, knocking against one another yet there is not really that much contact. On the Underground, you do not really get to know anybody – you are a stranger in a crowd. I quite like the concept of trying to [show] little cameos in all the paintings; for example, someone looking at someone else.”

Ashmore’s heavily impasto style of painting means his work is often compared to that of Vincent Van Gogh.

When speaking about the intensity of completing the project, it would seem his style is not the only thing that can be compared with Van Gogh, proving that painting as a livelihood is not easy: “I am always adrenaline driven. One of the awful truths is actually the anxiety. Most people think painting is a hobby, something you can enjoy, [but] I find it traumatic.”

“I feel fearful about the Van Gogh psychology because I feel similar to him. I have the anxiety that I feel he had. I feel I can understand where he was coming from when he wanted Gauguin to come down and form an art group. He wanted to inspire other artists and I want to do that, But he became so obsessive in what he was doing in his own mind that I worry about mine. It is not easy. There is a strange line between the artist’s mind and the insanity where it becomes a kind of obsessive thing, as you so want [the piece] to work.”

Painting of Euston underground station

Ashmore has now completed paintings of all 267 stations [Ross Ashmore]

Yet, unlike Van Gogh, Ashmore has his wife and three children, who kept him motivated and centred throughout the project.

Having only recently completed the monumental task of capturing the 267 London underground stations, his mind is already thinking of the next project: “Having pushed myself to do it, I’m in a place where I ask myself, ‘do I want to push myself again to do something quite as big as that?’”

“What I thought I would do is to paint all the bridges along the Thames. I want to do them as a panoramic so you [can] line them all up and it is a continual loop.”

Just as Van Gogh’s periods moved from darkness into light, make sure you don’t miss Ashmore’s underground exploration before he moves on to the higher constructions of bridges over the Thames.

Ashmore’s exhibition, Underground Art, runs until February 28 at Oxford House Gallery.

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