James Hugonin's studio in Northumberland, England

Exhibition Surface Tensions at Norwich Castle 2004
James Hugonin (left) Barnett Newman (centre & right)

James Hugonin’s studio lies at the foot of the Cheviot Hills, within fifteen miles of Lindisfarne and the North Sea. Planned and designed by himself, the studio is neat and ordered. From a large east-facing window a varied and changing landscape unfolds, at times paradoxically flattened, due perhaps to the delineation of the land by dry stone walling and the low horizon near the coast. In the air and in the light one can sense the proximity of the sea. The weather and the light are all pervasive.

Hugonin talks with quiet passion about his work and his aims in pursuing, so single-mindedly, his career as a painter. He describes the act of painting as a “very individual thing, the heart of which is to find out more about what you are as a person. You have to respond to your own sensibility and try to nurture that and work from it.” Clearly, for Hugonin, the influence of the Northumberland landscape is a critical element in his work. He felt drawn to the Cheviots because of the quality of the light in that part of the world. It is, he says, “important for me to go out on the hills and just look at, and be absorbed by, real light and real things.” Painting for him is not a purely intellectual activity, but firmly rooted in his perception of the real world. He is fascinated by the way light moves through the landscape, momentarily accentuating areas which are thereafter left in deep shadow, producing a constant rhythmic change. The eye is drawn across the landscape and back again as the surface of the ground shimmers and shifts

Hugonin’s work is evocative of this experience. He paints onto wood with a gesso ground into which he inscribes, in silver point, a grid. With each series of brush strokes he works methodically over the painting in rhythmic arcs of individual colours. Multiple and inter-related groups of these marks, made from the wrist, are slowly developed over a period of months. Eventually, they coalesce, revealing waves of tonal modulations, so intricate and delicate that they seem constantly to shift and hover. The lack of a focal point, an important element in Hugonin’s work, is significant characteristic of twentieth century painting. It was an approach which Claude Monet for instance, mastered in his environmental waterlily paintings. Light, and its momentary modulation, was a lifelong obsession of Monet’s.

Through his own work Hugonin aims to create “something that is moving, and yet something totally still and poised; something where the whole painting is almost alive”. His paintings describe subtle almost mesmeric, sort of movement, and understated visual shimmer. His work glows with a latent energy; his paintings almost breathe.

Another key element in Hugonin’s painting lies in his celebration of the role of playfulness. For Hugonin, as for the Swiss painter, Paul Klee – clearly a source of inspiration – nature is a dynamic, creative force. Through the playful experimentation of the artist, nature’s magical transformations are made more visible. The artist is, indeed, a part of nature’s creative process; the aim, in Klee’s words, “an exactitude winged by intuition.”



However. Unlike Klee, who chose an almost theatrical form to develop his own particular sensibility, Hugonin has chosen an altogether different form. He recognises that the structure of the grid which he imposes on his work, also paradoxically, frees him from many of painting’s requirements. The use of the grid is like a ground base in the music of J S Bach and Arvo Pärt. It is a formal structure which allows him to express, and experiment with, his feelings and experiences. Hugonin responds to the work of the American artist, Mark Rothko, who similarly used elegant formal devices to free colour and tone from a narrative role. Rothko was an artist who felt committed to working on a grand scale with large areas of sonorous colour, to create paintings that were not, in his own words “grandiose and pompous” but “very intimate and human.” Hugonin acknowledges, and deeply respects, this ambition but his own sensibility is also drawn to the work and writing of the English artist, Kenneth Martin, who wrote, “In the work of art, scale is more important that size… Things themselves, their relationship together and that of the parts, are all related to us, to the different parts of our sense. The touch of the palm is different from that of the fingers while the eye can explore both near and far… Miniaturisation can hold the attention as much as the large edifice – similarly and differently… We are not satisfied with the open stare but need the inquisitive look as well. On the large desolate plain one looks for a point of interest. The eye can go where the touch cannot and can adjust itself to a new scale.”1

Surprisingly, Hugonin is not passive when talking in front of his painting, which have more to do with gesture and touch than might at first seem apparent in work using such a seemingly rigid structure. Indeed, like many ‘gestural’ abstract artists, his hand moves across the surface of the work as he describes the importance of words such as ‘dancing’ and ‘light’. He clearly feels totally involved in his work. The paintings fluctuate between order and randomness, embracing contradictions, creating a tension, an uneasiness – all characterised by the way Hugonin paints. For, rather like a watercolour artist, Hugonin’s marks have to be right first time. Although the rhythms are built up gradually, there is little room for error, as Hugonin seldom repaints areas – his method does not allow for this indulgence.

Although the making of paintings is a very private and personal occupation it is also natural to want them to be shared. The unique quality of painting, which sets it apart from other art forms, is the possibility of seeing the work in its whole complete form in one moment, while at the same time being conscious of the painting’s development in its separate parts. Hugonin’s method of painting exploits this, for while you become lost in its immediate, shimmering quality, the mind and eye gradually sense the multitude of complex rhythms, built up over time. Hugonin recognises that the paintings, at a cursory glance, might appear as “large yellow rectangles on a wall. However, if the viewer is able to make slight adjustment in thinking and looking, it is possible to become completely involved in what is going on, creating a new way of seeing something differently… My paintings need time to be fully realised by someone looking at them, for, because of their complexity, you cannot really absorb them all in one go.”

Michael Collier
(Catalogue essay for the ‘New North’ touring exhibition, Tate Gallery, Liverpool, 2000)

1 ‘Construction and Movement.’
Art International, Summer 1967

Untitled XI
oil/wax on board [detail]
170.8cm x 152.6cm
Private Collection, courtesy Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

(Photographed by Hyjdla Kosaniuk Innes)


“In all Philosophy there is not so darke a thing as light; as the sunne, which is fons lucis naturalis, the beginning of naturall light, is the most evident thing to bee seen, and yet the hardest to be looked upon, so is naturall light to our reason and understanding. Nothing clearer, for it is clearness it selfe, nothing darker, it is enwrapped in so many scruples. Nothing nearer, for it is round about us, nothing more remote, for wee know neither entrance nor limits of it. Nothings more easie, for a child discerns it, nothing more hard, for no man understands it. It is apprehensible by sense, and not comprehensible by reason. If wee winke, wee cannot chuse but see ii, if wee stare, wee know it never the better. No man is yet got so neare to the knowledge of the qualities of light, as to know whether light it selfe be quality, or a substance

John Donne (1573-1631


Untitled XI
oil/wax on board [detail]
170.8cm x 152.6cm
Private Collection, courtesy Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

(Photographed by Hyjdla Kosaniuk Innes)

James Hugonin's paintings are composed of marks of close toned colour with an underlying grid, each mark shifting slightly from its neighbour and building to a rhythmic whole. These are deeply subtle paintings with an understated clarity: quietly musical and filled with a kind of contained light that relates keenly to the place in which they are made. There is a slow and deliberate ‘colour notation’ that forms an integral part of the making of each work. As Michael Harrison has observed, ‘the paintings carry with them that pace, that slowness, that sense of time. They ask us to slow down, and to look, and to settle as we would to listen to a piece of music, allowing time to take effect – to acknowledge that, for all their quietness and stillness, our relationship to them is one of continual change’. A selection of his work made over the last 15 years will be shown at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, in 2006, touring to the Baltic in Gateshead.


1950 Born in Barnard Castle, Co. Durham
1970-71 Winchester School of Art
1971-74 West Surrey College of Art & Design
1974-75 Chelsea School of Art
1998 Associate Research Fellow, University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne
Lives and works in Northumberland

Selected solo exhibitions since 1985

2006 De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, UK (touring to Baltic,Gateshead)
2002 Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, UK
1997 Marlene Eleini Gallery, London, UK
1996 Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK
Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, UK
Cairn Gallery, Nailsworth, UK
1994 Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, UK
1993-94 Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
1993 Berwick Gymnasium Art Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, UK
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland
1991 Serpentine Gallery, London, UK
1990 Pier Art Gallery, Stromness, Orkney, UK
1987 Galerie Hoffmann, Friedberg, Switzerland
1986 Cairn Gallery, Nailsworth, UK
1985 Coracle Gallery, London, UK
Graeme Murray Gallery, Edinburgh, UK
Artspace, Aberdeen, Scotland
Bede Gallery, Jarrow, UK

Selected group exhibitions since 1985

2004 Surface Tensions, Norwich Castle, UK
2003 White, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, UK
2002 Abstraction, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, UK
2001-02 Bezugssysteme, Galerie Hoffmann, Friedberg, Switzerland
2001 It must be Abstract, It Must Change, It Must Give Pleasure, TheCollections of Ronnie Duncan and Greville Worthington, York CityArt Gallery, UK
British Abstract Painting 2001 Flowers East Gallery, London, UK
2000 Fourfold, Gorcums Museum, Gorinchem, Netherlands
1999 Jerwood Painting Prize, Jerwood Gallery, London, UK
Hommage to Vordemberge-Gildewart, Kunsthaus Dominikanerkirche, Osnabruck, Germany
1998 Geometric Abstraction, Galerie Konstruktiv Tendens, Stockholm, Sweden
1997 A Quality of Light, Tate Gallery, St Ives, UK
1996 British Abstract Art, Flowers East Gallery, London, UK
1995 The Science of Vision, Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle, UK
1990Now to the Future, Hayward Gallery, London, UK
New North, Tate Gallery, Liverpool, UK (touring)
1989The Experience of Painting, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, UK (touring)
1988 The Presence of Painting, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, UK (touring)
1987 Galerie Lupke, Frankfurt, Germany
1986 A Painterly Approach - Artists in Print, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, UK

Arts Council of England, London, UK
Arthur Anderson Associates, London, UK
Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK
Contemporary Art Society, London, UK
Global Asset Management, London, UK
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK
Mondriaanhuis Archive90 Collection, Amersfoort
University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Sheffield City Art Galleries, Sheffield, UK
Simmons and Simmons, London, UK
Tate Gallery, London, UK
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK