Painting with Light, Richard Welsby - Vital Signs

February 2002

Publication: The Times

Richard Welsby — Notes

“Painting with Light”

The Orkney-based artist Richard Welsby takes the process of photography into new areas, and delineates an artistic territory  created from a synthesis of painting and photography.

The process involves applying light-sensitive photographic emulsion to the surface of textured water-colour paper.  This is a clear solution which, necessarily, must be applied in darkroom conditions.  Once treated Welsby then projectes the negative onto the paper and produces the image using standard darkroom techniques.  However, Welsby’s intervention becomes apparent in two ways, over and above that of standard photographic practice.  Firstly, the image materialises only on those areas of the paper onto which the emulsion has been applied.  The resultant effect is that the photographically generated image gives the impression of having been painted.  The second form of manipulation involves the use of a light-pen,  which Welsby uses as he is processing the image.  In this way, he can be said to be painting with light, quite literally, in that areas of the image are altered in tone and contrast.  Usually, however, Welsby confines this use of the light pen to a simple framing device. 

Photography, is by now, a long established tradition and there are, therefore, precedents for Welsby’s techniques.  For example, before the advent of manufactured photgraphic paper, glass plates were routinely applied with light-sensitive emulsion to create the negative plate from which prints were then derived.  The surrealists, too, took the photography to new levels of exploration— Man Ray’s ‘Rayograms’ being one example.  Welsby’s interest in an acknowledging these precedencts was reflected in aproject to investigate the history of the photographic chemistry —funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry — which he undertook last year.

But what is interesting about Welsby’s images is their studied variety and the sense in which through constant experimentation, he has perfected a style and technique which he has made his own.    The great majority of the images are derived from natue, mostly plants and trees, which Welsby has photographed in various locations, including his adopted home in Orkney where he has lived for more than 20 years.

Although the eye immediately tries to identify these images, and to place labels on them, they are, more importantly, forms — abstract, though often identifiable.  These are therefore not images/photographs of things, per se, but interpretations of underlying pattern, tonality and shape. But they also carry an emotional charge. Although deeply subjective, they can be described as explorations of fine beauty; they are delicate, perhaps, epherial, but never fey or whimsical.


Richard Welsby

Vital Signs

Aberdeen Art Gallery



Until August 19

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