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Artist Mike Rollins: painting tomorrow’s past

PUBLISHED: 11:34 26 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:34 26 February 2018

From Yorkshire to Herts, Mike Rollins is entranced by landscape, history and nature. Sandra Smith met the painter in his garden shed studio in Hitchin

The disparity between a wild northern environment and the tameness of a Hertfordshire market town makes an artistic relationship between two such diverse locations improbable. But Mike Rollins isn’t someone limited by expectations. In fact, his Yorkshire upbringing and adopted county both influence a portfolio which encompasses gentle scenery, nature’s construction and close up gothic intensity.

‘I grew up in Halifax, a stone’s throw from where Ted Hughes was brought up, and the Brontës. Hertfordshire is a pretty county with lots of rolling fields and farmland though I find myself gravitating to gnarled old trees for their deep sense of character and history. I quite enjoy the darker side because an image needs an element of mystery. I like to engage someone so they can walk into a painting.’

I met the artist in Hitchin in his converted garden shed with bifold doors that open to views of the Chiltern Hills. The 48-year-old is on a high. His acrylic of London’s City streets, The Working Hour, recently won the St Cuthberts Mill Award and he’s twice been selected as a wildcard on Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year where he enjoyed ‘festival-like camaraderie’ and the approval of judge Tai-Shan Schierenberg for using a square canvas. He’s no stranger to the big screen either, at least behind the scenes.

‘In my teens I was into films and archaeology. I did a set design degree and ended up working on Indiana Jones films. I spent 10 years at Elstree Studios.’

Initially Mike painted in parallel with his day job until, a couple of years ago, the lure of becoming an artist tipped the balance.

‘I want to produce work that is from myself,’ he explains. ‘I had a body of work which I desperately wanted to promote and earn some money from.’

History recurs throughout Mike’s paintings, and our conversation. An awareness of the present one day becoming the past infiltrates his thinking. For instance, he suggests mobile phones will become archaeological artefacts studied by future societies. His images also encompass storytelling, such as in his painting, Roots.

‘Roots came from a sketch in Mardley Woods (near Knebworth) where a series of beech trees look as though they’re walking across the landscape. I liked the shapes – they told a story to a land beyond. I wouldn’t give a title which suggests exactly what the painting is about, people should have their own response to it.’

Mike uses photography as a preliminary source and dismisses the stigma attached to this, justifying its use alongside sketching. In his studio he works on thumbnail sketches, playing around with a scene and deciding on climatic conditions before beginning a full-scale final piece.

‘I don’t necessarily paint the scene as I see it. A ruined castle might look better with mist and moonlight even if it’s a sunny day so I decide what kind of weather to introduce. Probably the idea comes to me as I’m painting. I start with a paint sketch which develops organically. I don’t quite know how it will end up, though I have an idea of colour schemes.’

Having originally been drawn to watercolours, and with oils and pastels future possibilities, Mike is currently committed to acrylics for their texture and intensity of colour. The money he spends on brushes varies, the mark he’s making taking precedence over the cost of the tool. Good quality paints are acknowledged for their pigment yet cheaper varieties, including emulsion, are sometimes added as a mixing agent.

He cites influences from ‘shedloads’ of artists including Gainsborough for his loose and free landscapes, Yorkshire’s Ashley Jackson whose dark and stormy skies are admired, and John Martin’s biblical scenes, a tribute to drama and atmosphere. 
A reflection of his work in the movie industry, he says that film and concept art are underrated. His ultimate aim is to combine his design background with his new career to create 3D installations.

Meanwhile, teaching sessions at Letchworth Settlement involve self-analysis of his methods in order to make them accessible to students. This process of defining his methods helps informs his style.

‘I did a demo at Hitchin Art Club which was a good exercise,’ he explains. ‘Breaking down the process into simplified sections surprised me.’

Right now a series to reflect the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Brontë is in the pipeline. The Wuthering Heights author taught at a school in the village where Mike grew up and where a local character inspired Heathcliff. His appreciation of Herts’ quintessential home counties aura is never in doubt. On the other hand, there’s no escaping childhood influences.