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Neil Dixon on tones, shadows and shapes

Neil Dixon won our Strathmore Artist Papers award for Drawing at the Society of Graphic Fine Art exhibition this year with his "Reflections of White Cliffs". It's a beautiful drawing that conjures the breaking waves, with a fluid architectural monochrome rendering that evokes the sound and air of the sea. Now based in Margate, we catch up with him and ask him about how he created the piece and he reveals how drawing is vital to painting.

neil dixon reflections of white cliffs drawing

Can you tell us a bit about the winning image? 

Reflections of White Cliffs is from a short series inspired while standup paddle boarding around the east Kent coast. Many artists are drawn to the white cliffs that dominate this coastline, but I was interested in the immediate affect they have on the sea, both visually and physically. Waves bounce off the near vertical cliffs and create unusual, and sometimes challenging wave patterns. The reflections of the chalk faces and dark recesses create unique tonal forms in the water.

Drawing en plein air on the water on such an unstable platform is almost impossible - I do have a small wet sketch kit, but it has limitations. So I worked from memory, photographs, video and sound. To help maintain expressive movement in the drawing marks, I surrounded myself with various images of the water, and played video and sound recorded on location.

In this case I picked a single image as the primary moment, using several digital variations to reveal hidden forms - because the image quality from my waterproof camera is not ideal. I then added further images from around the same time, from which I might pull a particular wave form, highlight, or reflection, or which help to reveal other elements of the scene.

This method of surrounding myself with images and sounds helps to retain an honesty and truth about the subject. It offers a wealth of additional information to work with in the studio and help overcome areas of the primary image that might be lacking, or requiring tonal or compositional adjustment.

When did you start as an artist? Were you always sketching and drawing, or did it come later in life?

I have drawn since an early age. I remember having coloured chalks and a small blackboard on which I would repeatedly draw and erase, refining how I rendered each subject. 

I began professional life as an illustrator, working in publishing and news. I embraced the rise of computers to manage creative workflows, then became interested in the world-wide-web, creating my first websites in 1996. That drew me into more technical disciplines, and I found a parity between some of my creative processes and those required by writing code.

In recent years the call of visual creative work has become louder, so I am revisiting old skills and exploring new ideas, with the aim of moving increasingly in that direction. Earning a living as an artist is extremely difficult, so I am grateful for my other skills which offer me the chance to develop my visual creative work.

neil dixon towards cambeak 850pxhFrom the portfolio on your site, looks like you are fascinated by tones, shadows, shapes, light, dark. Where did this come about, anything inspire you in the beginning or did you morph into that?

Form is of primary importance to me, and form is revealed by value. Remove the colour from an image, and we still recognise form. Remove the values, and our minds struggle to comprehend the remaining colour.

Drawing is immediate. The marks are expressive, either through intent or some material influence, and the wide range of tools, processes and techniques offer endless possibilities.

I like to blur the distinction between “drawing” and “painting”. Too often drawing is considered the lesser discipline, something that is merely a preparatory to painting. Yet it is a vital to painting: one cannot paint realism without strong, fundamental drawing skills. And by drawing, I mean the ability to truly see the subject and translate the reaction to what one sees into marks that reflect both the subject and and the artists connection with it.

I am beginning to work more with colour recently, but feel I still have so much to discover about how pure form and value speaks to the viewer.

The cartoons you do, are brilliant. The characters are incredibly strong. What inspires you to create the characters you have done. 

The style, and in some cases the subjects, are certainly inspired by the dark ideas and imagery of Edward Gorey. Most characters spring from a random thought, an overheard — or misheard - phrase, or some experience or memory.I have started work on illustrated stories and illustrated books, aimed at mature audiences. I like the idea of storytelling narrative that reflects a child’s story in style but designed for adults.

The “frog” is from an illustrated book project titled “Amphibiums” - a melancholy tale about a race of amphibian-like creatures living on a world with a dying sun. They have poor eyesight, hence their ocular prosthetics! I am sure I will revisit this at some point.

Tell us about your studio, you say it’s in Margate, it’s a creative place now isn't it? Your studio assistant must be a real boon! Do you exhibit down there too?

I am fortunate to have a working space at Pie Factory Studios right in the centre of Margate old town, and just a stone’s throw from the Turner Contemporary gallery. One of five studios there, it is a private space and benefits from the amazing natural light in Margate. There are several similar studio groups throughout the town offering affordable creative spaces. It is a vibrant and growing creative community.

I’d love to say my furry studio assistant is a great help, and he would be if I needed someone to find dogfish washed up on Margate beach! He is great company though, and gets me out in the fresh air more than I might otherwise, particularly during the colder months.

Since moving to East Kent a few years ago, I have regularly exhibited in solo and in group events in local galleries, as well as group exhibitions in London at the Menier Gallery and Bankside Gallery.

The Pie Factory Studios artists have a group exhibition at the Pie Factory Gallery (literally right below our studios) 24-27th November 2018, with a Meet the Artists event on 23 November from 5:30pm.

2019 is the centenary year of the Society of Graphic Fine Arts (SGFA) of which I am an associate member. Our work will be appearing in commemorative exhibitions in Birmingham and London, and a centenary book featuring members’ work will be released in 2019.

What are you working on now?ellington tree 4 950pxw

I have just completed a couple of large, high-realism drawings from my “Shattered Wood” series. These took around 60-70 hours apiece, so I like to break that intensely-focused work with something more straightforward. 

I’m developing a series of kitschy, stylised drawings of prominent Margate buildings, rendered in ink line and watercolour. And I’m just beginning a traditional still life in oils - a medium I’ve not worked with for many years. Both are a departure from previous works: new styles and techniques inform and refresh old ones. It is something I try to spend time doing as often as I can.

But, as ever, I may find myself distracted by a moment of interesting light, or a building I haven’t noticed before, or some other experience worthy of translating into a few marks on paper.

You said your winning piece was on Strathmore, what do you love about the paper? 

My go-to drawing paper is Strathmore Bristol Vellum. I keep a roll of 300 series, and sheets of 300, 400, and 500 at various weights. I need a paper that will hold graphite and charcoal well, without needing much fixing, and which enables a full range of tones right down to strong blacks. A surface tooth that will tolerate repeated toning and erasing, and a texture that doesn’t impose itself on the image where I don’t want it. Strathmore Bristol Vellum fulfils every criteria - I would struggle without it as every other paper I have tried feels like a compromise.

I also love Strathmore toned papers. They have a lovely fine fleck visual texture that is far more interesting than most flat-toned alternatives. They hold pencil, carbon, and chalk well considering their weight and smooth surface, and I can switch to the Mixed Media toned when I need something a little more robust. The studio is always stocked with various other Strathmore papers and pads which open up all kinds of possibilities. But there are still a few Strathmore papers I have not yet tried, so who knows, there might be another favourite waiting to be discovered.

To follow Neil Dixon and hear more about his work and where he is exhibiting, have a look at his website and social media links:


neil dixon artist studio


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