We visit Fred Sorrell to discuss his linear compositions ahead of his first major solo exhibition at Parafin.
There is an air of serenity in Fred Sorrell's north London studio. Facing a small courtyard garden it feels hidden from the frenzy of Camden town, just a stone's throw away. The walls are a crisp paper white and the light is wonderfully still a pure, north light that remains constant throughout the day.
The works, all aligned in their recti-linear, grid-like motifs, are propped up around the studio. At first glance, there is something beautifully composed and static about the paintings. But the longer you look, the more you feel your gaze being pulled back and forth, the seeming stasis replaced by an unexpected rhythm and movement. The colours pinch and pull the space, directing your eye, explains Fred, through the paintings, I'm trying to capture the experience of looking.
When I ask Fred to elaborate he brings me over to his desk, taking out a roll of canvas. All the paintings begin like this, he says, unwinding the pale cloth to reveal swatches of colour. These are colour notations. Whenever I go for a walk I take some scraps of canvas with me and make notes of my sense of the colour in real time. He goes on to describe how it might be the way light is threading through the canopy of a tree or how a shard of light suddenly appears on a patch of grass by his feet. If he responds to it, to a sensation in the landscape, then it is documented. It's a process of accumulating information about light and its movement, the pervasiveness of certain hues and tones.
The colour notes quite lovely objects in themselves then become points of departure for his work, literally setting the tone for the next painting or series. And though the finished paintings might appear disconnected from their origins, Fred's titles Late Summer, Long Tide, Dapple, Of Dusk tie them back to the natural world and to the encounter that first inspired them.
As we talk, a cat weaves silkily between us, leaping up into Fred's arm. This is Frieda, he says grinning she's highly independent and roams for miles. As if to prove a point, she bounds off him, nudging open the glass doors and escaping into the green beyond. We stare after her. Sometimes, on my journey back from work [Fred is also an artist's assistant], she meets me from the bus and walks me home.
After a brief interlude discussing the adventures of this free-spirited feline, we return to the paintings. I ask Fred how he arrived at his distinctive, abstract style. There was a period several years ago, he describes, where I painted the same scene in the garden over and over again from different angles. I wanted to translate the experience of it, and how I saw the light bouncing, reflecting and absorbing. This sense of everything being connected. I was trying to get at something dynamic, shifting but also internal and visceral in terms of my reaction. So the images had to become, in a literal sense, non-descriptive. I feel like a grid connects in an organic way to the notion of weaving space, and I found that the structures were a way of carrying the colour and creating this sense of ebb and flow, volume and tone."
Now, Fred follows the same rigorous process each time, beginning with the act of looking, followed by a process of distillation and experimentation, as he finds the best structure to convey his memory of the place and the movement and rhythm of the colour and light.
After a morning with Fred, who is himself gentle and thoughtful, it becomes clear that he is a meticulous, focussed artist with a highly exacting method of working. A version of his paintings could have been created on a computer, using a clever algorithm, but instead he does it all by eye, even eschewing masking tape. And you can see the results in the subtlety of the shades some so hesitant and the delicacy of the brush strokes. Paradoxically, says Fred, I've discovered a greater freedom from working within such tight parameters. And there's a point where the paintings become their own thing.
On leaving, I am plunged back into the thick of the city and the hurried, bustling streets. Fred's studio seems like a distant sanctuary, its calmness lost in London's noise. But as I walk I find myself wanting to stop and observe, to notice the light on the broken pavement, to start making colour notes of my own.
Fred's first major solo exhibition is showing at the Parafin gallery in London from 14th February to 28th March.
Words by Emily Cameron. Images by Roo Lewis.