Peter Beston – A Talented and Intriguing Painter

Peter Beston doesn’t remember a time he didn’t have a pencil, crayon or brush in his hand. His parents, one musical, the other an architectural draftsman and surveyor, sent him to weekly art class starting at 12. There were no museums or exhibitions in Purley, England. A family trip to Spain offered first exposure at the Prado. “I was totally stunned by the light, realism, and composition, but too young for the psychology of the work.”

Other interests included movies, the natural world, and English (language and literature). Beston decided to pursue a career as a film director. He couldn’t wait to get to London. A semester at art college followed. “I loved the romantic Pre-Raphaelites then, the every-blade-of-grass-approach, Art Nouveau, and John Singer Sargent.” The world was Pop/Op/Psychedelic Art mad. Excited by it, the young man dabbled, but never made the genre his own. Nor did he get sidetracked.

Young Peter; The Lighthouse

Instead he secured a job in the mailroom at the BBC. When a director’s course attracted 2,700 applicants, however, he moved on, rising through the ranks of production companies. He worked on commercials, features and documentaries, becoming a respected film editor of forty years, accruing multiple awards. Art and art classes were intermittent. “Every time I wanted to paint again, I had to start from square one. There was no build.” It wasn’t until he was 40 that, “desperate to get technique,” he found a private tutor with whom to study oil painting. His teacher straddled realism and surrealism.

“I always painted something in front of me. Landscapes didn’t attract. Plein Air is torture. The light changes all the time, there are bugs flying all over…I like a calm, stable, uniform atmosphere.” The artist takes numerous ‘reference’ photographs.

Still Restless

In 2009, Beston emigrated. He and his husband moved into their dream house in East Quogue, Long Island. At last he would paint full time. Still very insecure about himself as a professional, he joined East End Arts (a nonprofit arts support organization) and took some work to gallery director Jane Kirkwood. “Well, you can certainly paint,” she commented, “but the subject matter is a bit boring.” Three Adirondack chairs in striking color and some David Hockney-like work is indicative of the period. “That put me on the road to where I am now.”

Swimming Lessons

Participation in exhibitions began shortly thereafter. In 2015, Beston toyed with the idea of doing heavily textural work in order to be marketable. Gallerist Peter Marcelle disabused him of that idea in no uncertain terms. Beston was taken on, he was told, because he was original. That was the last time the artist considered painting anything outside the personal. (Beston is now represented in Long Island by Sara De Luca at ILLE Arts Gallery in Amagansett, NY.)

The Birds

“When I was about 22, I did a little sketch of a Magpie on the seat of a red chair. I grew up with Magpies in the countryside. There was something about the color and something about a wild bird in a sophisticated, domestic interior, not its natural habitat; the juxtaposition. Finding the drawing again, a whole painting came to mind.

I read a book called The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker. Birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, yet so common, they’re mostly invisible to people. One chapter said that there are only five species of animal who can look in the mirror and know they’re looking at themselves: humans from about 2 ½ years on, elephants, dolphins, orangutans and magpies.”

The original sketch; Mirror Recognition in the Eurasian Magpie

The painting is called Mirror Recognition in the Eurasian Magpie. “When you look at it, you’re naturally going to see the eye first. The bird’s looking at you and at himself in the mirror. The print in the corner is Audubon’s Magpie, so there’s a connection from here to here (he gestures) showing the original inspiration. The chair is my grandfather’s. We have it downstairs.”

Beston has a heightened sense of the dimensional world and of one’s place in it. He relates to spatial positioning and literally grows uncomfortable when he doesn’t know where north is. Years as a film editor have fine tuned faculties that make the artist what he calls a noticer. “Just as in editing film, I look at everything 16 times over and choose the best one.” Composition and light are equally meticulous.

Indigo Buntings Consider the Meaning of Wallpaper

Another in this series, Indigo Buntings Consider the Meaning of Wallpaper (awarded First Place at East End Arts’ juried exhibition March 2017), is meant to present contrast. Beston’s work is compelling. The birds exist in, and reflect upon an unfamiliar room. He’s putting himself both in their heads and those of observers. Integrated decorative elements are unusual for a realist. His fastidious patterns neither take over nor retreat to background, they contribute.

A pelican stands at the bottom of a graceful Art Deco staircase staring across at a big, similarly colored chair. (Brown Pelican Confronts Yellow Chair.) A grackle is found atop a stack of books painted from life. The books are: The Birds by Daphne du Maurier, Poems and Prophecies by William Blake, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Nude by Kenneth Clark, and Audubon’s Birds of America.            (The Pursuit of Knowledge.)

The Pursuit of Knowledge

This is a literary painter. ‘Not because of the aforementioned book titles, but because there’s an eloquence to his work that might easily translate to words; intellectual and psychological aspects to choices.

Palm Beach Stories

Beston’s most recent effort is an evocative, large scale series (3’6” x 6’) called Palm Beach Stories. Harking back to his career, each painting is titled after a film, but indicates the genre, not content. Like the rest of his oeuvre, each also considers aspects of the human condition. “That wasn’t my plan, but that’s what it’s become.” Scenarios are wryly unsettling. Color is so delicious it’s difficult to take note of the fact he limits his palette to variations on three to four colors a painting.

An important part of this series is the architecture to which Beston is drawn. He’s fascinated by the way structures impose on a space, changes that occur as one reacts to them from up close or far away.

Snapping pictures out a car window over 30 miles of Palm Beach, he accrued 350 images. Each painting began with a single element garnered from one of these shots. An idea formed, concepts were sketched. Beston then eliminated anything unessential to his vision    on Photoshop (paring down is a signature approach) and looked for or created whatever else the picture demanded. Immensely skilled in the medium, he might use pieces of 20 photos. Scrolling through an evolutionary series on the monitor, one marvels at the homogeneous finale.

When Worlds Collide

When a montage is complete (subject to change elicited by size and color), Beston prints it out to the right proportions and grids it. The grid is then transferred to canvas much like the practice of Renaissance artists. This is accomplished in pastel which wipes away when he’s finished drawing on the surface. “The placing of every line and object is vital.”

When Worlds Collide (genre-Science Fiction) began with a geometrical house Beston took out of its suburban setting and isolated among lush greenery.  Palm tree trunks are simplified so as not to catch one’s eye. Grass looks manicured. The street is stark, clean, deserted. Nothing smaller than a tree grows. In the top right hand corner, the scene is reflected in a sphere he conceives as a UFO. Which, Beston asks, is more alien, the visitors or this austere structure in situ?

Follow where your eye travels. It enters the painting top right, moves down the road, and takes the horizontal path. Instead of moving off the image, however, one naturally looks vertically along the edge of the house, above trees, to clouds moving right. Aria da capo, back to where you started. Beston’s intention is to keep a viewer contained in the loop.

Every design is worked out to occupy the eye within borders. “Otherwise the brain disengages,” he comments. “The longer someone is there, the more stuff goes on unconsciously. I plot an entry that will take you to a focal point. Unless the composition is satisfactory, it could be the most brilliant piece of art, but a failure.”

Deep Impact

Controlling light is also important. The artist recollects working with filmmaker Ridley Scott whose constant experimentation with it was extraordinary. This brightly lit work also relates back to Velasquez, Goya and De La Tour. Source, time of day, and mood are taken into consideration. Shadows are as precise as perspective. “It’s the unconscious building of a real world… millions of clues and signals we unconsciously get all the time describe what people believe to be real.”

For Deep Impact. (Disaster) Beston used only the café from a photo. Greyhounds were made of a compilation of images. Reflected in the window, a meteor plunges earthward with only the canines to witness. Look closely and you’ll also see almost ghostly empty chairs inside. An architectural column is beautifully ornamented. The street light shadow is graphic. A large blank wall “suggests impending oblivion.” Not incidentally, it holds the scene together. And oh, the color!

In Out of The Past (Noir) an intense woman in a blue dress beside a yellow house at the corner of Mimosa and Primrose may be hiding a gun in the hand behind her skirt.  Atmosphere is forbidding. Odd details include a tiny curb drain and a manhole cover. In  While You Were Sleeping (Romance), we see the back of a man gazing longingly at a large house behind impenetrable hedges “touching on the complexity of desire and the imagined ideal.” Above floats a cloud formation that resembles a reclining nude woman. Who, Beston asks, is the sleeper, the inamorata inside or her hopeful suitor? (Or the observer.)

The Studio

The painting in this article’s opening is called The Awful Truth (Farce/Black Comedy.) Beston photographed a conventional fast food joint changing its signage to Gator Gabe’s Bar and Grill—All You Can Eat. The “stupid little cartoon alligator” indicates futile attempt to civilize subtropical environs. A condo community is reflected in the front glass.

At right we see an actual alligator “the reality” making its way back to a swamp apparently beyond the establishment. At left, one of the city’s ubiquitous yellow Cameros, door open, passenger, Beston tells me, having fled. Contemporary versus ancient species occupying the same space. Though again, unsettling, it’s a hoot.

The Exhibition: Palm Beach Stories – Peconic Landing Auditorium,
Greenport New York
June 2-September 29, 2017

Paris Air

Peter Beston paints almost every day when he’s not in his garden. He loves it. “I paint realistically, but try to keep it on the side of painting. Otherwise you might as well take a photograph.” The work is skilled, imaginative, unconventional, scrupulous, captivating.

All quotes are Peter Beston. Photos courtesy of Peter Beston

For more information go to the website for Peter Beston. 

Opening Photo: Beter Beston with The Awful Truth (in process)
Young Peter; The Lighthouse
Still Restless
The original sketch; Mirror Recognition in the Eurasian Magpie
Indigo Buntings Consider the Meaning of Wallpaper
The Pursuit of Knowledge
When Worlds Collide
Deep Impact
The Studio
Paris Air

About Alix Cohen (514 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.