Paul Bloomer

  • Title: Self-Portrait in Shetland
  • Medium: Woodcut print
  • Width: 60.96 cm
  • Height: 76.2 cm
  • Year of creation: 2015
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Self-Portrait in Shetland

Paul Bloomer was born in the Black Country village of Pensnett in 1966. Aged fifteen he left school to take a job in a factory. After four years there, he ‘suddenly discovered a love of colour and drawing, which I pursued with energy and drive’, and left the factory in 1991 to study art at Nottingham Polytechnic, and later at the Royal Academy Schools. He went on to meet and marry a young Scottish woman Fiona Burr, a Slade School graduate. In 1997, the family moved to the Shetland Islands.


In his 2015 self-portrait, set in his Shetland studio, the artist engages directly with the spectator – yet his look appears both wistfully withdrawn and serenely absorbed with an ineffable inner vision. Dynamic currents of light etching his features (counterbalanced by dark shadowing to the right) are echoed in swirling striations and vortices of light (and dark) defining the skies (and sea) of pictures on the wall behind.


The viewer’s marvellous momentary sighting of a bullfinch (silhouetted against a vast sun) perched on the artist’s woollen hat is followed by the realisation that the bird is part of a background painting. ‘Birds are for me symbols of freedom. Bullfinches do not live in Shetland but one year after a bad gale thousands of them arrived. Blown off course, the red of their plumage glowed all the more brightly against the darkening autumn landscape, and I drew them with delight.’ He recalls his ‘grandmother in later life producing from her bag a small drawing of a bullfinch, which I drew as a child. Thus bullfinches remind me of the journey of my life as an artist and of my much-loved grandmother.’


He has always made sketches evoking ‘the expressive tension of the hand’. His upraised right hand, paintbrush wielded between thumb and forefinger, is poised delicately at a creative juncture of immense visionary potential. A biblical undertow is seen characteristically here in imagery of birds as transcendent creatures as well as key dynamic forms in the bare Shetland landscape, and also in the recurrent crucifix form implicit in electricity pylons conveying energy and light to a distant house – and in the emblematic cross (reflected in the waters) on neighbouring St. Ninian’s Isle.


His fair-isle sweater, knitted by a friend, ‘is resonant with radiant colours that echo the mossy, peatland wilderness with its lochs and their wild brown trout’. He is moved by affinities between ‘rhythms of sea and land’ and primordial patterns he’s observed in archaic Celtic and Pictish art – enigmatic geometries mirrored in mesmerising designs on his jumper and in the painted landscape.


Bloomer makes woodcuts by drawing on large sheets of MDF with charcoal. ‘The drawing is then fixed; then the cut line prints white – and what is left prints black – so in effect I am working from darkness back to light’ – especially fitting for an artist living on Shetland where winters are almost unremittingly dark and bleak – and where summer midnights can be magically illuminating.


In a powerful dystopian 1999 woodcut, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young artist is seen sketching a turbulent Black Country urbanscape of violence altercations, marauding dogs and, most harrowingly, the dead figure of a young Jamaican friend of the artist lying in the road – the man had suffered a fatal asthma attack after being chased by racist skinheads.


A 1998 oil self-portrait painted soon after Bloomer arrived in Shetland – his own shadowy body seen psychedelically permeated by subtle abstract colours and shapes – shows him painting at night in a disused telephone exchange he then used as a studio, his two young daughters at his feet ‘looking for me to provide’. From this position of radical worldly insecurity, ‘I paint a yellow loch glowing with fish sending out circular ripples – and all is well with the world.’


Bloomer has long been impressed by ‘the inventive use of space and non-linear perspective’ of the Sienese painters. Artists who have inspired him include Giotto, Hokusai, Ensor, Munch, Stanley Spencer and, especially, Nolde. He had a solo show at London’s Boundary Gallery in 2007. His works are in Collections of Shetland Museum and The New Art Gallery, Walsall.

Purchased from the 2015 Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize.