Cardiff Character: Ceri Aukland Davies

Local artist puts an experimental twist on an ancient painting technique to give his seascapes some edge. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Ceri Aukland Davies’ studio housed an alchemist. Besides the feathers and other improvised tools, there are jars of gelatin, bags of gilders’ whiting and packets of powdered pigments. A pot on the stove is filled with gesso, which is used to make the porcelain white surface that lies beneath every egg tempera painting. The other tools of his trade are in the fridge; boxes of fresh hens’ eggs. He breaks one and holds the yolk in his palm, ready to be mixed with powdered pigment and a dash of water.

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Ceri Aukland Davies uses improvised tools, such as a large, iron nail, to create a textured finish to this landscape painting.

Egg tempera is a time honoured painting technique and has been noticed on the tombs of Egyptian mummies. “The egg tempura creates luminosity and it suits the way I paint,” Davies explains. “I paint in layers. You can’t physically peel each layer off, but metaphorically you could peel one layer off, then another, then another. It’s much more interesting.”

Leading American painter, Andrew Wyeth, is a modern day champion of the technique; in the early days of his own career, Davies was inspired by a visit to one of Wyeth’s exhibitions. It’s easy to see why; both artists take an experimental approach to a medium that is notoriously difficult. “I try to do anything and everything with egg tempera that I can,” Davies says. “There are painters who go through a far more traditional route and produce wonderful pieces. I started off thinking I would work like that, then I realised that I couldn’t. My paintings were looking too controlled, and I need a painting to lose control at some stage.”

It’s just a week after one of Davies’ solo exhibitions where 16 paintings were sold but he admits that however many red dots there are, he’ll still have opening nights nerves. “It’s a bit like baring your soul all over the walls,” he says. “It’s yourself up there, isn’t it? And there’s no hiding place.” 

Coming from a landscape painter, this comment seems surprising; but Davies’ pictures are as much about an inner, emotional landscape as they are about the coastline that inspires him. “The landscapes or the seascapes are irrelevant in some respects. I’m not interested in the picturesque elements really, and so the view I take on things will be different. The mood I’m in and the emotions I feel before I go on a walk can determine what I see.”

However personal his vision, Davies is painstaking in his efforts to record the scenery that forms the starting point for his paintings. Ever since he was a boy growing up in Llanelli, he has had a passion for drawing and painting outdoors.

“My mother didn’t know, but when I was 14 I used to hitch lifts down to West Wales to draw. I’ve always painted and drawn – it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Back in the studio he creates intricate charcoal drawings before translating these into egg tempera. Before he begins painting, Davies coats a board with eight layers of gesso, which is sanded and smoothed to create a white, slightly translucent looking surface onto which to paint.

The egg tempera dries quickly, and because it’s insoluble once dry, you can paint over it without disturbing the layers underneath. Davies utilises this technique, and the semi transparent nature of the tempera, to paint his renowned waters that seem to have genuine depth and movement.

When asked what inspired him most, Davies answers that it is his passion for creativity. “I love painting and I hate it,” he says. “I hate it, but I can’t do without it. It’s a bit like a drug. It’s what I’m here for, you might say.”