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George Birrell

George Birrell: Scottish contemporary art, artist and paintings

George Birrell trained at the Glasgow School of Art (1967 – 1971) and was involved with the Hospitalfield Summer School in 1970. He taught art and design in Scottish schools for the next decade, starting painting full time in 1980.

Birrell lectured in art, design and photography from 1985 – 1998. Since then George has taken part in regular joint and group art exhibitions at many Scottish galleries particularly: Edinburgh Art Galleries, Glasgow Art Galleries, and Fife Art Galleries . He has also exhibited his art abroad.

George Birrell produces Architectural paintings and Landscape paintings of his native Scotland. The East Coast Scottish towns and fishing villages of Fife hold a special fascination. One is immediately struck by the bold use of strong colour and stylised compositions. He describes this as an emotional response to memories and atmosphere of these special places on the Scottish east coast . Vigorous handling of colour, a bold palette and strong design are all hallmarks of his painting.

Speaking about his paintings Birrell says: ”I paint neither on the spot nor from photographs, but improvise the remembered essentials of a place, in the comfort of my art studio. Harbours and their bric-a-brac attract me, as do mills and castles. Texture, colour and pattern are what I use to evoke feel-good locations”

The above is an example of George Birrell’s art work in oils and mixed media This is a typical of Birrell painting, with a clear and well constructed composition clearly illustrating George’s bold and effective use of colour to create an emotional impact. The contrasting colours, which create areas of light and shade, draw us into the small Scottish village. There is a great sense of peace and serenity in the work. A moment of stillness and clarity before the evening light fades.

‘Poetry rather than prose.'

‘The prosaic view is ‘realistic', almost photographic, with every detail described'. George Birrell's art is more poetic; he tries to draw on the essence of what makes a particular scene special, rather than every little detail. ‘I try to make a few words, say more; in my view, less is more.'


When George paints one of his visual ‘poems', he says ‘I am always trying to create something that tickles your eye and makes you delight in it.' When you study his paintings, it is easy to understand this statement - he plays with you, whether it is with vibrant colour or cool blue tones and the placement of objects with a bright colour contrast, like a telephone box, thistles or even something as simple as a lit window. Rather than make your eye venture through a list of objects as it would with a photograph, he creates an arrangement that your eyes can assimilate quicker and read to create a smile as you are drawn through the painting and led to his focal point or points. That is what is so great about his ‘poems'; the visual journey that makes them so enjoyable and compelling. ‘My paintings get a mixed reaction as they are not straightforward. People who like the security of seeing it like it is (a photograph), don't necessarily understand my paintings. These are the art buyers who still consider the representational artists as representative of skill and value. They struggle and fear the ridicule of their peers, if they buy something that is not immediately interpretable.'  


George is 61. He was taught at school  by Bill Birnie and went on to train at the Glasgow School of Art from 1967 to 1971. He had an impressive line up of high pedigree tutors including Leon Morrocco, Goudie, Robertson, Donaldson, Fergusson and William Crosbie. Crosbie was to have the greatest influence over George; ‘a kind, gentle, straight and honest man. He was an eccentric with his sea boots, great overcoat, cap and long white beard.' George describes a life changing artistic moment when he witnessed Crosbie working on a life drawing and it was not obvious how it was going to come together. 'As Crosbie re-approached the drawing, he started to mark three particular areas and, as he made these quick adjustments, at that ‘moment', the study suddenly came to life. It was my renaissance - I will always remember that ‘moment'.


George is fascinated with the history and development of buildings and communities, particularly where they have grown organically and where successive generations have built something on. The randomness of the windows or building structures that have appeared where needed, rather than where planned and with no thought of symmetry. In most cases the architecture; the building, the wall, or shed, with the use of stone colours reinforces the impression of old, whilst this contrasts with the more temporary structures, the fishboxes, nets, boats, telephone boxes, gulls, flowers, flags or marker buoys, which allow him to introduce the contrast and offset of bright, primary colours. In a Birrell, you get a collage of artistic qualities with shape and line, colour and tone and patterns and textures.


Birrell's paintings regularly exploit the imagery of the East Neuk of Fife's east coast architecture and they are popular because they are unmistakably Scottish. His father came from that area and when he goes east he feels he is ‘coming home'. He likes the west coast but for him the west coast colour palette and aesthetics are too lush, green and verdant.


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