Hoyland was one of the leading abstract British artists of the post-war years. Despite undertaking a conventional pupillage at the Royal Academy Schools in the late 1950s, he responded warmly to the Tate Gallery’s 1956 exhibition, ‘Modern Art in the United States’, which was the first display of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning’s work in London. He started exploring painterly stylings in the manner of Nicolas de Stäel and, in 1958, received further training from the avant-garde painter and sculptor William Turnbull in evening classes at the Central School of Art. (Like other students studying at London’s more conservative schools, evening classes provided a stimulating deviation from standard practice, as Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach – students at the Royal College of Art – had found earlier in the decade at David Bomberg’s evening classes at Borough Road Polytechnic.)
In the early 1960s, Hoyland began to develop his own distinctive abstract vocabulary. Like an older generation of semi-abstract painters, who received their training before the Second World War and were mostly based in Cornwall, Hoyland took up the defining tropes of the New York School, adopting a large-scale canvas format and dispensing with the obvious presence of figures. Rejecting the Francophone painterliness of Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter, Hoyland was closer to the example set by Heron, who was more concerned about creating ‘space’ on a canvas by using large areas of pure, untextured colour – a development preceded by the elementary ‘colour field’ work that Barnett Newman started making in New York in the late 1940s. Hoyland’s place at the forefront of experimental Yankophile painting in Britain was signalled by an exhibition at the Marlborough New London Gallery in 1962, which included Hoyland alongside Turnbull, Peter Stroud and John Plumb.
This work on paper was executed in the new studio which Hoyland had built for himself in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. Building work began in 1964 and, having worked in a relatively constricted studio space in Primrose Hill between 1961 and ’65, the new studio allowed him to work on an even larger scale. However, Hoyland only had space enough to keep one painting in full view at a time. The critic Andrew Lambirth has explained how these smaller-scale gouache studies helped Hoyland to envisage an acrylic painting in a more compact scale.
[…] he rarely had a chance to look at more than one at a time, so the activity of making small studies in watercolour and gouache on paper (with the occasional admixture of acrylic) became a valued way of seeing ideas for colour and space juxtaposed together, albeit on a small scale. The gouaches were private works, not make for exhibition but for the artist’s own satisfaction, and for the exploration of ideas.