AN ARTIST who pours paint on to a laid-flat canvas, you might assume, is a creator of abstracts, much in the manner of Jackson Pollock.
Michele David is an adept paint pourer. But a second glance at her seemingly abstract, colourful swirls and elaborate textures reveals that they are all faithfully drawn from nature.
Everybody has had the experience of gazing at a leaf, a tree, a rock or a cloud, and discovering that its name dissolves into abstract form. Japanese rock gardens use this phenomenon, inviting contemplatives to experience fluctuations between abstraction and hard reality. David's paintings have a comparable charm.
The 30-year-old Scottish artist, who lives in Shetland and whose current exhibition is at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, has roamed the wildernesses of Australia and America, photographing the display of natural forms that takes place out of sight of man - the splashing and bubbling, growth, decay and oozing of sap.
Back in her studio, within sight of the sea, she lays the canvas flat and imitates nature - thin washes of green and blue oil paint splash and bleed into one another, creating the depths and shallows of the ocean, or the efflorescence of algae. Small quantities of real sand or plaster coalesce on the canvas, their grains forming shoals and shores stretching into the distance.
Her close-ups of decaying seaweed or tree trunks, divested of scale, can appear momentarily as monumental, abstract forms, before darting back to their true identity. But, she says, "they are all completely figurative".
She says of her painting of a bloodwood tree trickling red sap in the Australian bush: "The trunk is so close up that at first you've no idea what it is. But the realism has not diminished - it has simply been abstracted from its context".
She used glue, overpainted, for the sap. "People came in and said 'What's that?' because it looked abstract. I felt I was painting something weird - and yet it was true to nature. I loved it."
Not all her paintings play such tricks. Her trees look like trees, however long you look at them.
She spent five years painting Shetland's rock pools. Queensland Coast, painted this year and shown left, is an estuary viewed from the air that, to some, could be a rock pool. The prickly vegetation on the land, made from stippled, overpainted plaster, could be either big trees or tiny plants. The bright greeny-blue submerged sandbank on the left is real sand.
She painted the dark blue depths first, then the tide came in - a liquid blue-green wash overpainted with eddies from a dryish brush after the canvas had dried and been stood upright on an easel. "There is a fine line," she says, "between preserving the initial spontaneity of a painting and working into it."
In her current show of paintings of America, "Yellowstone: Fireholes and Acid Springs", geysers spout, and mud pots bubble with lethal, brightly- coloured sulphur. Ribbons of bacteria surge - white, yellow, orange, according to the temperature around the boiling springs. "I haven't overdone the colours", she says: "that's what they are."
David, who graduated from Glasgow School of Art, won the Villiers David prize for travel abroad in 1996. She has held several residencies at schools of art. Her paintings, on show to 16 Dec at the Royal Scottish Academy (0131-225 6671), were produced as a result of winning this year's Alastair Salvesen Trust Art Scholarship: exhibition prices - from pounds 850 for 20in by 30in paintings to pounds 2,400 for 5ft by 5ft 6ins. Colour photographs, 18in by 12ins, pounds 60. She is represented by the Berkeley Square Gallery (0171- 493 7939)
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