With his full white moustache, big round spectacles and rubicund face, Sir Terry Frost, who has died aged 87, usually looked like a cheery chappie from Dad's Army. In fact, he went into the war a young commando and emerged an artist. He was captured in Crete in 1941 and became a prisoner in Stalag 383, Bavaria, where he met the painter Adrian Heath, who saw the portraits he was doing of fellow prisoners and encouraged him to think of art as a vocation.
The nearest he had come to anything like it before the war was when he worked at Armstrong Whitworth in Coventry and was set to painting the RAF roundels on fighter planes and bombers - a strangely fateful task considering the format of many of the paintings he was to do late in life.
For a boy who had left school at 14 and been put to work in a bicycle shop in Leamington, his birthplace, making a life as an artist was a huge challenge, especially as he had married as soon as he was demobbed, with few prospects. So, by the time he and his wife Kathleen had agreed he should go to Camberwell School of Art on an ex-serviceman's grant, he was already 32.
At Camberwell, William Coldstream ran a methodical, disciplined life class: the clinical approach and Coldstream's personal coldness were both inimical to Frost, but the discipline was good for an aspiring painter with no previous training, and he had the good luck that Victor Pasmore was also teaching there. Pasmore told him to stop coming to classes and go and look at the paintings in the National Gallery. Frost took only the second half of the advice: he needed to continue classes to keep his grant.
He also grew a beard as a homage to Pasmore, and painted a handsomely bearded self-portrait which was among the best of his early work, most of which was no classier than the usual student production though showing an early, crude interest in formal, abstract structure behind the realistic portrayals. But Frost was in a hurry, and from the sympathetic Pasmore he learned the fluid and sensuous application of oil thinned out with turpentine that characterised most of his abstract works of the late 1950s and the 1960s, and looked as though they might have been brushed in by an impressionist.
The first abstract that he was prepared to show, Madrigal (1949), was a dark, assured performance of rectangles and triangles locked together on the flat picture plane which, in the spirit of the times, was heavily disparaged by the principal of Camberwell. But by 1950 the Frosts had moved to Quay Street in St Ives (where all six Frost children were born) and his paintings took on the feel of his new environment. Walk Along The Quay of that year is a sharp-edged harmony of blues, muted greys and ochres, and soon the abstractions assumed his characteristic shapes, jostling and nudging across the canvas like small boats bobbing in the harbour: the elipses, circles, and semi-circles that his neighbour in the cluster of studios above Porthmeor beach, Ben Nicholson, had told him would last him for life.
At this point he took time out to work as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth on her sculpture for the Festival of Britain, Contrapuntal Forms. At 18 shillings for a two-day week this was, apparently, time well spent: it gave him the impulse to produce his later collages and painted constructions (like, in 1965, the bulging-fronted Mae West painted canvas stretched over curved wood).
Frost was never programmatic about being an abstract painter. He did it because of the greater freedom to invent, to draw on his emotional response to the observed scene rather than depict it literally. His shapes were clearly derived from the buoys moving with the swell, fishermen's floats, waves building and breaking on the beach; and then there were the colours - sand colours, boat colours, sea colours.
From 1954 until 1957 he was in Leeds, for the first two years as a Gregory fellow at Leeds University, for the second two teaching at Leeds School of Art. He was as undogmatic and untheoretical a teacher as he was a painter. He was popular with students and fitted in well with the generation of artists such as Harry Thubron, Richard Hamilton and Pasmore, who were unlacing art school training from its Euston Road school straitjacket.
Yorkshire - the moors, rooftops, lines of washing - introduced new forms into his abstractions. There was then a peripatetic spell teaching in Coventry, California, Newcastle and Reading, before he returned to Cornwall for good in 1974, this time to Newlyn.
He never quite got over his luck in being accepted on equal terms by the St Ives painters, and later by the likes of Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline in New York, and in truth he never was among the top notch. In 1970, as the general appeal of the St Ives group faded, the Waddington Galleries dropped Frost; and even as the hard times receded and his canvases began to command five-figure sums, it was the work of the 1950s that was most in demand.
But Frost's work from the 1960s onwards is actually better. His brushwork became freer, his compositions less constricted, his subtler modulations of tans and blacks and fathomless greens sometimes gave way to his banner-bright blacks and whites. In 1992 he was elected a Royal Academician and in 1998 he was knighted; not bad, he must have felt, for someone who had started out fixing punctures.
His birthplace was about as far from the sea as it is possible to be in England. He never visualised living by the ocean, but did so for the better part of half a century. And there was one small, neat symmetry to his career. In Stalag 383 he had painted his portraits on hessian pillowcases. When the Tate Gallery opened its St Ives outpost in 1993, he painted for it a banner on Newlyn sailcloth, the material chosen in tribute to his adopted home town (characteristically his own man, he took the banner back sharpish because he disapproved of the hanging). Michael Tooby writes: Terry Frost's contribution to life and art in Cornwall was immense. His distillation of its environment in his art fused with his personal engagement with the communities of west Cornwall to ensure that he will long be remembered there.
In planning Tate Gallery St Ives from 1991, I was sharply aware of how it had to combine respect for the history and tradition of modern art in Cornwall with fostering contemporary practice. Terry held not living in the past but investing in the present and future almost as a condition of his engagement in the enterprise. When it opened, he gave all the time and energy asked of him in the seemingly endless requests from journalists. His gift for storytelling made him tolerant of "glitches" and the need to improvise, and he carried audiences along with a bravura mix of hilarity and philosophy.
He contributed work to many exhibitions and projects at Tate St Ives, and showed regularly at his beloved Newlyn art gallery. But he also used his standing to influence those reluctant to acknowledge the need for Cornwall to remain part of a wider contemporary cultural scene.
While always making his work available for the small-scale venues which remain part of the vitality of the area's arts economy, he was also an enthusiastic (but not uncritical) supporter of the innovative programming of conceptual art and new painting, from the "local" to the "international", at St Ives, Newlyn and elsewhere. Through this he helped ensure that Cornwall's cultural community looked to the future as well as honouring its history. Brian Morley writes: In 1964, soon after I started teaching at the school of art at Newcastle, it was my good fortune to get to know Terry Frost, when he arrived on a six-month contract to teach in the university fine art department. The department seemed transformed almost overnight by his enthusiasm.
Teaching and painting were closely allied and equally important to him. A romantic, to whom feeling and emotion were always more important than reason and intellect, he had a no-nonsense, "hands-on" approach, which made painting seem as joyful and exhilarating an activity for students as it obviously was for him. One day he might ask all the students to mix black, using red, yellow and blue. Their efforts were then pinned up and discussed; that black was a colour with as many possible variations as red was something of a revelation to students for whom black had always been black. Terry said he always learned as much as they did.
After the university studios closed, he liked to continue discussions until the early hours, often ending up at the Agogo Club on Percy Street, where we would talk, drink and listen to the Animals or Spencer Davis Group. Terry was a born communicator. One night, a rather dull student complained that he found Newcastle a visually dull city. The next morning, Terry set off round the town with a camera, and came back with a set of slides; images of staggering visual interest and beauty, which clearly demonstrated to the students that seeing is a matter of both looking and feeling. Going for a walk with Terry was always a rewarding experience. He had the rare gift of seeing things freshly, as if for the first time. Terry's great gift as a teacher was to remove many preconceived notions of what things were like. As he often used to say, "If you know before you look, you can't see for knowing."