June 10th, 2017

I was recently invited to do an interview with Lisa Takahashi of Jackson’s Art Blog. The questions addressed a few things I’d not thought about much before – or at least not for some time – so it was an interesting exercise. Many thanks to Lisa and Jackson’s.

The full blog is here, though here’s the text:

You often paint performers – dancers, comedians, actors… What do you hope to unveil through painting these subjects?

My hopes when painting performers are similar to those with other portrait subjects – essentially to capture a likeness, and to reflect something of the personality and ideas of the sitter. This can get a little ambiguous in cases where a comedian, for example, has an established stage persona, but the opportunity to present what may be a less familiar side to someone’s character can be very interesting.

For the last couple of years I’ve been working with dancers, and the paintings and drawings I’ve made with them are a little different from those of other performers I’ve worked with. For example, I consider my pictures of Ballet Cymru dancers in rehearsal to be portraits, though the subjects are not posing for me, and may in that moment be absorbed in playing a character. They’re portraits of dancers at work, and to that extent are also studies of creative processes and expression, which is a fascinating subject, I think.

Working with dancers in the painting studio is different again, in that we experiment and find poses through improvisation, so there’s a great deal more collaboration and sharing of ideas going on. In the studio I’m interested to find compositions which imply a narrative or suggest emotions or relationships, but what we find always comes from the dancers themselves, so is expressive of their personalities and creativity too. It’s figure painting, but it’s also portraiture.

The passion, creativity and extraordinary physical discipline of the dancers I’ve worked with is hugely inspiring, and I love how these partnerships explore a crossover between performance and visual arts, to create something new.

You mention that you have been painting Lila, the subject of your shortlisted painting, for a number of years. How important is familiarity with your subject for your work and can you describe what it’s like to paint the same person at various intervals over the course of 6 years?

I find it really interesting. When I first painted Lila she was three years old and couldn’t sit still for more than a few seconds at a time. Just as she’d settled into position, she’d climb down off the chair, and the table it was sitting on, and come behind the easel to see how the picture was progressing. That was nine years ago, and now she and her sister, Miranda, are rather better at holding poses, and brilliant at coming up with them (the pose in Lila 9, which I find beautifully expressive, was Lila’s idea). It’s been great to have this kind of unplanned series of pictures going back to when they were little, and hopefully they won’t lose interest too soon, so I’ll be able to keep going.

Similarly, years ago, when I painted nudes I liked working with a small pool of models, developing working practices, mutual understanding and so on, as time passed. Last year, one of my former life models, Laura, posed for a portrait after an eight-year gap, and we immediately resumed our previous routine. All that had changed was the backdrop to the crazy stories she told me during the breaks. It was great.

When did you first decide that you wanted to be a painter and what is it about painting that you love?

I realised I wanted to be a painter during my art foundation at Oxford Polytechnic in 1987.

Up until then I’d always been very interested in fine art, but had spent the previous year working as a graphic artist (of sorts) at a printshop, and imagined I’d focus on that as a possible career. Then, in the first term of the foundation course, I was introduced both to life drawing and oil paint, and was so excited by both that I pretty much immediately changed my plans.

The model was called Sonia, and I still have my drawings of her. She was in her fifties, and said she was now being drawn by the children of students she’d sat for when she started out. If Sonia’s still going, she’ll be on to their grandchildren by now.

I have fairly ambivalent feelings about painting and drawing, though one of the things I love about the art form is its directness – that there are no intermediaries between you and the canvas. As the artist you are responsible for every decision and every mark which forms the final piece, and its success or failure rests only with you.

Also, I love that figure and portrait painters are working in traditions which go back centuries, and, in many respects, considerably further; that a painter from fifty or a hundred or five hundred years ago could walk into my studio and recognise practically all the materials and tools they see, and that I can look at their work in museums and galleries today, and connect to them, take inspiration, and perhaps learn from their methods and ideas.

There’s something quite reassuring about that. Painting can be a solitary business, but there’s a kind of companionship in tradition.

How important is it that the sitters for your work like the paintings that you make of them?

It’s not my first consideration, though positive feedback from sitters is always gratifying – as it is from sitters’ partners, parents, and so on, who are perhaps best placed to comment on the success or otherwise of a portrait.

I try to involve sitters as much as possible in the planning and creation of my work, and if a portrait is commissioned, it is of course very important that they are happy with the finished piece. I’m always very interested to hear sitters’ thoughts, and to learn as much as I can from them.

What do you consider to be the ingredients for a strong composition?

I’ve always been interested in formalistic theories of composition, and have been meaning to learn more about the subject and experiment with it for years, but haven’t quite got there yet – possibly, I think, because I’m fundamentally more interested in the subjects of pictures than their arrangements on a canvas.

My subjects are always fairly straightforward – generally involving one or two people, with no discernible background – and I tend to compose pictures instinctively at the start of the process, depending on a range of factors which present themselves in the moment. Having said that, on a couple of occasions I’ve had to obliterate days of work and start again because I’d positioned a figure half an inch too far to the left, for example, so perhaps a little more planning wouldn’t be a bad idea at times.

You are known to work directly from life as well as from video footage and photography. Which do you most prefer working from and why?

Working from life is still my preferred option, though looped film does offer a practical compromise – allowing work to continue in the absence of the model, or (as is increasingly the case with some of my pictures) enabling me to work for hours or days with poses which may only be held for a matter of minutes at a time.

The drawbacks with using film include losing some of the discipline and momentum which comes from having a model working in the studio – and, of course, not being able to adjust poses or light, and so on, during the painting process. The potential ‘open-endedness’ of the process has risks attached too.

In some cases, where possible, I think the optimal approach probably involves a combination of both film and live sittings. I’ve tried this with a few portraits, and it seems to work well.

Can you describe a little bit about how you use paint – it looks like you apply it relatively thinly with a limited palette? What paints do you like to use and what kinds of brushes/surfaces do you like to work with?

I use Cornelissen brushes, Michel Harding oil colours, Russell & Chapple stretchers and linen, and B&Q hardboard.

For about five years, from 2002, I worked with a three-colour palette – a red, green and yellow – plus a white. This was part of a discipline I introduced to try to strip back my approach to painting and hopefully stop overcomplicating (and ruining) my work. Since then I’ve expanded my palette quite a lot – most significantly introducing a blue – though I almost always involve the original three pigments, and I generally try not to use more that seven or eight in total in a picture. I’ve been experimenting with a few earth colours and a black over the past couple of years, but am not sure where that’s leading.

I work on canvas and small panels, on both white and coloured grounds, and look to complete smaller works in one or two sessions, if possible. Larger pictures can take much longer, sometimes strung out over months, but these often seem to fail due to overwork if I don’t complete them early enough. I use turpentine during the first stages of a painting, and walnut oil later on, but the process varies a lot depending on the ground, scale, and what I’m hoping to achieve. I don’t have a ‘formula’ for painting pictures, and after sketching out a monochrome underpainting on a canvas, I frequently find myself looking at it and wondering “What on earth do I do now?”.

It was great to see that you used a Kickstarter campaign to help fund producing a body of work. How did you get the idea, what was your campaign and how labour intensive was it? Was it something you would recommend to other artists?

I was sceptical about the Kickstarter idea when it was first suggested. My only involvement with the website up to that point had been supporting a couple of friends with film-making projects, and I thought the work I had in mind was at too early a stage to present in that way. Friends persuaded me, though, and I’m very glad they did.

I’d spent much of the previous year trying unsuccessfully to secure a small research and development grant from a statutory arts funding body, which had been an extraordinarily protracted and frustrating experience. By contrast, writing a Kickstarter proposal was straightforward, took a fraction of the time, and didn’t need to involve nearly as many people.

There’s a wonderful openness about the process: you explain what you plan to do, offer a selection of rewards, ask people if they’d like to get involved, and then wait to see what happens. I was quite overwhelmed by the support the project received, and even before reaching the point where I thought it might be successful felt hugely inspired and encouraged by people’s reactions. I’d certainly recommend it to other artists.

What are you working on at the moment? What are the biggest challenges you are facing currently in the studio?

I plan to continue painting portraits and working with Ballet Cymru.

The company’s current production, The Light Princess, centres on the story of a character who is literally weightless – inspiring some extraordinary choreography and presenting me with a fascinating motif to explore in pictures. I’m very excited about this, and hope to produce a series of canvases over the summer. The show itself has just premiered, and is joyous.

In a side project, I’m working with Cardiff-based actor/writer Terry Victor, producing painted sketches of literary figures for his forthcoming Edinburgh show Well-Thumbed – a comedic exploration of sexual subtext and innuendo in great literature. This is very different from the other work I’m engaged in, but is lots of fun.

Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?

I have an exhibition at the beautiful Ffin y Parc Gallery, on the edge of Snowdonia, North Wales, from May 28th to June 21st this year. The gallery now represents me, and this is my first show with them – a selection of paintings from the past ten years.

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