Ask the Artist

Photo by Chantal Richards © 2012

Photo by Chantal Richards © 2012

What is the inspiration for your colourful people?

When I paint, I see things more intensely, I see people in colours. Not as vivid as the paintings become, but I see people with purples, reds, greens and blues making up their skin colours. We may appear to be mainly pink coloured or brown coloured on the surface, but to me while I paint, we are all multi-coloured.  In fact, I use black & white photographs to work from, which helps me see people's colours better.

Why do you portray people with no hair?

This is the other popular, and most obvious question I can respond to.

To begin with, when I started painting, I was quite an angry young man, I needed to say something loudly and strongly. When I went to galleries, I was always struck by the lack of power in the work being shown, there was very little living energy in modern art it seemed to me, which was what I was interested in. So I would go home to paint work that could not be denied attention, that screamed loudly to alert the viewer that they were alive. In fact, I'd go to Cork Street (where many major galleries used to be) specifically to get enraged.
This was also a time when a youth tribe called skinheads were around. Not the 'fashion skinheads' one might see today, but really angry, violent young men. They were scary as hell and shouted their truth powerfully. I was terrified of them, but also connected to my own inner-skinhead when painting my figures. I wanted a directness and power that the nakedness of my figures and the hairlessness gave.

A few years into my artistic journey, there was an exhibition of Old Master drawings that I went to at the Hayward Gallery on The South Bank. Drawings by da Vinci, Michaelangelo and others from that period, in a darkened gallery with low lighting and a reverence for these fragments of paper, touched by the most revered artists, giving us a view of the characters that populated the world in those days. Extraordinary faces, faces seemingly exaggerated in their features, yet speaking volumes about the people we were looking at, long since dead.
Sitting on the underground on the way home I found myself opposite a row of people reading their papers or twiddling their thumbs (this was before people were occupied with smart phones) and as I looked keenly at these twentieth century faces, I realised they were the very same faces my artist forebears had seen and drawn. They had different hairstyles and wore different clothes, but these were the same people. Characters who had not changed in centuries of human history, and who would remain unchanged for millennia to come.
This was what I wished to paint; unchanging truth, and hair styles got in the way of this ideal.

When did you discover yourself as an artist and how?

From a young age I liked painting and writing and acting, but thinking of being an artist as a vocation didn't arrive till I was at The London College of Fashion in 1982.
My Careers Advisor at school had taken one look at me; the weird clothes, the died black spiky hair and the eye liner, and suggested fashion design. As I was interested in looking as odd as possible and was making my own clothes already, it sounded like a good way to go. The reality of further education was somewhat different. I was not well suited to studying in the prescribed way and within a few months the only lesson I was turning up to was Life Drawing on Thursdays.
At some point, my tutors decided I should leave. I was greatly relieved, my mother was not so happy. I saw the college counsellor a few times over the next couple of weeks and got clear about leaving, but with her help I now had a plan of sorts; to become an artist. 
I turned down the transfer to St Martin's College that was offered, as I felt nothing for what I saw when I visited, and just began to draw and paint, to follow my ideas and explore materials to make paintings.

How does a painting start?

The figurative works and the purely colour paintings start in differing ways.
The colour works really begin with the process of making my paint. I may have an idea about what size and shape of canvases I wish to work on, but what will happen in the act of painting is deliberately pushed out of my consciousness. I am not interested. When I have made new paint, and the canvases are ready, my aim is to approach them with no preconceived notion as to what might be about to appear on the canvas. The most I might allow myself, is to know the initial or overall colour I want. For this way of working, my main practice is to listen, and that starts during the mixing of pigment with linseed oil as I make my paint, which is for me, a meditation practice. So the colours begin with listening and being open.

The figure paintings arrive with the arising of a thought about the kind of impression I wish to give to people. This may occur from observing people and their characteristics, or from observing some emotional or thoughtful state within myself, which I then feel the urge to illustrate. With many of the large figure paintings, they are 'snapshots' from the story of Icsius, and the story itself began with a series of drawings not made from life but from the images I could see in my mind.
Since 1999 though, I have used photographs to work from, so initially I will take photographs of my subjects and make black and white prints to look at while I work. I do a wash of colour on the canvas to begin with, then the outline of the head or figures, and a glaze to give a second layer of colour to make the ground stronger and with more depth. This is in contrast with the colour wash that forms the base of the figure itself, and it is the paint of the figure or head that is last to be applied.

What do your colour paintings mean?

They 'mean' nothing.
My colour paintings are not conceived with my intellect and are not meant to be received with the intellect, that part of our mind that needs things to mean something verbally or numerically.

When looking at a sunset, a majestic mountain range, a tree, an animal or another human, we can simply be nourished by their existence and our own being in front of them. As long as we can allow our vision to do its natural work of ingesting what it sees directly and without critical judgement, rather than thinking about it with our binary brain function, then we can understand a greater meaning and be well fed by what we see.
I would recommend breathing my paintings in.

This way of taking in impressions, can in turn nurture an inner question, as much as it can simply feed one with a deep, natural satisfaction or sense of wonder. I would therefore suggest that one doesn't look for intellectual meaning where none is intended. In regard these colour paintings, and perhaps all art to some degree, I would suggest this way of actively 'looking' with open emotions. Then we can more easily see a work's content.
Listen and in-joy.