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 must 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 generally 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 their 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, Michelangelo 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 train on the way home I found myself opposite a row of people reading their papers or twiddling their thumbs (this was before people were absorbed into their 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 firmly announced ‘you want to be a fashion designer!’. 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 though. 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 and I was back at college the next day. I saw the college counsellor a few times over the next couple of weeks, and with her patient and insightful help I clarified that I wanted to leave, but now I also had a plan of sorts; to become an artist.

I turned down the transfer to St Martin's College of Art that was offered, as I felt no connection to what was going on there when I visited, and just began to draw and paint quite naively for myself, to follow the ideas I came across and the impulses that life gave me. By exploring materials and techniques with occasional guidance and tips from friends or stumbling across Cornelissen & Son one day, and by looking intensely at great paintings I was attracted to in museums, I began to make paintings.

How does a painting start?

The figurative works and the purely colour paintings start in differing ways.

The colour works (Universal Love Paintings, Mindful Paintings and other colour paintings) 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 tend to arrive with the arising of an image or vision in my mind. There follow thoughts about the kind of impression to give to people through the paintings and how to make them. The thinking process is a response to the original vision. These impressions of paintings that want to be painted are just making themselves known to me, and I am then compelled to respond to carrying this image and ‘giving birth’ to it. With some of the large figure paintings I painted at the start of my artistic life, 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 when I closed my eyes.

Since 1999 I’ve used photographs to work from, so initially I will photograph my subjects in black and white, directing them so that they fulfil the scene I must paint. I then have 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 will be in contrast to the colour wash that forms the base of the figure itself, and it is the paint of the figure or head itself 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, which can be described as the binary operating system we are mainly governed by in modern, urban daily life. The thinking ‘apparatus’ that is continually filtering what we see, hear or taste as good or bad, as liked or disliked with a resulting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reaction, is not useful in absorbing what these paintings have to offer.

For instance, when we’re looking at a sunset or a majestic mountain range, even a tree, flower, animal or another human, we can simply look and be nourished by their existence and our own being in front of them. It’s understood that we don’t have to analyse in order to appreciate them. As long as we can allow our vision to do its natural work of taking in or ingesting what it sees directly, without dissection or critical judgement, then we can understand a greater meaning and be well fed by what we see.

I would recommend trying to breath 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 my colour paintings, and perhaps all art to some degree, I would suggest this way of actively 'looking' with open emotions, bypassing one’s analytical thought processes. Then we can more easily see or read a work's actual content and find what nourishment lies there.

Listen and in-joy.