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 need to respond to.

Firstly,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 no dynamic energy it seemed to me, which was what I was interested in, and 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 specifically to get enraged.
This was a time when 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.

Secondly, 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.
On the tube on the way home I was sitting 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 forefathers 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 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 adviser at school had taken one look at me, the clothes, the 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 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, 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 with the mixing of pigment with linseed oil as I make my paint, which is a meditation. So the colours begin with listening and being open.

The figures arrive with a thought about the impression I wish to give to people.
Since 1999 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 to begin with, then the outline of the head or figures and a second glaze of colour to make the ground a stronger more solid colour, in contrast with the colour base of the figure itself.

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.
When looking at a sunset, a majestic mountain range, a tree or the ocean, one is simply nourished by their existence and one's 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 with our binary brain function. Breath them 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, I say: I am a bird, not an ornithologist.
Listen and in-joy.