“I’m a sunshine person which is tricky”
Contemporary British painter of Landscape and Still Life.
Interview by Clara Godwin-Suttie
Who do you make art for?
I think that when someone buys a painting it’s because something has spoken to them in the work and I never know who that’s going to be. I try to record what I see and inject a bit of magic into it. It’s a really personal thing when someone walks in the door and buys a painting. It’s because the work speaks to them in some way. So there’s a personal language and a universal language. When I paint, I’m putting my vision into the work but when someone looks at that work, they bring their own vision and experience. If those visions communicate in some way, then there is a dialogue, a recognition. Painting is another way of talking that reaches beyond words. It is a way of expressing the things that move me in some way and that hopefully, other people will see too.
What do you do to stay motivated?
Forcing myself. Not allowing myself to succumb. It would be easy to disappear into a swamp at the moment. A psychological swamp. It’s never far away. But it helps that we are going a little more towards spring. It feels like the worst of the winter is almost behind us. I got a new studio. I did that to try to give myself a different perspective in my work. I’ve got completely different work going on in this studio to what’s going on in the studio at home. It’s a bit like coming into work because I’m paying for it and it involves being organised and having all my stuff over here. I’m completely away from the house, from domesticity. I’ve created this extra work space which is quite new. When I come here I can shut out every other aspect of my life. This is only my third time working in it. I’ve had a massive mosaic project going on in the house so that when I can’t sleep (which happens quite often) I’ll stay up virtually all night and go and do my mosaic to radio three.
I find Instagram really useful. I only started it in December and it’s so much better for artists than Facebook because it concentrates on the visual. Putting the photographs of the landscapes that inspire me next to my paintings teaches me a lot. It encourages me to examine my colour pallet and the shapes in my paintings in a fresh way and to look at the influences of nature, its structures and areas of dark and light. It shows me the weak areas of my work as well as its strengths. Its like having my own, ever changing, mini exhibition. Putting work on Instagram sharpens my eye and my understanding of what I’m trying to do. It actually informs the work.
Where do you feel most inspired?
I love the Lake District particularly but the whole of the British Isles must have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I got a lot of my early inspiration from travels to India, Sri Lanka and Egypt. I’ve also done a lot of painting in Galicia in Northern Spain but to get to know a landscape you really need to spend some time in it. Immerse yourself in it. There’s a difference between looking at a landscape and really seeing it. When someone looks at a painting they don’t really see it to begin with. You’ve got to really look, and keep looking. It is the same with looking at a view. My travels to hot places have stayed with me and still influence my work but now I am older I stay closer to home. The colours in my work reflect this. There is so much inspiration in the British Isles for a landscape painter. Really I don’t have to go further than Yorkshire to find enough variation in the landscape to last my lifetime. I’m the sort of person who needs to concentrate – I don’t like moving around all that much, I like to really get to know the area that I’m in because otherwise I feel I only get a superficial impression. I like to immerse myself really deeply into a smaller area rather than cast my glance quickly over a big area, if that makes any sense. That way of working suits me, and I’m becoming more and more like that as time goes on. I no longer need aeroplanes and prefer to travel by bicycle which is just as well.
“I had all this pent up creativity inside me so I absolutely had to paint”
When do you struggle to make art?
When there’s a lot going on in the rest of my life. In the first lock down I was incredibly creative because it was Spring and we were living in an area of outstanding natural beauty – I was in heaven. I struggle through the winter. I just don’t think I should live in this country in the winter. I hate the lack of light, lack of sun you know, it really doesn’t suit me. I’m a sunshine person. Even though I love the British Isles I’m a sunshine person which is tricky. Maybe I do need aeroplanes after all. Those long dark days, you know, when there’s not enough light, it’s really not that inspiring. It was more difficult when I was working as well as painting. I’d get no light during the day and then have to paint at night in a false light. Maybe this has been the most difficult time, this winter lock down. I don’t know how long it’s been… It’s probably been three weeks but it feels like six weeks.
Why did you decide to become an artist?
I don’t think I decided, it was decided for me. I had all this pent up creativity inside me so I absolutely had to paint. A friend of mine who’s quite an established artist gave me four, five foot square stretchers, told me where to order canvas from, where to order the paint and said ‘get on with it’. So that’s how I started. I was always more of a writer, really, my parents thought I was going to be a writer and writing was the way I expressed creativity the most and when I’m in a black time with my painting I sort of just go back to writing because you don’t need much equipment for writing.
I wonder if I’ll be a Mary Wesley and start writing when I’m 70 because all you need is a room, really. And that appeals to me sometimes. Creativity is always a battle and it doesn’t matter how you’re doing it or what sort it is. It’s always a struggle, a sort of refining process. It’s sifting out the dross to make something beautiful. Picking all the best bits to make something new. Knowing how to arrange them. For me, that’s what the whole process is about. It’s the same with writing, with the constant editing. I mean, you do that constant editing with paint- painting out and painting in and taking away and adding. It’s the same process, isn’t it? It’s probably the same process with music composition too. But it’s difficult, it’s a very difficult process. It’s hard work.
Do you have any advice for other artists?
The thing that really started my career was York Open Studios, so I would advise any artist at the beginning of their career to get involved with some local Opens Studios. That gives you support deadlines and connections. They help you get your name out there so i think Open Studios are fantastic things for developing an artists career. From Open Studios, Galleries might find you and they play their own role in developing your career. Your galleries change as your career develops. You have to be accepted to most Open Studios so there’s a certain standard you need to reach. However, they do sometimes make the wrong decisions so I wouldn’t be discouraged if you don’t get in. I know some very good artists who’ve been rejected from Open Studios and it’s a mystery to me, but the rejected artists can be very good so you have to be tough. Rejection is often part of the territory of being an artist and it never stops as your work develops and the stakes get higher. You have to develop a thick skin and remember that all thick skins sometimes wear very thin and that it is completely normal to feel lost, vulnerable and pointless and that despite this you have to go on because it is the only way you will get better.
There’s no replacement for the hours you put in. The only way to improve is to keep on painting and paint a lot. You need to find the best working environment for you. Artists need different conditions for their work. Some thrive from working in a group, whereas I thrive, indeed need, isolation. We all need some sort of connection with other artists but people do that in different ways. I think studying other artists and looking at their work on Instagram is another thing that has been really informative for me. There are so many outstanding artists on Instagram that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Those are the artists working now, today. Trying to keep the creative flame going during Lock down when their work is locked in closed galleries. There’s just so much talent out there it’s humbling.