Tell us a bit about yourself and your practice.
I first became interested in painting when I was in secondary school. My art teacher gave me my first hand-made canvas to use for my final piece of my Impressionism project; the Impressionists fascinated me with their colours, their perception of the world, their attention to light, it remains my favourite artistic movement. I love the way they captured the world and movement within it, and for a long time I painted in a similar way, utilising the North Yorkshire countryside as my inspiration for a lot of the work I produced in those formative years. The influence of the town I lived in started creeping into my work on my foundation degree – as you look towards Hartlepool from Redcar beach, you can see the steelworks on the horizon, a geometric eyesore which is intrinsic to the identity of the town and the people. My work started featuring pylons, then lines and so my practice began to form.
Today, my practice has evolved from painting nature, to contemplating what it is to paint ‘naturally’ – by this I mean painting without consideration of a subject or representational element in the piece. The work I produce develops through a progression of layers; starting with very fluid and loose paint, adding inks and oils mixed with different mediums to create different chemical reactions, which result in a variation of textures and finishes to the paint. But even loosely knowing the which combinations create which patterns does not mean that I am in control of what actually appears on the canvas once it is dry. I have found that fluctuating temperatures in the studio affect drying times which in turn affects the way the work dries.
I might choose to introduce a linear structure to the work. I describe this process as adding the ‘human element’, like people building on land. Paint is then layered on top of these structures, like abandoned buildings being reclaimed by nature.
The method and process by which the work is created embody the concept with which the work is concerned: the nature-manmade binary, that is, the conversation between the natural component of the paint, being challenged by the human element of the linear structure. In this sense, the work forms the idea and the idea is the work.
I was once told that if you are comfortable with your painting, you are not a good artist, so I try to make moves and use colours which feel uncomfortable, to ‘push’ the work further.
As a process painter, your work has a very organic feel, but you always manage to achieve a very controlled, and in the case of commissions, bespoke, final work. How do you achieve this with such a natural painting technique?
The idea of the work is for the paint to be unrestricted and free-moving, so having to try and harness the paint for specific commissions, without losing that organic feeling, is definitely a challenge! Funnily enough, and though it sounds cliché, the key to achieving that control, is being in the right frame of mind. I have ripped so many canvasses off stretchers because I was trying to force the paint and reactions to do what I wanted them to without success! Similarly, if I’m feeling frustrated I cannot paint. I have to remember that the paint must always be free and I must always be patient. I can apply it more sparingly, pipets help a lot with that, and push my hand into the canvas so it rolls in a specific way on the surface, but there is always an element of not being in control of it. I think it is largely just patience and perseverance which ultimately, occasionally, works!
You’re having enormous success with commissions! Can you tell me how you approach each project?
I always like to consider the people who will be viewing the work when I am creating commissions; the environment which the work will hang is as important as all of the layers of paint and ink on the surface.
The space within which the work will ‘live’ can determine the structure I may or may not use on the piece. Similarly, the people who will be in contact with the work and what they are doing can determine which colours I use. The people who are going to be seeing the work are as important as the work itself. For me, the commission brief is just one element of creating bespoke work; every possible thing that could affect the work has to be considered.
Commissions are something I had not even considered when I was studying; they were never something I had imagined I would be asked to do! However, often the briefs do give me easy access to that uncomfortable feeling which has become integral to my thought process when making work… You might be forgiven for saying they let me cheat!
Do you ever run workshops teaching your painting technique? Is this something you’d consider doing as part of a commission?
I have not run any workshops so far; I definitely would never rule them out. I do think that everybody has the ability to paint, however they cannot be taught how to do it for themselves. You can show somebody the style of the impressionists and they can create a technically correct piece, but to be able to make original work, you have to embrace the idea that painting is not just the finished piece that people see – sounds pretentious I know…
The most valuable thing I have learned so far, is to never be precious about a painting. Basically, if you are working on a piece and you like it, destroy it. It makes you more willing to change and bend, take risks and create work that might not be pleasing to look at. The key phrase of my education was “There isn’t enough tension.” But when I asked what it was, the response would be, “you tell me.” I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to not know what you’re trying to achieve. Now I sort of know: if you look at your work and want to say “oh that’s nice” there is no tension.
If you could place your work anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I believe that art needs to be accessible to anyone and everyone. I think it is important not just to hang in galleries, but in public spaces, offices, people’s houses! I think the more ‘non-arty’ people (as I call them) are given the opportunity to see artwork, the more they are likely to seek it out.
Being from quite an industrial area in the North East of England, art was never readily accessible to me whilst I was growing up, so that meant I saw art largely in houses, waiting rooms, libraries, pubs! I definitely have a soft spot for hanging work in hospitals too. I remember when I was very young, I was in hospital for a few days with pneumonia, and the thing I remember the most about being there was the cartoon characters on the walls and the windows; put there purely to make the space less clinical and scary. I and some of my family members have had stays in hospital more recently, and being in hospital is bad enough without being wheeled through endless corridors of muted landscapes. There is so much potential for having artwork in hospitals, as another platform to introduce people to contemporary art. If the work also happens to brighten up even one patients’ or workers’ day, then that is an added bonus.