HOW HAVE THE PLACES YOU HAVE LIVED AFFECTED YOUR WORK?
I’m not really bothered about specific places. I get excited by sunlight and people, so anywhere I find those is good for me. If you look at any of my paintings with lots of people in, they will have been concocted from separate photos of people from all over the place. I like the beach (we live in Lytham St Annes). It’s a nice open space for people to occupy. Maybe that’s why I paint Squares (St Peter’s Square / St Anns Square) so often. They are wonderful open spaces with people sliding through and sunlight slicing across.
I’m not that interested in architecture either, apart from the way it allows the light to behave. A white building in sunlight is irresistible, even if it’s a tax office. Looking down Mosley Street, with those new skyscrapers rising in the distant haze, reminds me of New York. I get very excited arriving into a city. The visual stimulus of all these people and movement and light (after days in the studio) is almost overwhelming.
WHO ARE YOUR ARTISTIC INFLUENCES?
It’s a never – ending list. If I’m stuck or starting something new, I copy other artists’ work. It’s therapeutic (they have figured out all the problems) but I always learn something too.
For this body of work, here are some of the people I have looked at;
Early Matisse for his bold mark-making and non-realistic colour, a big influence on my outdoor work. Pissarro’s sensitivity to colour is also often in my mind when working outside, plus the way his friend Cezanne rigorously structured his compositions.
Willem De Kooning’s all-over compositions, his luscious palette and sensuous curving strokes. Walter Sickert’s painterliness and psychological intrigue. Craig Jefferson and Ian Norris for their use of paint.
I recently studied with Zoey Frank (online) and Nicolas Uribe (in person), both superstars. I’m also always thinking of my fellow Northern Boys and how hard they work, so I’d better get on with it.
YOUR PAINTINGS SEEM TO CRYSTALISE EVERYDAY MOMENTS INTO VIGNETTES ALMOST, ORDINARY SCENES WITH AN ADDED DREAM-LIKE QUALITY. HOW DO YOU ACHIEVE THIS?
It probably has something to do with the light. An ordinary subject in extraordinary light is extraordinary. When I was learning to paint, it was largely about learning to see and understand light. More recently, I tend to paint everything more brilliantly than is sensible, but that’s what excites me. It’s like I’m saying “Look at this, even in the shadows this is sensational.” I suppose I’m trying to make it look transcendent, so you can’t miss it.
I use every process possible to concoct a painting, especially the figure pieces. I don’t want to be restricted by the reference material. There is no such thing as one perfect photo. The subject may be engaging, but the light and the setting are tedious, or the other way round. Some of the figures are painted from life, others from photos, others invented. Inventing in this way, in the studio, I just try to remain sensitive to what the painting wants. I do what it tells me to do.
HOW DOES THE OUTCOME DIFFER FOR ARTWORKS THAT HAVE BEEN REWORKED OVER A NUMBER OF YEARS? ARE THEY MORE DIFFICULT TO LET GO OF ONCE COMPLETED?
I think the main difference is in the surface. I’m obsessed about keeping the surface lively, whether it takes years or minutes, but there is a definite difference in the result.
It’s been a big challenge to accept that I don’t tend to finish things in one go. I have hundreds of unfinished works in the studio, like stacks of puzzles I don’t know the answers to. OK, I have the odd one which comes together quickly. The colours and the brushmarks just flow and it’s done. Charming, like a young child. But that’s rare. Mostly I have to make them face the wall (like naughty children!) until I decide what to do with them.
I must say though, painting over dried paint opens up more possibilities than always working wet in wet. Glazing, scumbling, tonking, scraffito, I love all that stuff…I even invent my own techniques and give them names. I love it when the surface of a painting SURPRISES me. A painting that has been reworked over and over has a rich surface, like an elderly person, and lots of stories to tell.
Once they’re done, I’m happy to let them go. I’m more interested in the next one than the last one. Though it is nice to see a painting years later. It’s like meeting an old friend.
WHAT FASCINATES YOU SO MUCH ABOUT STORYTELLING?
Well, I can’t tell a story in the way an illustrator would. If I try to be too specific, to insist that a painting means one thing, it loses interest for me and I assume for the viewer as well. It has to be mysterious enough for people to read their own story into it.
It starts like a whisper. I’m drawn to a subject and I start to explore it. I don’t ask what it is about at the start. It might be a colour combination or the gesture of a figure or a series of shapes that I find interesting. I usually do some quick drawings and then launch in with blind faith that it will be fantastic straight away.
“Who’s Doing Tea?” started by painting the model, Alice, from life. I sometimes put the figure off-centre to allow things to happen in the empty space. At the end of the session, I felt it needed a shock of colour in the top right, so I asked a friend to stand there for a few minutes wearing a high-vis vest. Another friend suggested the title, which I like, but they could easily be at a bus stop or anywhere.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE PART OF A GROUP SUCH AS THE NORTHERN BOYS AND WHAT KIND OF BENEFITS DOES IT BRING?
Well I’m lucky to be a Northern Boy and I’m lucky to be a Trustee of the Manchester Academy of Fine Art. I mean it when I say I’m lucky because there are plenty of good painters who would love to be in these kinds of groups and it’s not a nice feeling being on the outside looking in.
Probably the most valuable thing they give me is the feeling of being respected by my peers. Like many artists, I quickly slip into self-doubt and depression. The studio is a lonely place when it’s not going well. So good friends, who understand the struggles, are priceless.
The Northern Boys get me up early and out painting, when I would normally still be in bed. We can stay cheaply when we go away and enjoy some banter. There are lots of practical benefits, but most of all it’s nice to be able to celebrate each other’s successes and commiserate the inevitable rejections.
YOU HAVE MENTIONED PREVIOUSLY THAT YOU LIKE TO MAKE IMAGES THAT REFLECT YOUR INNER LIFE, WHY IS THAT SO IMPORTANT TO YOU?
No matter what subject an artist paints, a huge part of themselves will end up on the canvas, but when we paint people, I think it opens up the greatest possibilities for expression of the inner self. It could be conveyed in the way a person is leans towards another, but it’s also in the action of the light or the energy of the marks. Bringing all these things together, expressing what it’s like to be human, is what makes Rembrandt the greatest ever.
It's frightening how autobiographical painting can be, even without trying. I didn’t realise until somebody pointed out that “Family Crossing” is a portrait of me, Lindsey and the boys. It’s not that my inner life is more interesting or important than anyone else’s, but with so much time on my own, it’s inevitable that it seeps into the work.
Over the last couple of years, my challenge has been to be more open to imagery that arises, even when it’s not what I would normally paint. If I can be more open and vulnerable, there is more chance of a painting connecting and speaking to someone. That’s what it’s all about.