Some answers to questions I am frequently asked… (originally posted in 2010 – but occasionally added to since) Please bear in mind that these answers are to a mix of student questions raised to me over a twenty year period. If on occasion they contradict each other then that is the nature of my approach to the world. Nothing is set in stone – perhaps I’m a pragmatic dogmatic.
The emotions in the faces of your subjects is so profound. I see anger. Despair. Pain. Loneliness. Madness. All sort of caught in mid-stride. Do you use your subjects as sort of a release for your own emotions? As if you are living through your art?
I don’t know, I don’t analyse it. I just make the work and in so doing paint what I choose to paint. I’ve had a history of depressive episodes that I was heavily medicated for but I eventually made the decision to live without the medication. Perhaps my work is a kind of cheap personal therapy.
Why did you choose your subject matter instead of some other subject matter? Has anything influenced it such as your location, culture, personal experience or time?
I make art about subjects that move or just interest me. It could be something on the news, a turn of phrase that amuses me, the look of a person on a bus or just the emotion I feel from listening to a piece of music. Everything influences my response to life; consequently it appears in my art. And there are very few pieces of work that have one sole influencing factor. I can start with an idea of making a piece of work on one subject that can change into being about another subject should another idea seem appropriate to add. Making art (for me) is, I suppose, like thinking visually and presenting those thoughts for others to see. It’s very, very personal.
I see drug addicts, prostitutes, the mentally ill, and the destitute all over your art. Do you feel an empathy for those who struggle? Is that where a lot of your art is born…through feeling deeply for those in pain.
I think everybody feels empathy for those that are suffering. Sometimes it may not stretch beyond concerns for the immediate family (perhaps out of a sense of realising that an individual can’t fix the world) but it’s the natural human condition. We are social animals and that sense of community is built into us. I used to be very involved in trade union work and other social support networks. Perhaps there’s an aspect of my work that has taken over that hole in my working life.
What do you want others to feel when they look at your work? Do you want them to connect with the people in your paintings?
I don’t think a viewer can truly ‘connect’ with a figure in a painting, but perhaps I can present something that they feel relates a narrative or emotional sense that’s relevant to their experience. The ideas, narratives, inspirations and texts that go into any piece of work are mine; for my benefit.
Do you connect with the people in your paintings? If so, do you disconnect after you finish a piece?
When the painting leaves the studio I have no further interest in working on it. I have only two pieces of my work that I have decided to keep and that is for the technical reasons of their painting rather than their subject matter. I don’t attach to my work once it’s done with.
What do you want people to feel when they look at your art?
The only thing I want them to understand with each piece is that I have tried my hardest to resolve the personal issues that led to its making. I don’t demand that everybody understands or likes my work – but I’d hope they’d understand that I’d tried my best to make the strongest work with any particular idea and my capabilities at that time.
Name a poet, song, and piece of art that describes your view of the world?
T.S.Eliot “The Hollow Men”, Swans “Failure”, Kathe Kollwitz “Woman With Dead Child”
What do you do when you are not painting?
I worry about wasting time that I should be spending painting.
Why do you paint?
I paint for a hundred and one reasons. I paint to the demands of a commissioner, I paint for myself, I paint to make a political point, I paint as personal therapy, I paint to learn about painting, I paint to give away the work and I paint to sell the work, I paint because it’s an obsession and I paint because I’m selfish, I paint to make beautiful things, I paint to make ugly things and I paint for reasons I can’t
Do you work in a studio with other artists?
No, I couldn’t work in an environment like that. Artists can be a pain in the arse to work with – I prefer to paint alone and do so at my home studio.
What does your typical day consist of?
I wake generally at 7am and hopefully by about 9 I generally start painting. If it’s going well I can be painting until 9 at night (in the summer) but usually I finish at 6pm. If the painting isn’t working then I’ll turn to drawing. Working any later than that isn’t practical for getting up in a vaguely sensible fashion for work the next day.
How do you choose the colours you use to paint with?
I like to minimize my palette to strengthen my experience of how those colours work with each other. You’ll always see when I ‘discover’ a new colour that I like, as I’ll use it (probably to excess) over the next few months of painting. I find greys are a particular challenge. I love working with them but have enormous problems creating satisfactory mixes. That’s one of the reasons I admire Karl Weschke’s work – he was great with grey.
Why do you use words or sentences in some of your paintings? Do you think that it helps to express your emotion when paint?
I like the aesthetics of collaged text. It also follows on from the stencilled text graffiti I used to do in the 80s. I like the additional meanings (asides from the obvious visual ones I put in) that viewers get from the text. And I occasionally write into the wet oil paint. The written word is far more intrusive on our lives than we realise and for that reason I like to refer to it.
When painting, is it your emotion that you are painting or that of other people?
Even if the subject appears to be displaying an emotion, the emotional subject of the painting will be mine. My best work seems to occur when moods are more negative. If I’m painting someone that looks like they’re angry then it’s probably mirroring my state at that time, or I wouldn’t choose that subject.
I’m not really sure as I don’t self analyse my mental state before I work. Whatever comes out, comes out.
What percentage of the day do you think about or work on your art?
I know it sounds like a cliché, but more or less continually. When I’m painting I’m fully involved but when I’m not painting I’m thinking about how my current piece is, or should be, progressing. When I’m in the bath I’m thinking about my work, when I’m cooking or driving I’m thinking about my work, when I’m going to sleep I’m thinking about my work.
When you’re creating, is it difficult for you to switch over to the left side of your brain to handle everyday tasks?
I don’t know. I don’t think in those analytical fashions. All I know is that other work is an impediment to me painting fulltime.
What do you enjoy most about the art you create?
I enjoy it when it seems to work and offer solutions for other pieces yet to be finished or when I come to the end of a piece. Not a very precise answer I know, but that’s the only aspect of it that makes me carry on doing it.
Can you describe your style of work in your own words?
No young artist likes to be defined in terms of ‘old’ work, but when the dawning realization comes that you’re no longer ‘young’ and that nothing is ever ‘original’ you don’t mind so much. Other people have called my work ‘expressionist’, ‘urban’, ‘political’, ‘socially critical’… you can apply whatever label you like to more or less any piece of work by any artist these days. Even Turner gets described primarily in Modernist terms nowadays. Even though I’ve championed the artistic definition of ‘neomodernism’ if anything I’d like to think of my work as generally following in the grand and nebulously defined and unfashionable tradition of Romanticism. Until I change my mind again.
What do you look for in artwork?
Heart and conviction to do the best you can. Honesty in the false and ugly face of fashion.
Many of your subjects seem androgynous. How important do you think gender is in artwork?
Not as important as the artwork itself. It’s too easy to drop into a practice that fulfils the demands of the commissioners without paying attention to the quality of the work. If it helps I personally know that the simple male/female and straight/gay duality is a social construct and convenience rather than being a specific genetic pre-determination. Genders and sexualities are far more fluid and amorphous than ‘either/or’.
What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock bottom?
Any rejection from a gallery, public or private, is hard. But more so when they won’t even take the time to see the work. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t care about not selling my work – provided that I had the opportunity to at least show it.
There was a period (about 1997) when I was struggling (and failing) to get through the hoops put in your way to obtain public arts funding for a show in disused shop space. This tied up with the usual patronizing rejections from commercial galleries led me to destroy a huge amount of work in a bonfire one night. Another pointless gesture!
Your writing is very honest and I empathize with much of it. Do you find this helps to express yourself in art?
When I get talking about art I tend not to shut up. Wwriting it down is a way of having a rant without peoples’ eyes glazing over! I think the art should stand on its own without verbiage. I do have a desire to write but I find it difficult work.
I noticed a dislike of the pretentious upper class attitude in art (Turner Prize); do you find the general public is as involved with the arts as much as they should be?
The general public, sad to say, generally couldn’t give a toss about much contemporary ‘avant-garde’ art. To most people it’s about as important and relevant to them as football is to me. The singular difference is though, if I was sat down in front of a strange football game for the first time in my life, I could probably figure out what the bloody hell was going on and perhaps even the main stay of the rules within the time of watching it.
Sometimes even I have a job to figure out what’s going on in the art world, and I try and keep ahead of its excesses. What chance do the public have? The art world isn’t helping itself in this respect – but the establishment is quite happy to maintain their supposed authority of the ‘informed’ elite. Incidentally, I don’t consider it an ‘upper’ class attitude, though it is certainly pretentious. I just consider it a intentionally exclusive attitude, and it tends to be more related to public art establishments and blue-chip galleries.
Do you feel political art displays the truth?
Political art only displays a combination of what the artist presents as truth and what the audience agrees as truth. Didactic art generally doesn’t work – it usually preaches to the converted or further pisses off those that didn’t agree with the argument anyway. It’s like a friend coming to you for advice. They don’t want advice, they want you to confirm the decision they’ve already made in their own mind. Political art can inform – if done with some consideration of avoiding propoganda. But equally, propogandizing can reinforce support amongst those that may agree but feel in the minority.
Do you enjoy doing political paintings?
I don’t see them as political paintings. They’re more individual expressions of my opinion or feeling. If that’s perceived as political then I suppose yes I must do. I paint what I paint.
Is art a reaction (the process of erasure paintings) or a provocation?
It can be either. Hopefully it’s both at the same time. That way it maintains relevance beyond its own time. Is a protest piece more important than any other? No – a protest piece is just temporarily more important. BANKSY realizes this – he’s the finest exponent of political art we’ve had for a long time. Unfortunately he’s generally considered an anonymous clown, but I think he’s much more. And in my opinion he’ll be remembered in the same sense that William Hogarth and John Heartfield are remembered now. Some say that society gets the art it deserves; I think society also get’s the vandals it deserves.
In an interview you expressed distaste of anarchy however I still detect a desire to hit out, is this purely in reaction to, for example, the government or do we as people need to protest or complain about certain aspects of life? Without this cause would you have the same desire to paint?
Politically I’d consider myself an anarchist, I don’t know where you think I’ve expressed a distaste of it! Anarchism is the ultimate state of responsible democracy. Of course it wouldn’t work on a large scale (currently) because humanity is intrinsically encouraged by our current economic system to be selfish and greedy.
So has any other political system worked? Has there ever been equitable state communism? Is there any demonstration of inclusive and socially beneficient capitalism? Anarchism as an ideology has a set of aims that it, as a political system of organization, would like to achieve. I agree with those aims. I object to the vilification of ‘anarchy’ by commentators and the media that use it when they
mean ‘chaos’ or ‘disorder’. I’d paint without politics – indeed I did when I was a child! The only reason that politics sometimes enters my work is because it’s a subject that impacts on my considerations of organising a responsible sense of community.
And through Art, being the medium I operate in, it means some people seem to take notice of what I say (or paint).
How long can you go without creating before it starts to affect you physically or mentally?
I try to paint, or plan towards painting every day. If I don’t do something related, even if it’s only reading about art, I get uneasy after a day or so. I consider that I don’t have any time to waste.
It’s a perverse and dysfunctional obsession.
Is art an escape from the world for you?
Yes. I hate the modern world and the way in which ordinary people are dragged through it by those in power. I hate that war has become normalised into a vehicle for economic growth. I can’t stand the western obsession with acquiring stuff just for the sake of keeping up with a corporate vision of consumer fashion. I hate the profligate waste that’s all around us, and the way that responsibility for environmental damage is placed upon the consumer rather than the producer. I hate the way that we’re watched, monitored, controlled, told what to do and where not to go. I hate the insidious, mind-numbing inanity of a popular media that celebrates idiocy and image over content and quality. I hate the increasing cultural homogeneity that’s being forced upon the world by unaccountable corporate monsters. I detest all the politicians that view their public service as a lifetime career rather than a short term opportunity to make a positive difference (they should be subject to an eight year maximum fixed term of public office). I hate that the moneyed elite are still able to divide and rule by deliberately maintaining and increasing an obscene global differential of wealth.
But apart from that I’m happy.
Would you feel fulfilled if you didn’t have art in your life?
Absolutely not. I’ve always maintained that an artist is probably the most selfish person on the planet.
Do you embrace modern technologies in your preparations?
Certainly. I can research the written references in my painted work now far much easier than I could before the internet. If a political subject needed thorough research in the 80s and early 90s it would take a great deal of time and patience at local libraries whereas now it’s instant and quite literally at the tips of my fingers. I can also capture news images from video available online whereas before the internet I would be stood in front of a TV screen with a manual camera and a large bag of luck…
How do you see your work developing in the future?
I don’t know. If I had certainty about where my work was going I’d cut out the journey in the middle and just do whatever the end result was meant to be. All I can hope to do is to make increasingly stronger paintings that mean as much to an audience viewing them as they do to me when I’m painting them…
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist at this time?
Don’t expect miracles. Just put the hours in and treat it like it’s a job. If you have to do it then nothing will stop you. It might mean painting at night and supporting the obsession with crap jobs in the day – but that’s the price of the need to make whatever you have to make. If you can walk away and not do it then it’s probably not really that important to you – find something else to do other than art. Be true to yourself.
Would you call yourself a contemporary painter, a traditional painter, or something else?
Because of my general preference for oil paint, a medium that by some would be considered ‘traditional’, many people consider me a card-carrying art-reactionary. That tends to be the usual pejorative association of the term ‘traditional painter’. By definition of still bearing a pulse and consuming air I must also be a ‘contemporary painter’ – a description I don’t mind. If I’m dealing with the art world, and it’s already assumed I’m a visual artist of some sort, I don’t mind calling myself a painter. But I wouldn’t say this to a stranger who just asks what I do for a living. In that situation, if you answer ‘painter’, people then sometimes ask me to quote for decorating their bathroom or kitchen. Generally, for the sake of not having to turn down unwanted decorating jobs, if someone asks I tell them I am an artist. In France it’s easier – even the state considers me an ‘artiste-peintre’.
There is, among some artists when faced with the same question, a preference of calling themselves ‘painter’ rather than ‘artist’. This is sometimes done to give the impression that they consider themselves a worker and not a pretentious aesthete; they will then qualify the statement with something along the lines of ‘it’s up to others (or history) to decide if I am an artist’. I used to do it before I knew better and generally consider this more pretentious than calling yourself an artist. It plays on pandering to the snobbery and pretentions of the intellectualism and connoisseurial credentials of the questioner; it’s almost fishing for compliments.
Where do you think the traditional easel painter stands in the art world today?
Once again, who would we consider a ‘traditional’ easel painter? It all generally comes down to the critical acceptance and celebration of individual artists. Currently in the UK, the likes of Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Paula Rego can generally do no wrong as far as critical acclaim is concerned so ‘traditional’ figurative painting is as valid as ever. Admittedly they are probably considered by some as the last of a certain generation of painters but then painters like Antony Micallef, Ray Richardson and Jenny Saville has shown how the medium moves on without losing its relevance to a younger audience.
Is beauty and aesthetics important in your painting?
The aesthetic of the medium certainly is important. I was always influenced by a potential visual punch delivered by interesting paint effects, generally best exemplified through abstraction. This is why I am so impressed by the work of Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, Joseph Turner and Gerhard Richter – I love the way they manipulated their media.
As to an idea of a general aesthetic, or beauty, in my painting I’m not sure. I don’t set out to make something that is either ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. Each piece of work is generally established though its subject and not its depiction. During its painting it will present different problems that have to be addressed with different painting solutions that are learnt as you progress as a painter.
Personally I think that painting can never be totally autonomous or separated from its social function; certainly not if the work is planned for public exhibition. I used to think it was very important and disappeared into painterly abstraction for about five years before I realised that I was disappearing up a formalist dead-end. There was nothing I was doing that hadn’t been done by abstract painters before me.
What is your opinion on the art market and the value of a painting?
The art market is a necessary evil that allows me to paint fulltime and exhibit to the public. I am not independently wealthy; I have no state or independent private patronage so I have to accept that I am at the mercy of the market. If the success I have recently benefited from stopped tomorrow I would be grateful for the last few years of very good sales and go back to supplementing my painting income with another job as I did for the twenty odd years before I moved to France.
As to the value of a painting? I am permanently puzzled. I have bought other people’s work and clearly the value is no more and no less, that which the market will accept. I do not put the prices on my work as I cannot begin to relate a financial value to my work that a selling gallery will agree with. I can make two paintings of equal size that appear visually and technically similar, where one could’ve taken ten times the effort, material cost and hours painting than the other – but the market wouldn’t support such a financial disparity.
Where do you think painting is at today in relation to contemporary art and the advent of new media such as film, photography, digital art, installation etc.?
This is an enormous question and vast tracts have been expounded on it. Western visual art history is centred on painting, particularly since Vasari wrote his ‘Lives of the Artists’. I think too much has been invested, financially and philosophically, for painting to ever be side-lined at the expense of newer media. I do think though that over the last forty years painting has suffered through deluded intellectualised debates over its ‘death’ through irrelevance. Certainly the choice of potential media has broadened for artists and that is a good thing however there is something urgent, primal and immediate about mark-making that will always allow painting and drawing to be relevant media. I have used photography and I have dabbled with film and digital art but personally painting has an authenticity of personal expression that has not been matched by other media.
We live in an age where anything goes in art. What is your opinion with this regarding painting?
My only objection to the ‘anything goes’ approach to painting is when technically deficient work is being critically defended as ‘intentionally’ bad. This is lazy both in terms of the work’s creation and in its critical interpretation. If a critic cannot assess the capacity of an artist to competently make the right mark in the right place they need only ask another artist who can. There is a vast difference between a skilled artist attempting to make work that displays an attitude of creative naivety and an art school graduate of limited technical ability, disguising this inability with hackneyed, half-considered and half understood intellectual defences of irony and self-regard.
When did you begin to take a strong interest in art?
When I was in primary school I realised that I had a talent for it. Basically from that age on I more or less decided that it was something I wanted to do (I just wasn’t aware really of how you did it). My parents encouraged my interest in the subject by buying whatever books on art history I saw and wanted – they never considered buying art books a luxury – something I’m immensely grateful for, and in fact I’ve still got all the books now.
My father had a love of the arts (I think it probably developed from an unfulfilled desire to do something formally recognized as creative) and my natural ability was fully encouraged. Also my maternal grandmother was a retired local schoolteacher and she had a huge influence on my development in terms of appreciation of literature and the arts generally.
Which artists’ work inspires you?
Alive? The artists whose work interests me are Michael Borremans, Paula Rego, Herakut, Mathew Barney, Jenny Saville, Ernest Pignon Ernest, Ray Richardson, Antony Micallef, Gonzalo Borondo. But others are always turning up!
Dead artists? The painters whose work I love the most are Goya and Kathe Kollwitz but also I admire much of the work of Franz Kline, William Orpen, R.B. Kitaj, Jack Levine, Caravaggio, Bernini, Degas, Rembrandt, Rauschenberg, Bacon, Whistler, Courbet, Delacroix, Gericault, Turner, Picasso… the list is endless!
Could you name some artworks which you like or dislike?
Degas’ ‘Young Spartans’ in the National Gallery has been a huge influence on my work. Kollwitz never fails to move me emotionally. Certain aspects of Kahlo’s work are impressive in its autobiographic honesty. Donatello’s first bronze David is gorgeous and much stronger (I feel) than his next bronze David or Michelangelo’s famous marble equivalent. On the subject of just ‘liking’… Sargent and Whistler were good at inspired apparent ‘casual’ flicks of paint (which were anything but). And I’ve always felt that Franz Kline has been unjustly sidelined at the expense of Pollock and de Kooning as the big hitter of the New York school. I’m attracted to any piece really where there is ‘good paint’.
Who were your early influences?
Franz Kline made a very distinct impression on me (in a book on American art I had in my early teens), as did Picasso and Goya. Though I was generally happy looking at anybody’s work. I’ve been reading on art since the age of eleven so I’ve forgotten the specific influences but I’m sure images of most of the traditional canon of western art had passed before my eyes by the end of my mid teens.
What are your favourite ‘works’ of other creatives?
Musically there’s Ligeti, Radiohead, Anna Calvi, Nyman, Glass, Michael Gira, Faure, Swans, James, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Coil, Godspeed You Black Emperor, James, Schubert, Jarboe, Verdi, J S Bach, Carter USM, Damien Saez, Mozart, Perfume Genius, Mahler, Einsturzende Neubauten, Brian Eno, religious choral music (of all faiths), The Flaming Lips, The Legendary Pink Dots… my music collection is tending to the ridiculous in both its eclectic nature and its physical volume.
The written word? There’s a lot of Laurie Lee, Hermann Hesse, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Naomi Klein on my shelves and the like. I know it’s old hat, but I love Shakespeare’s plays, and also theatrically I think Sarah Kane’s work was incredible. One of the most moving plays I have seen was Warren Mitchell in Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’.
Cinema… well, David Lynch is a great favourite as is Mike Leigh, Pasolini and Ingmar Bergman. I’m also a lover of sci-fi (serious and cheesy) and a self-confessed, unapologetic Trekkie.
I’m also a huge fan of contemporary dance and modern ballet because I love to see the human body stretched to the limit in a way that only dancers can do.
Are you inspired by any of your peers in the contemporary art scene?
There are pieces of work by others that have given me a lot of ideas technically and subject wise but I can’t say that there are any contemporary artists whose work has consistently ‘inspired’. There are only three artists in history (and my history, because of my age, is invariably tied to the western canon of art) that I could say have stayed with me from my youth as being inspirational: First and foremost Kathe Kollwitz, then Francisco Goya and Rembrandt.
Do you try and produce some pieces whenever you have time or do you make sure to make time to do some?
I’m thinking of ideas all the time and I generally paint in the daytime now. I throw a huge amount of stuff away and can get quite frustrated and stroppy if nothing’s working. I’m painting or drawing most days.
What’s the longest time you’ve ever spent on a piece?
Some pieces hang around for ages waiting to be finished. There was a piece that I started on the evening of September 11th 2001 that I didn’t finish until 2005.
I’ve always got several paintings on the go at any given time. Perhaps from any given idea I might start a dozen pieces simultaneously and as slight variations fall by the way I’ll perhaps be left with two or three finished paintings.
There was one occasion in the early 90s where I started and finished one large abstract in a day (this was when I was combining layers of gouache with finishing layers of oil glaze), but this has been the exception. I was so overjoyed at the outcome that I immediately took up another canvas and repeated the ‘formula’ to see if I could achieve the same buzz that the first painting gave me. Needless to say it didn’t and I destroyed the second attempt.
That’s the only time when I’ve had a feeling like that from my own work – a bizarre mix of elation and achievement.
What conditions do you like to work in?
Sat down indoors, with tobacco, strong coffee, and listening to miserable music.
Did you pick up on other artist’s techniques or did you always have your own style?
I’m always accusing myself of stealing other people’s ideas – all artists do it. It is both flattering and interesting though that you think I have my own style. But it isn’t something I’ve sought. I just work in the way that interests me at any given time; I’m not particularly original. It’s only paint on canvas after all. And I think that originality for the sake of originality is an over-valued, misunderstood resource…
What materials and equipment do you use? What is your favourite medium?
I think my strength is drawing and my first choices of materials are Jakar compressed charcoal sticks (black and their white pastel), Conté a Paris compressed charcoal pencils and plastic erasers which I can cut to get a clean and sharp line when I erase to make a mark. I also like Sennelier’s dry pastels for muted colours. To fix the work I use Molotow’s Belton acrylic clear coat aerosol which also gives sufficient protection to the work I paste up on the street. But painting in oils is my preferred drug -it’s a beautiful, sensual medium to work in. The feel of it, the smell of it… it feels like some kind of alchemical process sometimes.
I use a lot of Sennelier’s paints and Jacksons’ glazing medium. Specific transparent colours like Indian Yellow or Phthalo Blue I am happy to buy from any established maker.
Why have you chosen these particular techniques to shape materials? What else could you have used?
I’ve chosen them because I experimented with them and found them to be the most appropriate for the kind of work I’m making at the time. I will experiment with any material and technical process – but if it doesn’t seem that it will deliver what I want it to then I will either drop that process or find a creative avenue that will suit it. The love of the medium and process is not the prime reason I make art.
What is your favourite paper for drawing?
I don’t have a favourite paper; I am happy to draw on any surface. I choose the paper depending on the drawing medium, the nature of the drawing method (vigorous or gentle) and the ideas in my head of the proposed outcome. In the 1980s, because I was drawing so often I would use old newspapers as a surface for rough sketching because it was affordable. It is only since about 2000 that I have used newspapers and packaging as a surface for finished work – and that was an aesthetic choice.