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The Daily Practice of Painting: An Interview with Robert Priseman

Lucy Cox: Describe your typical studio day.

Robert Priseman: I live to a routine, beginning at 9am with a coffee and then working through until about 4pm with a two-hour break for a walk at lunch. Five hours is the maximum I can usefully manage on painting in a day; anything beyond that, and I start making mistakes.

I’ve used the same nine colours in my paintings all my life. A limited colour palette makes relocating mixed colours and matching new to old artworks very easy. As a result, I never have to overthink using the paint and the physical act of painting itself becomes second nature. I first encountered this method in John Constable’s paintings, which only includes a palette of seven colours. After I started painting seriously, I aimed for that.

Drawing of London, viewed from Hampstead Heath, in a storm by John Constable, 1831, watercolour on paper. Image: British Museum.

Firstly, from a range of about two hundred paints, I selected the colours that resonated with me, balancing Earth colours with artificial ones. Secondly, I whittled my palette down to twenty colours and finally, gradually, like Constable, reduced this number to seven. The number did not work for me, and I eventually found a happy medium with nine. In a way, it helps to create a kind of disconnection from the mechanical act of painting. I also listen to music throughout the day, set on a repeating loop. A repetitive soundtrack has a meditative quality, which somehow separates thinking from reality and allows the mind to wander and latch on to ethereal feelings rather than getting caught up in the physical details.

I place other boundaries on myself, including never painting on a surface that I cannot carry by myself (my studio is a small room that measures twelve by eleven feet.) Limitations force more imaginative solutions to problems, as Leonardo da Vinci once said, ‘art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.’

Photograph courtesy of Robert Priseman.
A Memory of Presence by Robert Priseman, oil on panel 30.5 x 40.5 cm, 2018-2019. Image courtesy of the artist.

LC: How does photography influence your work?

RP: As source material, photography provides a point of departure during the construction of a painting, which seems to somehow allow meditation on feeling rather than experiencing emotions directly. I have a hypersensitive personality type and tend to encounter the world in a very empathetic way that can be overwhelming sometimes. So, for me, at least, photography creates a detachment from that, which is very helpful. Fundamentally, I think this reveals a truth about painting, that painting itself is an emotional response to the world which needs to be controlled.

LC: Do you work from preliminary drawings and sketches?

RP: I spend a lot of time daydreaming, staring into space and looking at trees. Somehow this seems to allow images to float in and out of my mind, and I aim to transform those images into reality by sketching out initial thumbnails before taking photographs of related subjects. The photos, which help create compositions, show children’s toys or people and real-life situations. Occasionally, I use found images. Then, I create a detailed perspective plan on tracing paper before scaling and transferring the final composition to canvas using a 2H pencil. That way, all the information is in place before I begin the actual painting.

I start painting by covering the entire canvas in a Vandyke Brown wash. Once the wash is dry, I roughly plan the whole image in paint to gain a sense of the completed composition. During the detailed painting phase, I aim to harmonise the colours, tones and shapes into a soothing whole that feels somehow relaxing and beautiful to stare at, even if the subject matter itself is sometimes disturbing. I use acrylic hair decorators’ brushes to cover large areas, then Winsor and Newton watercolour brushes (sizes 00, 1, 2 and 4) to paint the details. Watercolour brushes do not last very long; generally, I only get a day’s or so use out of them, but they provide a flexible application. As I apply the paint, each brushstroke feels like loving touch, like I am somehow caressing the surface with the brush. To me, this seems to be the heart of the creative act.

LC: What are your influences outside painting?

RP: Movies are a great passion; I admire film directors Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, and Stanley Kubrick. Novels are a great pleasure, too. My favourite novel is The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. When I read it for the first time, I loved how Greene releases the reader from the idea of living in perfection and reveals the imperfection of nature, which itself is beautiful and absolute. I also admire authors J M Coetzee, Marilynne Robinson and Jane Austen.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited Austen’s house in the Hampshire village of Chawton. Tucked away in the far corner of the house sitting-room is a small twelve-sided walnut table on which Austen wrote five of the world’s most famous novels. It is mind-blowing, really, to think this woman who lived in a shared house with her mother and sister produced work of such profound impact in modest surroundings. Interestingly, over the years, actors who have played Austen’s characters had made more money and achieved greater fame from acting those roles than she did during her lifetime. In many senses, this sums up how I view artistic life. The gift of creativity is not found in financial reward but in possessing the ability to produce something of real meaning that exists in the world.

Austen’s grave in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral, marked by a simple floor stone, fails to mention her novels. The cathedral also includes an overly lavish memorial designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott to the memory of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester, who died in 1873, fifty-seven years after Austen. The memorial, which likely cost a fortune to create, contains a life-size effigy of the Bishop being supported by angels kneeling under an elaborately carved stone canopy; yet, in death, Wilberforce is virtually unknown. By contrast, Austen, whose monumental novels are loved by millions, is celebrated around the world today.

LC: Has your background influenced you in any way?

RP: All artists are influenced by their background; it is impossible not to be. I was raised in the non-conformist Christian tradition. Since London’s St Pancras Station opened in 1868, every generation on my father’s side has worked for the railways. In those days, the family lived in Somers Town, behind the station. On my mother’s side, my grandfather (who was also a Londoner) fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia in the First World War. After the war, his wife died following their son’s death; he raised the remaining four children by himself.

My father lived through the Blitz during the Second World War. When my parents married in 1962, he worked as a fireman on the London to Midlands steam trains. Property in the Midlands was relatively affordable at the time, so my parents moved to Derbyshire and became the first couple in their families to purchase a home. Later my brother and I were born in Spondon, just outside Derby. At weekends, my mother took us to the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, which holds the largest collection of Joseph Wright paintings in the world. Wright’s paintings are stunning. Both his work and life had a profound influence on me. He shunned London for a life lived in a provincial town; rural security enabled him to make world-class art. In that sense, Wright has a lot in common with Austen and Constable, all of whom inspired me to think that I could live my own life on my own terms.

LC: Do you paint with an audience in mind?

RP: Yes, for many years this was certainly the case. Naturally, your art practice communicates something from yourself to the audience. In some ways, this is a multi-layered approach: you work to yourself and past artists, then to your peer group, and finally the public.

Now I feel an audience is not so important to me. A publishing friend of mine once said you can record the same incident – for example, written as a diary entry and as a paragraph in a novel, yet the two are framed differently depending on the audience. In that context, I think I’m only concerned with writing a diary now. Similarly, when I founded the artists group Contemporary British Painting, I searched over two thousand artist websites and selected a shortlist of twenty-four relatively unknown painters whose work I felt an affinity to, regardless of age, race, or gender. Of those painters, the ones who I thought were more traditional and therefore older were generally in their twenties, whilst – and this was the big surprise to me – those who seemed more energetic, experimental, and daring in their practice were beyond sixty years of age. This is not a hard and fast rule but an observation. It seems that as artists get older, they become far less inhibited by audiences’ opinions and therefore are perhaps more liberated and imaginative.

LC: Your titles: How do they come about?

RP: I dislike deciding on titles for paintings and will often seek advice from friends and family. For No Human Way to Kill, a book and a series of paintings and drawings, initially I had decided on the somewhat awkward Modern Means of Execution. An Amnesty International staff member suggested No Human Way to Kill, which, as a title, has no logical coherence, yet compared to my title, speaks to the subject poetically.

I really admire the artist Pen Dalton, who creates amazing abstract works. When we first met, I thought she titled her paintings rather oddly, such as ‘m10’. A couple of years later, I asked her where the titles came from, and she said, “it’s just how I number the works for cataloguing”, which I thought was wonderful!

LC: How do you define success?

RP: Like everything, I think notions of success and failure change with age. When I was younger, I thought success equated to making money and being fêted. Today, I regard success as “success in life” through maintaining good relationships, keeping healthy in mind and body, and having a sense of purpose and the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses.

LC: How do you cope with fear?

RP: Anxiety is a problem for me. I become anxious if I’ve said something upsetting to someone or worry about the overall reception of a talk or an exhibition opening. To counter these feelings, I arrange to do something nice the following day, like going to the pictures or having lunch with a friend. I look forward to those plans and therefore think less about the stresses of the upcoming event. To diminish deep-rooted troubles, I look to ancient texts and past philosophers and thinkers, from the Old and New Bible Testaments to Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Saint Augustine. The Bible has some timeless and beautiful storytelling, especially in Genesis, Job, and the Lamentations, written about the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II. Such stories make you realise that love, betrayal, and suffering have been central human themes for thousands of years.

LC: Do other people’s criticisms matter?

RP: Initially, I would say that everyone’s criticism of my work mattered to me. Then, as time went on, as I undertook more projects, criticism became more frequent and intense. Eventually, I learnt how to detach myself from people’s comments and realised that criticism can often be a form of projecting one’s own fears onto others. Now only the opinions of my family and close friends and peers matter to me. These examples reflect the subtle distinction between different types of criticism. My old Professor Michael Pedro used to say that fair criticism is built around assessing the creator’s aims, then analysing how closely they came to realising those goals.

LC: What are your methods for overcoming creative blocks?

RP: It depends on what I’m working on. When writing, I jot anything down, even random gibberish. It’s much easier to revisit and change notes into coherent paragraphs than starting from scratch. However, when it comes to art, I put paintings to one side and work on something else for a while.

LC: What are you focussing on now?

RP: For the first time in my life, I’ve taken time away from painting for an extended period. I wanted to place some clear blue water between myself and the arts for a while; it has been particularly fruitful so far. I’m learning to make wooden objects and recently built a cabinet, a shed and a new annex for the home. Working with natural materials has allowed me to reconnect with the physical world and gain a sense of the substances’ malleability, movement, space, and weight. There is a wonder in knowing that wood grows slowly from seeds into trees and then created into man-made objects. Now I think of paintings in the same way. From canvas, pigment, and oil, we can create imagery that has never existed before, except in the imagination; and that seems kind of magical.

robert_priseman Robert Priseman, founder of Contemporary British Painting and co-founder the Priseman Seabrook art collection, is a British artist, collector, writer, curator and publisher who lives and works in Essex. Over 200 works by Priseman are held in art museum collections worldwide, including the V&A, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Honolulu Museum of Art and the National Galleries of Scotland.


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