An Interview with Colin Murray – July 3rd 2016
‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ or ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ is an old idiom meaning that a complex idea can be expressed through a single image. Not any more, now we need a thousand words or more to describe a work of art. Welcome to the part of my website that contains most of the written content. We begin with an interview through this format I shall try to explain why I paint and how I see myself in relation to contemporary art. This section is followed by a piece about my background and early development.
Why do you paint?
I have always been fascinated by nature. From an early age I loved watching sunsets and sunrises, I loved trees and the sound of birdsong. I would happily spend time in the garden watching the butterflies that flocked around the buddleia tree or I would lift up large stones to observe the activities of the woodlice and other insects. My early years were spent in a part of town that was only a stone’s throw away from fields and meadows. Then when I was seven years old my parents moved us to a house on a housing estate which was still being built. Even at that early age I disliked modern buildings and the contrast between my old surroundings and this new environment effected me deeply. I felt as if something magical had been lost forever and despite being a child I became nostalgic.
I grew up in the sixties and this was a golden age for pop music which I loved especially the Beatles. Although I like to sing along to some of these records I realized that I had little talent for music but I was good at drawing and I liked reading. I remember thinking that I was somehow different from my contemporaries, although I could be extrovert I had this other private side to my personality which couldn’t be easily expressed. I felt a need to escape into my own private world and I still feel that need and this is why I became an artist.
When did you start to paint?
I was 12 years old when I first started using oil paints. I had always liked drawing as a child and from an early age I had access to powder paints and coloured pencils to make pictures. I grew up in a time when children used to make their own fun. I would work on drawings in collaboration with my sisters. We also liked making things such as puppets and we even had a theatre made from a large cardboard box.
By the time I started painting in oils I could draw a little bit. I had copied pictures out of books especially images of wildlife. My parents had taken me to the National Gallery and I loved many of the pictures particularly Turner, Constable, the Impressionists and numerous paintings by older masters such as Rembrandt.
I soon realized that oil paint straight from the tube is so thick that it’s difficult to manipulate. I tried thinning it in various ways using turpentine and then a 50/50 mix of genuine turpentine and refined linseed oil. This medium is workable but not ideal. It was quite a while before I was introduced to the medium I currently use. I went to art school when I was 17 but none of the tutors seemed to know much about oil painting. They showed you how to stretch a canvas and put a bit of size on it and that was about it. No mention of using the correct priming’s, ground colours or the use of mediums. I studied paintings and read books about technique however most of the information was confusing. Some of the suggested mediums dried much to quickly or to slowly. It wasn’t until I was at Middlesex University completing my interrupted art education that Richard Robbins the then Head of Fine Art told me he often used a medium which added Liquin to the linseed oil and turpentine in equal thirds. This medium stays fresh all day and after that it dries quite quickly so that the next glaze can be applied as required. Its composition can be varied, an increase in Liquin means the paint will be more translucent and it will dry quicker.
I need the paint to be fluid so that I can draw with it. When I start a painting I begin with a general outline which can easily be rubbed out if need be. My way of painting uses thin paint built up in layers onto a ground colour so that white becomes a heightener from the word go. Because my paintings often contain a lot of detail most of the time I paint with sable brushes. This way of painting is quite different from the oil painting styles favoured by many artists who use hog hair brushes and like to ladle the paint onto the canvas.
My painting technique is discussed in more detail in an article entitled ‘Some basics of oil painting’ which is the Blog section on my website and there is also a short film which shows me at work.
What are your influences?
These days I am no longer influenced by anybody.
When I was a teenager my attempts at painting in the open air were inspired by the French Impressionists and English artists such as John Constable. At this time I was very taken by Surrealism, Symbolism and the Pre-Raphaelites. I talk about this period of my life in more detail in the next section called ‘About Colin’.
I have always liked fantastical and imaginative art at the same time as being very keen on painting quite mundane subjects from life. This dichotomy has never been resolved. Even recently I spent a long time creating my ‘Green Man’ picture whilst the other pictures I was working on were largely painted from life. Colour is very important to me regardless of the subject. As I have grown older I like to use subtle glowing colours, these colour effects are generated through the use of glazes, ‘After the Floods’ is a good example of this.
Living in London I get to see a lot of exhibitions, especially at the National Gallery, Royal Academy, Tate Britain and the British Museum. In recent years I have seen major shows featuring Veronese, Sargent, Rembrandt, Delacroix and Turner. I love anything historical and recent exhibitions at the British Museum featuring Greek, Celt, Egyptian and Sicilian culture have very appealed to me.
I have a large collection of art books especially exhibition catalogues. I don’t think that being a culture vulture has much influence on the way I create my own paintings but it does make me aware of tradition.
How do you see yourself in relation to contemporary art?
Although I am a contemporary artist I don’t have much time for most contemporary art. The YBA movement of the 1990’s, bolstered by Charles Saachi and Michael Craig Martin, did nothing for me. I like art by people who really know how to draw and paint and sculpt. Work that requires a written explanation in order to be understood leaves me cold. Looking back over the 20th century I like Dada and Surrealism. I appreciate Marcel Duchamp because he had a sense of humour however his ideas have been much maligned. Duchamp opened Pandora’s Box with his so called ‘readymades’, functional objects elevated to the level of art because Duchamp says that they are art. Thanks to this we have MCM’s ‘A glass of water can be an oak tree’ and other tedious concepts that can only be understood if you’re prepared to buy the pretentious bilge that describes such objects. Having said this there are certainly contemporary artists that I like, the installations of Kienholz for example. I also like Damien Hirst because he makes interesting objects that speak for themselves. There are others but I won’t discuss them now because this piece is about me.
My paintings are unusual in terms of their spatial composition. I often allow part of the subject to intrude into the space in front of the picture, for example the birds in paintings such as ‘A bird’s eye view of Maldon’ and ‘One for Sorrow’. I like to put more space into a picture than I can actually see without moving my head.
Much of the art that is produced and sold today is made very quickly and this is going to be popular with commercial galleries for obvious reasons. A prolific artist is going to produce more art, which means that the gallery will have more to sell with the potential to make more money.
My paintings are usually worked on over a period of months or even years. This means that they are going to be expensive. My detailed art goes against the grain in a world that wants everything done yesterday.
What does the future hold for you?
Earlier this year I turned sixty and now I find myself reflecting on my long career as an artist. I have had many exhibitions and I’ve painted numerous commissions especially portraits. However I have never had a really serious exhibition in a commercial gallery and many of the paintings in my possession have never been exhibited.
As I explained earlier my work is not very commercial. My pictures take a long time to complete, some of them are detailed and carefully painted and it seems that this kind of work is not very fashionable. Also whereas some of my pictures are studies from life others feature fantasy subjects often created using photographic refernces. This is not a problem for private collectors but critics and gallery owners like to pigeonhole artists, they don’t like to see us working in different styles. It is the same in other fields of creative endeavour such as music and literature.
Outsider art is produced by self-taught artists who are not part of the artistic establishment. The term has come include naïve art, the art of children and the work produced by mentally unstable artists sometimes in institutions. Outsider art can look crude and childish or it could be highly sophisticated, the mystical paintings of Richard Dadd spring to mind. Outsider art is often painted with obsessive detail as if this labour was therapeutic in some way. The term was first coined by an art critic called Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut or ‘raw art’, an expression created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe the kind of artists mentioned above.
As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that aspects of my art in terms of both subject matter and technique could be recognized as being Outsider art. I am self-taught, I work outside the artistic establishment and a lot of my paintings are very detailed. My work is also therapeutic as it helps to ease my tendency towards melancholy. I feel that I have to paint because making things helps to justify my existence.
I was born in Chelmsford on January 4th 1956. From an early age I was very much taken by the beauty of the natural world. As Essex is a
relatively flat county I was always conscious of the sky and I loved to watch the clouds especially at sunrise and sunset. I grew up in a semi-detached house in Springfield. On the other side of a little used road lay the Baddow Meads, an area of low lying land that frequently flooded and therefore couldn’t be built on. The world was changing fast in the early sixties and Chelmsford’s picturesque charm was soon to be overwhelmed by new roads and developments in the town centre whilst several housing estates were under construction on the outskirts of town. The little used road that separated me from the Baddow Meads was to become the A12. When I was only seven years old my parents decided to move house. I couldn’t understand why as I loved the area where we lived. Then, to my horror I discovered that my parents had bought a house on one of the new estates. I hated the move as there were no trees and the fields were now at least a mile away. The change of environment didn’t seem to affect my two sisters but it had a profound effect on me. I became inclined to dwell in the world of my imagination and I took solace in drawing and reading.
As a child I was fascinated by history and sometimes I would copy the illustrations I saw in books, especially red Indians and knights in armour. I loved myths and legends and I became an avid reader devouring everything that came my way, or perhaps I should say everything that was allowed to come my way since my parents exercised a kind of censorship hiding away books that they thought would over stimulate my imagination and give me nightmares. By the time I was ten years old I was reading murder mysteries and Science Fiction and anything I could find in the local library that seemed fantastical. I was interested in witchcraft and the occult and then I discovered H P Lovecraft and Bram Stoker. When I first read Dracula (aged eleven) I was terrified, having convinced myself that Jonathon Harker’s journal was a record of real events.
I had been to the National Gallery several times and I was in awe of the old masters. I began to collect art books and I still own books on Rubens and Rembrandt that I bought all those years ago. I began painting in oils when I was twelve. Sometimes I copied pictures out of books but I also tried painting from life. These early attempts at painting in the open air were inspired by Constable, Turner, Van Gogh and the Impressionists however it wasn’t long before I discovered Surrealism, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists. I loved artists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, John Waterhouse, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne Jones, Richard Dadd, Arnold Bocklin and Gustave Moreau. Influenced by these and others I began to paint some strange pictures of my own. I was very keen on fantasy literature and I began to produce illustrations inspired by books such as ‘Lord of the Rings’ by Tolkien and ‘Gormenghast’ by Mervyn Peake.
Despite parental disapproval I gained acceptance to Colchester School of Art in 1973. When I first got to art school I was disappointed to discover that imaginative art was not very much encouraged. However drawing was still taught in art schools in those days and I had some excellent tutors including Philip Ardizzone and Richard Bawden.
I had long hair when I first arrived at Colchester School of Art. I guess my childhood had been effected by the music of the sixties particularly groups such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. I had liked the Glam Rock bands of the early seventies such as T-Rex, David Bowie and Roxy Music but now I was becoming aware of something different, Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, MC5, Blue Oyster Cult and the Ramones. This hard-edged music from across the Atlantic seemed very exciting. Then in the summer of 1975 I heard a record that completely blew me away, it was called ‘King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown’ and featured the melodica playing of Augustus Pablo. I had never heard a Dub Reggae record before and I became an instant convert. I was nineteen years old and I began to experience a sense of identity and self-confidence that I hadn’t felt before. I changed my style by cutting my hair and dying it with henna. I began to wear clothes that clashed in terms of both their cut and colour. I wore dark glasses and sprayed my Doctor Martin boots silver. Without knowing it I and others in art schools across the country were preparing the way for the movement that would become known as Punk.
In 1975 I went to Leicester Polytechnic to study for a degree in Fine Art. I had never lived in a city before and I found it daunting. As Leicester has a West Indian community there were shops that specialised in selling reggae music and on Friday afternoons the import records called pre-releases became available. These records were simply amazing, heavy bass beats and crashing drums with lots of echo and reverb. I had started making lino-cuts and woodblock prints inspired by reggae music from Jamaica and punk rock from America. However I didn’t thrive in Leicester and I dropped out after the first year.
Back in Colchester I found myself painting with renewed vigour and I developed a style that was very psychedelic. In 1977 I moved to London and continued painting. I tried to get back to art school but was unsuccessful. However I was developing a talent for portrait painting and I began to acquire commissions. I did various low paid jobs and my income was further enhanced by the sale of paintings and prints. In 1978 I set up my own soundsystem and I played out in pubs and at parties then in 1980 the magic seemed to go out of reggae music, perhaps it was the invention of the drum machine. The times were changing and the spirituality of the Rastafarian movement was being superseded by materialism and gangster culture. I had had enough, my interest in dejaying meant I had less time for painting so I sold my console, amplifiers and speakers. I stopped creating images inspired by popular culture and began to paint a series of mystical landscapes. My twenties passed like a dream, a few pictures from this time can be viewed on my website, ‘Cirrus Minor’ is one such image.
In 1992 I returned to art school joining the second year of a Fine Art course at Middlesex University. Figurative art was frowned on at Middlesex, Brit Art was just taking off and everybody was obsessed with Installations and Conceptualism. To my surprise I found myself being asked for technical advice by younger students who were interested in drawing and painting. The staff seemed to dislike me although if the truth be told I probably provoked them by giving my frank opinion on the various trends in art that were prevalent at the time. My personal tutor told me that she had only studied the history of art from 1750 onwards which meant she knew very little about the Renaissance, Mannerism and the Baroque. I found this ignorance staggering but it was commonplace among the tutors. Despite working hard I received very low marks in all of my assessments and would have got a third class degree had I not achieved a first for my thesis. I wrote about an obscure Italian Mannerist artist called Parmigianino. I had been interested in Mannerist art for some time and I had spent several months in Italy in the year before I began my studies at Middlesex. (See footnote)
At this juncture I should like to say something about my painting technique. I am largely self-taught and my favoured medium is oil paint. I am not much interested in gestural painting; I prefer to build up thin layers of paint called glazes in order to create an illusion of space. When artists talk about finding the right mark I am not sure what they are on about; I am concerned with the overall effect. Instead of painting onto a white background I usually tint my canvas before beginning a painting. The use of a ground colour means that one uses much less white paint, in fact white becomes a colour in its own right. As white paint is opaque it reduces the vibrancy of the other colours so the less white one uses the better. I use a simplified palette based on the three complimentary colours plus a few earth tints. This kind of palette helps me to keep my colours fresh. I am very interested in colour and I like to use strong optical colours. I am always seeking to create maximum depth of field and there can be a contradiction here as depth of field is easier to create with subtle colours. I like to use the space outside of the picture especially with portraits. Sometimes I have the sitter almost coming out of frame or else there may be an object that protrudes into the space outside the picture. In my ‘Self Portrait holding a Lily’ the lily is outside of the picture plane. Conversely when painting landscapes I often extend the horizon on either side of the central focus, this gives the viewer of the picture more space than one could see in real life.
Early into the new millennium I found myself working on various commissions and I had several exhibitions. Fortunately I still had plenty of time to paint pictures for my own pleasure. I began to give private tuition and sometimes I taught in schools. I do not try to teach the relative merits of different kinds of art because that has always been a matter of opinion and frequently subject to the vicissitudes of fashion. I teach people how to draw and paint from life because I believe this is the one vital skill that is needed if one wants to be an artist. Surprisingly the view I have just expressed has become quite controversial as drawing is no longer taught at degree level in art schools. Indeed there are some that think that the ability to draw is limiting and art that is developed through drawing is called ‘academic’ and considered to be somehow old fashioned and out of date. Can drawing ever go out of date? The desire to observe the world and recreate it in paint is as old as the human race itself, you only have to look at those naturalistic murals in the Lascaux caves to be aware of this and they were painted some 30,000 years ago. Certain intellectuals talk about the so called ‘democratisation of art’ which means that anybody can be an artist and any materials known to man can be used to create art. Sounds good in theory, the trouble is not just anyone can present a pile of bricks to the Tate Gallery and expect to be taken seriously – you have to know the right people. I don’t deny that figurative art has had it stodgy moments, for examples one only has to look at some of the moralistic, propagandist pictures produced in the nineteenth century. The reaction to figurative art that occurred in the 1950’s and 60’s was probably inevitable. In part it was a reaction to the strenuous methods used to teach art at the Royal Academy. Students at the RA were expected to master anatomy and perspective and they spent hours drawing from plaster casts and copying drawings by the old masters. However, the irony is this, every revolution devours its own children and the ‘freedoms’ gained by discarding technical skill and an understanding of tradition have produced there own shackles and chains as the Post-Modernists and apologists for Contemporary Art have now become the new elite.
Thanks to the internet there has been an upsurge of awareness and interest in figurative art, especially in art that is fantastical and grotesque. Websites and blogs devoted to imaginative art have sprung up and now artists from all over the world are finding out about each other and the shared heritage that goes back centuries to Roman times and beyond.
Mannerism is the 16th century art movement that followed the Renaissance. The achievements of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo had taken representational art to a new level of excellence. The generation of artists that succeeded these great masters had to do something else. They rejected the balance and harmony of Classicism in favour of crowded compositions, distortion and elongation in the treatment of the human form, split level perspectives, vibrant unnatural colouring, trompe l’oeil and sensuality in their treatment of sacred subject matter. I was particularly fond of Pontormo, Guilio Romano, Beccafumi, Lelio Orsi and many others and then there was the School of Fontainbleu in France which was dominated by three great Italians, Rosso, Primaticcio and Niccolo del Abate. The movement spread across Europe to Flanders and Prague as the new ideas were picked up by artists such as Bartholomew Spranger, Joachin Wtewael, Archimboldo, Abraham Bloemart and Martin van Heemskerck to name but a few. Ignored for centuries, it is thanks to the Surrealists that there has been a revival of interest in Mannerist art in recent times.