I first came across Conrad Frankel’s work when he was awarded the Student Prize at the Jerwood Drawing Prize for his charcoal drawing ‘Portrait of Phoebe’. The work was a simple portrait that worked through its honesty, directness and purity. In the intervening 10 years Conrad Frankel’s work has explored many avenues, yet his work has always maintained a sincerity and sensitivity that is captivating and full of vitality. I wanted to ask Conrad about his relationship with oil painting.
Lisa: What was your first ever oil painting?
Conrad: My first time painting in oils…I was 15 and I painted a self portrait on some paper using an old mercury mirror in a dimly lit room in Co. Cork, Ireland.
Lisa: What do you like about painting in oils?
Conrad: I like that they don’t dry too quickly, I like the strong colours, I like cremnitz lead white, the smell, the versatility, so many things…. I like adding marble dust and other mediums to oil paint to get different textures..And the ease of it today is great, I just have to buy tubes and paint.
Lisa: Why do you paint?
Conrad: I paint because it’s fun. I paint because it allows me to be alone and to be at ease with myself while I’m alone… I can spend long hours painting in the woods or in my studio and be totally satisfied. I paint because I like beautiful objects and it’s interesting trying to create one myself. Sometimes when I paint I feel like I’m creating a dream, a very physical dream.
Lisa: What is your favourite ever oil painting and why?
Conrad: ‘Young Man holding a Skull (Vanitas)’ by Frans Hals. So many things in this painting captivate me: Firstly it’s the hand held out, the foreshortening is so well painted and the shine on the fingernails is very alive and fresh and vital, it was painted c1628. Then I love the exotic clothing, the way he has a huge blanket folded over his chest from front to back…like a straitjacket that he is reaching out through… Then the pink feather in his cap is so poignant, like his youth it is so supple and light in its essence, just hovering above the yellow skull in his other hand. There are many paintings of Vanitas, [but] this one is the best and it’s message is strong, it’s a message without words, that goes into my heart when I see the boy’s sideways glance and animated gesture. I also love how Hals paints, he was a true virtuoso. His paint is always exciting and alive.
Lisa: What brands of oil colour do you like to use?
Conrad: I use different companies for different colours; Blockx for purples and violet, cadmium red light and lemon yellow, Michael Harding for Naples yellow and cobalt tourquoise, Sax for chrome green, Indian yellow cobalt blue deep, and the earth colours and Winsor and Newton for cadmium green light and various others… For cremnitz white (lead) there’s a company in NY who sell it for a really good price called RGH paints, and I’ve just ordered 4 litres of that!
Lisa: What are the ingredients of a successful painting?
Conrad: The ingredients for success is simple: lots of work done continuously over many years, there’s no other way!! And at 35 years old I still have a huge mountain to climb.
I’m beginning to work with a more limited palette and am looking at Morandi for inspiration.
I am trying to keep the painting open longer, i.e., I am resisting finishing it too quickly.. This means working slower and looking at things tonally, squinting my eyes and then laying in the values of objects in relation to each other… Recently I did a master class in Civita Castelanna where I learned the importance of avoiding the picturesque, avoiding the details, until the essence is put down.
This means a greater involvement with the technical narrative, than with the descriptive narrative… Spending more time under painting things before rushing to finish… In essence keeping things open for as long as I can…which is a challenge.
Also sometimes it can simply just be location that helps. A few years ago one evening I painted an apple tree in long wet grass in a few hours and it worked well, firstly because it was stunning subject matter and secondly because I’d done a lot of under painting in black ink on the canvas the night before.
Another thing that makes a painting better is to differentiate different areas of the surface, don’t keep using the same brushstrokes, i.e. paint a bit with your fingers, a bit with the palette knife, a bit with brushes and rags, keep scraping it back, keep it different…if you use warm in the lights don’t make the shadows warm too.
Differentiate continually or it will either look chalky or like sludge!
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Conrad: At the moment I am working on a still life in my studio. It’s of a black teapot beside a glass of water on a black table; I’m having a lot of fun doing it. I am keeping the paint for the table very thin and using a hog brush and for the glass of water it’s much thicker and varied…There was originally another object in the group but it got painted out after the first session, it’s still in progress.
Lisa: What do you tend to you when you’re faced with the sad realisation that an oil painting just ‘isn’t working’?
Conrad: If something’s not working I will just stop working on it. I take it off the stretcher bars and discard it…it happens quite a lot, about 50% of the time. Sometimes it takes me months to realise something isn’t working. I’ve sometimes exhibited a painting and then realised it wasn’t good, taken it out of the frame and continued to work on it… So sometimes I’m not fully aware when something is good or not…but I’m getting better at quality control as I progress…
Lisa: What kind of a surface do you prefer to paint on?
Conrad: I paint on every kind of surface, on wood panels, on canvas and linen, primed with gesso or just regular primer. I use a company called Lascaux from Switzerland which is very good… However I’m thinking of trying oil based primer as I hear it’s lovely to work on.
Lisa: Where can we see more of your work (online or in the flesh?)