Sebastian Aplin’s work incorporates everyday 21st century objects and scenes with techniques drawn from the great Masters. His carefully limited palette and compositions seek to draw out a different, nuanced way of seeing. During the RWS Contemporary Watercolour Exhibition, his piece Self Portrait with Cleaning Products won our Jackson’s Artist prize so we caught up with him to find out how this artist and tutor creates his work and what inspires him.
Tegen: How do you select your subjects? Several of your pieces juxtapose dominant still life of everyday objects with glimpses of self-portraiture, just like ‘Self Portrait with Cleaning Products’ which won our prize at the RWS Contemporary Watercolour Exhibition. What about this juxtaposition captures you?
Sebastian: I select them in order to create interesting paintings; so it may be the light falling on the objects or their sculptural qualities that attract me. I much prefer working from life that from photos so they tend to be objects that are at hand. The cleaning products had an interesting variety of shapes and colours which I wanted to try and paint. The challenge for me was to make the strong primary colours harmonise.
Besides, these objects reveal our life in the XXI century and I think the composition creates a bond of identity between the spectator and myself. The human face, on the other hand, has been painted throughout history and so I wanted to paint something contemporary but still rooted in tradition. I find painting myself in the mirror very enticing because I have a fascination with how the interior and exterior worlds connect.
Tegen: On your website to mention how art teaches you to look differently. Could you explain to us how you approach seeing and what your process of looking is before and while you’re making an artwork?
Sebastian: What interests me about figurative painting, as opposed to the abstract expressionist work I used to do in my 20s, is the issue of reproducing what you see. Great paintings make objects look entirely believable and the illusion requires an understanding of how light, colour and form work to create the images we see.
Our formal education is generally about identifying objects hurriedly, but to render objects meaningfully, I have to look at forms much more attentively and constantly gage and compare tonal values and colour. The act of drawing, in particular, is a tool to see subtle contrasts that gradually reveal themselves as I observe.
In painting, I’m always questioning my preconceptions of how things are seen. During the course of a painting, I decide how much to deviate from what I’m looking at in order to make the picture work better. I think that people love to look at paintings because you are looking into somebody’s thought process.
Tegen: You work in several different media, how do you choose which to use for a piece and do you have a favourite?
Sebastian: I tend to work with tried and tested traditional media because I can learn so much from the accumulation of centuries of experimentation and refinement. I can’t say I have an absolute favourite media but there is something about a well-controlled watercolour “accident” or chunky oil impasto that are hard to beat.
There are several reasons I switch between media. One is that I give courses on different techniques such as oil, acrylic, watercolour and pastel and so need to spend time revisiting the media to refresh my understanding as well as the course material. This encourages me to research other artists and develop my own practice. I find that a change of media often helps me in the direction I want to take my work. I may switch to watercolour to help me loosen up when I think my painting is getting too tight because it helps me see the underlying structure of spaces I paint.
I find that my impatient temperament suits fast over slower drying media, although I struggle to stay away from the wet in wet organic feel of oil painting for too long. I tend to stick with one set of materials at a time since it takes me a while to get into a particular way of working. The struggle with the material is part of what makes a painting enticing to look at I think.
Tegen: What are your go-to materials and do you have any tips for how an artist should choose their materials?
Sebastian: I love art materials and have always looked forward to trying out new ones. My best results, however, tend to emerge out of limitation.
I can concentrate more on tonal values if I reduce my palette when I’m painting and if I’m sketching with a charcoal stick I will endeavour to get the most out of its expressive range. I stick to the same basic colours I know whether I’m painting in acrylic, oil or watercolour so that I have greater control of colour harmony and contrast. It’s a bit like music where more notes don’t make for better tunes. I try to buy good quality art materials but understand that getting the most out of them is the hardest part. It’s important to feel comfortable with the materials you use as the cost of materials could have a negative impact on your work if it is a cause of stress.
Tegen: What are you wanting to achieve with your compositions?
Sebastian: It’s hard to pin-point a goal when I arrange a still life for example. I have a tendency to look for a calm order and rhythm. When I work quickly with a life model though, I really enjoy the unbalanced nature of the drawings and would like to introduce more of that dynamism into my painting and so have moved to acrylics again recently to facilitate more improvisation in my compositions.
I’m also looking at Cezanne and Picasso among others to see how composition can be separated from subject matter. I think that composition is a reflexion of a state of mind that you have to work at to change in any coherent way. Sometimes I have to try out several compositions in the production of a painting before settling on one that fits.
Tegen: Your path into painting seems very interesting: beginning with learning from books to then studying painting and printmaking in Mexico before returning to England to do a Fine Art MA. How do you feel this has enriched your practice? Could you tell us about the benefits of each of your stages of education?
Sebastian: As a kid I used to love designing my own comic book monsters, drawing fighter planes or motorbikes. We had a book of Old Master Drawings at home and I used to love looking at those too, but later on I would buy books on watercolour and drawing techniques that gave me a base from which to work.
I went to live in Mexico in my early 20s and became seriously interested in painting there when I joined an art school in Oaxaca. The city was a painter’s paradise with really good art museums and galleries and an amazing art library where I went most evenings to absorb what I could. My painting at the time was much more “abstract expressionist” and on a larger scale than today. During this time I was very open to new influences that used gesture and colour in a very striking way.
I studied the Fine Art MA back in the UK as a way of making new connexions in painting after several years as a secondary school language teacher, but I actually began to get involved more with performance theatre as a response to the conceptual investigation that was required. Although this period did open my eyes to the variety and possibilities of artistic response, I felt a stronger pull towards drawing and painting and became a full- time painter again 3 years ago.
Although for a time I bemoaned not doing an art degree initially, I am very happy now with the breadth of experience I have acquired and have come to trust my instincts more when it comes to developing my work.
Tegen: You moved to Cardiff five years ago in order to find what inspired you to first create drawings and paintings, could you tell us what about the area stimulates you?
Sebastian: I love exploring the area where I live, making personal connections and identifying with aspects of the place. Painting the streets around my home or the buildings I can see from my studio allow me to think about my place in the world. Painting the built environment is a way of consecrating it, whether it is a cathedral or a back alley.
I like the idea of making the everyday scene beautiful by painting it sympathetically but in a way that doesn’t romanticise it. I also enjoy the sculptural aspects of buildings and approach them in a similar way to a still life.
Tegen: You’re also a tutor and run regular workshops, except from this allowing you to look at the work of great masters, what else about being a tutor inspires you?
Sebastian: Changes in the way I draw and paint are driven by a desire to learn but accomplished by a modification of my character and a change in how I see the world. Preparing courses allows me to organise my ideas and break this process down into logical steps so that students can test this out for themselves.
I get great satisfaction in being responsible for providing a memorable positive experience for course members as well as enhancing their skills and enjoy my role of emboldening the group to move into new artistic territory with confidence. Each student has their own way of interpreting the ideas we explore in the workshops and I invariably get new ideas on how to solve artistic issues from seeing them work.
Tegen: You hold the belief that the ability to be an artist can be learned by everyone through technique and practice. How often do you think someone should spend on their work? And what would be your beginner top tip?
Sebastian: Yes absolutely we all have the ability to be artists and that is why artistic expressions are so varied. With regard to drawing and painting, I think that the establishment of rules for technique and practice helps to engage the artist in a dialogue within art history. Colours and compositions, for example, have meanings that a painter can direct but only express through a shared vocabulary.
I think art practice is about being open to change and so the habit of life drawing keeps me trying out new possibilities that grow into real change as a painter. Observing and sketching from life challenge my conceptions of the ways to describe the world around me and lead me to think about things that I took for granted. These are ways of experimenting how the world can be expressed on a flat surface so if we don’t have time to draw at least we can try to imagine how this information could be represented if we had a pencil to hand.
I would recommend the book “Drawing on the right side of the brain” by Betty Edwards that explains very thoroughly the relationship between looking and seeing. I suppose my top tip, and a reminder to myself is to realise that the way we draw or paint is the result of what we understand, so if we want to do it differently we need new information.
Tegen: Where do you do most of your work and what would be your perfect working environment?
Sebastian: I do most of my work at the studio but I also go to life drawing sessions and group drawing meetings, recently I’ve also begun to contribute more to social media discussions on painting. My studio is one of fifteen in a building near the centre of Cardiff and, although I often dream about building my own studio just the way I would want it, the communal model is one that enables me to work and provides some social cohesion and support for an activity that is often quite isolating.
Tegen: What projects are you working on at the moment? And what about your current work are you most excited by?
Sebastian: Over the winter I paint interiors and still lifes mainly and as the weather improves I begin to look towards landscape and cityscape painting. I have been trying out some acrylics and adapting my painting technique to suit the material. I hope to do more “plein air” sketching this year and use these as source material to create imaginary landscapes that are idealised versions of the city I see around me.
I’m really excited to see what kind of mood develops through this process. The ability to work faster with acrylics I hope will make my sketching more agile and more adventurous in the use of colour. With the longer days, there is plenty of opportunities to walk about the city and look for ways of translating the experience in paint.
Tegen: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Sebastian: My website www.sebastianaplin.com is the best place to get an overview of my work and has links to my Facebook and Instagram pages. I have an individual exhibition of my still lifes and interiors at The Barnabas Arts House (barnabasartshouse.co.uk) in Newport until the 21st of April and will then be looking for new opportunities to collaborate on group and individual shows.
The top image is: Sebastian Aplin, Self Portrait with Cleaning Products, Watercolour on paper, 36 x 53cm, 2017