We were delighted to interview Tom Down, the winner of the 2018 Jackson’s Open Painting Prize! His little 20 x 25 cm acrylic painting ‘frontier’ absolutely blew the judges away with its quiet power and highly refined imagery – his works capture the frayed edges of romantic landscapes, exploring the gap between our perception and reality of these archetypal places. We caught up with him to find out more about his practice, how he creates such stunningly still images and the details of how he builds his paintings.
Winning the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize:
The success of Tom’s painting in our competition meant he received £5,000 in prize money, the pride of place at our exhibition at the Affordable Art Fair, a seat on our exhibition panel discussion and exposure across our social media platforms, prize website, newsletters and future prize promotion. Winning the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize mean’s Tom’s work was not only chosen out of the 3,327 international entries, but it also made it through multiple rounds of judging by both our in-house team and our panel of Expert Judges.
Debbie Chessell: How do you develop your ideas?
Tom Down: I tend to start with reference images. From those I build a physical model from everyday lo-fi materials – it can take a few different forms, for example, it can either be a lone model or multiple put together to form a diorama. Once I’ve built these structures, I curate them ready to be photographed. Taking images is a very an active process – during the shoot, I will look through the camera and make many adjustments both to the models themselves and to the lighting to create desired shadows, depth and focus. I then edit the images in Photoshop to enhance the characteristics I’m interested in and finally, paint from these photographs.
Debbie: The models for your work are fascinating, how do you build them? Is there a particular look that you’re aiming for?
Tom: The way I build the models for my paintings is not dissimilar to what you’d have done as a kid. It reminds me of playing with cardboard, junk modelling, building model train sets or scenery or all that. They’re supposed to be crude and look like a model of something else, a fake representation of something so I’m never that hung up on whether there’s a scrap of glue, something hanging off, creased cardboard or whether they’re just falling apart. I actually think their strange, unexpected textures and bits of randomness make them much more interesting to paint, plus its much more fun than painting something more structured. The more fun you can have with the models the more fun you can have when you paint them.
Debbie: Your paintings look so detailed yet their actual surface is so thin – how do you achieve such a fantastic range of textures? Can you talk us through the processes you use when making a painting?
Tom: When making the painting itself I’ll draw out the image onto the canvas then work in a series of layers. I start with some fast and loose underpainting then work in a few layers of wet in wet to get interesting marks. After that, I create multiple glaze layers to get the smooth hazy effects and to bring forward some parts, pop the colours a little bit and give the image that 3d effect.
Debbie: What mediums do you use and why?
Tom: When I started painting, I was using acrylic. My earlier work was quite graphical, so lots of flat areas of colour, straight lines and a very geometric style. I carried on using acrylic as its what I knew and had the set up for, but as the work evolved over the last few years into something more representational and stylised I realised I was struggling to do what I wanted to do in that medium. For example, the drying time was limiting some of the effects and making it hard to achieve the smooth transitions and gradients that I wanted in the work. I, therefore, made the switch to oils about 2 years ago. The process is fairly similar in terms of layering, but it gives me more time and flexibility to play with the paint – you can get nice effects and use techniques like wet on wet. As a painter it is a much more interesting way to paint, I’m only now starting to see the potential of the oil but I’m excited to see where that continues.
Debbie: Why do you work from photos rather than from life?
Tom: The reason I take a photo and paint from that is because I don’t want to work from the models themselves in a still life manner. While I appreciate that there are elements of still life within the work I’ve never seen it as still life painting – for me, the models are these little facsimiles for objects, signposts almost, they kind of fill in the image. I’m not necessarily trying to perfectly represent that physical object as it already is representing something else.
Also, I think that working within the photographic format, the rectangular shape, gives a positive constraint over the image which adds clarity to the painting. The reason I’m wanting to paint rather than showing the models or the digital images is that the painting is the final act, the final layer of artifice on the whole process.
Debbie: What is the difference between your photographs and your paintings?
Tom: The painting isn’t a slavish representation of the photograph, the photo is just a guideline. During the process, the painting will naturally separate itself from the photo, which is half the fun! I quite enjoy the difference between the photographed image and the painting itself – the painting is adding another layer, elevating the subject. There are qualities that you can achieve with paint which you can’t capture in the digital image. It’s that tension between the two that I think is really interesting.
Debbie: Why are you interested in the idea of romantic landscapes?
Tom: Romantic landscapes are ever present in society. They’re a huge part of popular culture, featuring in advertising, film, video games… You can’t really escape it. All of these mediums have hugely borrowed from painting over the years, I find it interesting to play with those ideas and bring them back to painting. Going travelling and experiencing these landscapes first hand has shown me the power in these places – there’s a reason painters have been interested in it for hundreds and hundreds of years! I wanted to come at the subject in my own way and explore the cracks in it as it falls apart.
Debbie: Why do you always use such a muted palette?
Tom: The source images I start from (romantic landscapes in video games, film etc) are often very exaggerated, over saturated and over the top in a lot of ways, it’s the hallmark of these images. I wanted to separate myself from that – by using a close tonal range and a muted palette you’re not hitting the viewer over the head with the painting, it’s quietness allows them to breathe into the image and reflect on it. My work is not designed to be attention-grabbing. I’ve always thought about my paintings in connection to theatre in the way that I want them to act like stage sets or a backdrop, they’re there and they exist but they sit behind a certain level.
Debbie: Why have you changed the scale you’re working in?
Tom: Most of my paintings up until this point have been quite small, a one to one scale with the model. I wasn’t interested in making huge paintings of small objects as soon as you do that you end up commenting on scale which wasn’t where my interests lie, plus you lose a lot of the original information about the object in translation. Depicting the models subtly at a one-to-one scale gives the viewer room for interpretation, space for quiet and reflection.
I began upscaling my paintings this year to capture my more ambitious models as I pushed my work further into landscape painting and away from still life. The scale is increasing as my models contain more information.
Debbie: You never paint the edges of your surfaces – why is that?
Tom: One of the continuous things that runs through the painting is that I always have the edges of the canvas or board exposed. This is to reinforce that fact that the painting is just a thin layer – it’s a construct. Coming back to the idea of the stage set, it’s this fake artifice that sits above all this structure. Making the viewer consciously aware of this is really important to my work.
Debbie: Can you talk us through the benefits of winning the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2018?
Tom: Winning the prize brings great exposure and bringing my work to a new audience. The main benefit of winning JOPP is the financial gain of the prize. It gives you a bit of time to pause and reflect: if you know you can pay your studio rent for a few years you can reflect on your practice as a whole, fund some travel or use it to look into residencies. It gives you time space and opportunity to put that back into your practice.
Competitions are really important, especially for emerging artists. They’re a great way to get your work into some of the bigger institutions and seen by a wider audience. I’ve personally found them really useful – I’ve had work in previous open submission competitions and have got exhibitions out of contacts I’ve made at the show, I’ve sold work through them.
Debbie: What got you into painting?
Tom: Originally I studied a BA at Wimbledon about 10 years ago. It was very free course so despite it being a painting course many people made video, installation, and sculpture. For most of my BA, I didn’t make paintings at all, I was focused on sculpture, installation and text based work. Once I graduated, I did a few exhibitions and residencies for a few years then found myself at a point where I stopped making work – this lasted for 3 or 4 years – but when I moved back to London I got a studio and reconsidered my practice. Having not made work for quite a few years I was drawn to painting again – the ability to work on my work terms without the pressure of college or making things for show deadlines meant painting made sense for me as a medium. That was 4 years ago and I am still making paintings today!
Debbie: What are your future plans for your practice?
Tom: I mainly see the scale increasing in my paintings. I still want to obtain the same atmosphere but I’ve outgrown the small paintings and want to make them more ambitious and interesting. That’s something I’ve been working on for a while but I’ve still got a long way to go. I’m also looking at going beyond the models and incorporating more photo composite work. I won’t necessarily move completely away from models but am thinking of including new elements.