Paul Smith’s painting The Fallen was shortlisted in Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2019. The small oil painting, which was purchased at the Affordable Art Fair Hampstead, is a strangely intimate portrait of what appears to be broken branches scattered around a heavy blackened tree stump. The ghosts of the landscape alone together in the quiet, pale blue solitude of twilight. We caught up with Paul to find out about hunting the landscape, feathered brush strokes and the colour of light at dusk.
Above image: Club Country, 2019, Paul Smith, Oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm
Clare: Can you tell us a bit about your background/education?
Paul: I’m from Sunderland and did my Foundation at Sunderland University (Poly then) before going to Farnham to do Fine Art. My practice when graduating (1995) was mostly photography based – experimenting with early Photoshop digital manipulation and interactive CD ROM. Farnham had the best photography and animation departments then and I was lucky enough to be able to adopt visiting Fine Art tutors Peter Kennard, Susan Collins and Simon Lewandowski along the way. From graduation I worked in a Mayfair gallery and just about kept my hand in. I started painting again around 2005 and now supplement that with teaching and design work.
Clare: How would you describe your practice?
Paul: The hardest question. I’m definitely a painter now but my photography background still plays a key role as do collages – especially in the development of a body of work. The work itself has been described as ‘abstract narrative’ which is an ok painting analogy but the abstract part doesn’t sit comfortably with me. The focus in the painting has narrowed and the vision less broad. Perhaps working smaller has determined this to a certain extent but then the content of my research has become a lot more specific.
Clare: Where do you go exploring to source the landscapes in your paintings? Can you tell us about some of the most interesting places you have found and do you ever paint en plein air in these environments?
Paul: I walk a lot and it can often be accidental discoveries along the way that can interest me the most. However I do deliberately seek out certain landscapes. Sometimes areas of ancient Britain, folklore or mythology and I love sites of industrial and military heritage. Literary related excursions are good too. Sebald’s East Anglia via Rings of Saturn is a good adventure and recently George Eliot’s Nuneaton provided a lot of fresh material. I’ve always got a decent camera, camera phone as back up and small sketch book with me. The sketchbook is mostly for notes and I rarely paint outdoors. In the studio I’ll take from a number of photographs and sketches when working out a painting. The reference material usually gets discarded along the way so that the painting can develop fully.
Clare: I read about your works depicting “England’s post-industrial edgelands and mystical ancient landscapes in the same shimmering twilight”. What do you think is the colour that most conveys the presence of twilight? How do you illustrate this time of day in your work and what specific colours do you use?
Paul: Dusk and that twilight golden hour is a favourite time for me to capture ideas. The heavy shadows and weird light just before I get spooked and realise I need to find my way back from wherever before it gets too dark. Phthalo Blue and Burnt Umber linseed heavy mixes for the darker shades have always worked well to get the initial atmosphere I’m looking for and then it’s a case of getting the right light in.
Clare: Can you talk about your use of the grid? Do you use this technique for all of your paintings?
Paul: The grid is just for scaling up and to help work out the composition on a larger scale. Most of my work is smaller at approximately 25 x 30 cm at the moment so no need for that there. Occasionally the grid is still visible in the painting–you can get quite attached to it.
Clare: I find the atmosphere in your paintings to be palpable and I think your brush marks contributes to this, especially the soft frayed edges you make. Can you tell us about your approach to brushwork?
Paul: In the early layers there is a lot of feathering. Certain colours bleed really well into each other which can add an almost parallax effect when worked this way. It’s then a matter of washes, taking off and detail and more feathering and more washes and so on until I get the atmosphere I want. Brush strokes tend to get more pronounced and colours more acidic in the final layers where the focus of the painting is.
Clare: Do you maintain a practice of traditional sketching for your reference imagery? If so, how often and what kind of materials do you use?
Paul: I find a light box helpful to work out composition when sketching up for larger pieces. More recently I’ve found that Adobe Capture is a genius app. The ‘colour’ option is useful in capturing the palette of a moment and the ‘shapes’ option helps to supplement sketches by capturing outlines in vector when you’re out and about.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Paul: Initially the camera but in the studio I work quite simply so it’s the basics but the best quality I can afford. Upgrading oil paint and canvas quality has made a big difference in the last couple of years – I currently prefer Old Holland and Belle Arti linen. I do have favourite brushes but I don’t get upset when they need retiring.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Paul: A steady day working on several pieces with no major cock ups and walking away knowing where to pick up tomorrow.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or artists?
Paul: In the early years it was Hockney and Hopper and then at art school it was all about German photography, Kiefer and Richter. Getting back into painting it was Jock McFadyen and Peter Doig (the current Michael Werner show is fantastic) amongst many others. Favourites now change monthly and it really depends on what I’m seeing, reading or where I’m at. Some of the painters I’ve been showing with lately are really interesting and definitely worth investigating (see Two Fold at Oceans Apart in Salford or Contemporary British Painting in 2016).
Clare: In the studio – music, audiobook, podcast, Radio 4 or silence?
Paul: It varies. 5 Live for the football and Radio 6 in general but then I have to get rid of all that chat and stick the headphones on for the good stuff that can help with the painting.
Clare: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or online?
Paul: There’s a group painting exhibition ‘Supernature’ curated by Paula MacArthur at The Auxiliary in Middlesborough mid November and there’s talk of a solo show in November 2020. I’ll fill the rest of the year up I’m sure.