Josh Hollingshead’s painting practice explores social, religious and environmental themes on a large and immersive scale. His work Manakara was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2019 and provides a characteristic insight into his work, showing off the unique properties of his carefully selected mediums while providing intricate insights into communities, groups, and time periods. We spoke with Josh to find out more about his process, the materials he uses, and how he experiments and develops his work.
Daniel: Hi Josh, please tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Josh: I am a self-taught artist and have learnt by trial and error, experimenting with different techniques, reading art books my father bought me, and visiting museums and galleries to learn from artists work.
I began to paint in 2002, left school to paint full time, was instantly sure what I wanted to accomplish and have been doing so ever since. My intention, style and overall approach has not changed.
Daniel: How would you describe your practice?
Josh: I paint large canvases, each of which represents a distinct theme and narrative, some informed by my travels. I use vivid colours to emphasise myriad hidden details which on closer inspection reveal themselves.
Daniel: Could you talk more about the different series of paintings you’ve made, on social, religious and environmental themes?
Josh: The social and political paintings I have completed capture the impact of political decisions, trade and commerce on society and individuals, and their response.
My ‘religious’ paintings provide a secular perspective on religious hierarchy and ritual. Historically painters had to uncritically promote religion, and now they can turn uncommissioned eyes on institutions which for so long controlled artistic expression.
Some of my work depicts environmental themes such as deforestation, depletion of species, and the impact of mining and drilling for oil.
Daniel: I understand you adapt your technique for each new painting, exploring metallic colours, phosphorescent acrylics, etc. What informs these experiments when you start a new painting?
Josh: In order to be distinctive and interesting to paint, each of my paintings entails a different approach, different colours and techniques. Usually the subject of a painting itself suggests the materials to use. My ‘religious’ paintings are informed by the artistic methods of the religions I portray. I used gold leaf and pigments to depict the Russian Orthodox Church.
In my paintings of mourning and the tombs of prominent people, glossy purple pigments had to be applied slickly. To paint ancestor worship I used matt earthy textures and scumbling of almost dry blood red paints. When I used phosphorescent acrylic the subject demanded colour which would glow like a warning sign. Medium, colour and texture are at the service of, and emphasise the meaning of, a painting.
Daniel: I understand that you are particularly interested in colour and the chemistry of pigments. Where has this interest come from, and how does it influence your practice?
Josh: I became especially interested when I was experimenting with transparent oils. I found I could mix a colour which when painted thickly was dark reddish-purple, at a medium consistency it was orange, thinly it was warm yellow, and as a wash it was yellowish-green.
When using glossy translucent paints I am very careful to use as bright colours as possible in order to have pure mixes. In doing this colours such as cobalt phosphate violet, quinacridone pigments and several transparent yellows are vital. At present I am not grinding my own paints but have done when I needed specific colours which I could not obtain from tubed paints.
Daniel: The intricate detail in some of your works is very absorbing. Could you talk through the preparatory stages to your works, and how these ideas are built up?
Josh: I get ideas for paintings suddenly, sometimes while travelling, from memory, or from imagination, if it is an allegory. Quickly I will write notes, the intended meaning of the painting, and sometimes draw a simple compositional plan.
To prepare a painting I have had many methods. For my largest paintings I have filled a folder full of preparatory drawings, while on other paintings I use lots of photos to refer to while painting. Sometimes I paint directly from memory, or for paintings with a complex interaction of a crowd of figures I complete a full-size drawing and copy it across to canvas.
Daniel: What interests you about working on a larger scale?
Josh: I prefer to paint large canvases, as my intent is for the viewer to almost feel they could walk into the painting, for it to be immersive. When a painting is close to finished I can feel as if I am in the location or scene I am depicting, and this helps me to understand and represent it more vividly.
Daniel: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Josh: I tend to rely on daylight simulating striplights, small synthetic brushes, a B-2 Langnickel palette knife, and a large metal table to cover in palettes. I store them overnight in a tin with clove oil in to keep the colours from drying too quickly.
Daniel: What is a good day in the studio for you?
Josh: At present I am satisfied if I paint for 7 hours a day. When I was younger I would often work up to 16 hours on a painting and it had an adverse effect on me. I have a painting schedule in mind so I have to paint a specific amount daily to use my paints before they dry.
Daniel: And when you’re working in the studio – do you listen to music, audiobooks, Radio 4, or do you prefer to work in silence?
Josh: I listen to Radio 4, and occasionally audiobooks. My studio is always open and is in a shopping arcade so I sometimes talk while painting. To work in silence would mean listening in on people, which can be distracting.
Daniel: What are your artistic influences, and who are some of your favourite contemporary artists?
Josh: My greatest influence is Alessandro Magnasco, an often overlooked 18th century artist who had an almost anthropological focus on subjects hitherto ignored by painters: cloistered lives of the clergy, monks and hermits, along with the more usual landscapes and genre scenes.
As for contemporary artists, I am very impressed by the drama and use of colour in Jonas Burgert’s paintings.
Daniel: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or online?
Josh: In 2020 I hope to complete two more paintings on environmental themes. I am currently finishing a panorama of Laayoune in the Western Sahara which I will soon add to my website joshhollingshead.net.
My paintings can always be seen in my studio in Daisy Mays Arcade in Swanage, Dorset, and I am making arrangements for an exhibition in Durlston Fine Foundation Gallery in spring 2020.
Click here to find out more about Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020
Featured Image: Graves of St Petersburg, 2009-10, Josh Hollingshead, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 197 x 189 cm.