Anthony Whishaw RA (b.1930) is an English artist who has exhibited throughout the UK and internationally. Some of his career highlights include being elected as a Royal Academician in 1980 and a major exhibition at The Barbican Centre in 1994.
Anthony and his daughter Zoe, who runs the studio, have been busy as ever this year, preparing for Anthony Whishaw RA: With Spain in Mind, which is back on view at the Royal Academy from 5th – 16th August after being cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. Beam Editions have also recently published his new book Works on Paper by Richard Davey.
Both coinciding in celebration of his 90th year, the exhibition explores the powerful influence Spain has had on his work, while the book covers many aspects of his life: from his early sketches, figurative works and landscapes influenced by his travels, to his abstract interiors and observations of nature. A contemporary of Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Bridget Riley, Whishaw’s work varies in style, intent, scale and medium, dealing with explorations of memory and experience. We spoke with him to find out more about his career, working methods, and how he continues to develop his practice.
Dan: Hi Anthony, thanks for talking to us. When you were at art school, life drawing classes were a key part of an artists’ education. Do you think a foundational understanding of drawing is still important for artists?
Anthony: Yes, I think it is one of many aspects that art students should be taught – the experience of really looking at a model and how to use marks to represent it is important. I used to teach at St Martins and Chelsea Schools of Art and I would always ask my students to draw a model from 3 different angles, and then use their experience of having done that to create a 4th angle without looking at the model. This encourages students to really look and deconstruct their subject and their approach to its representation.
It all depends on how ambitious you want to be as an artist. If you want to have range it is important to have all the ‘tools’ at your disposal in case you may want to dip into them at some point in your career.
Drawing from life can be a means of discovering what you are interested in as an artist and without having experienced the demands of this skill set you may never know the possibilities it could bring.
Dan: At the end of the 1960s, you stopped using oils and moved to acrylic paint – what is it about acrylics that you prefer?
Anthony: Acrylic is fast-drying and means I can work on several paintings at any one time. It can dry overnight (if not too thickly applied) allowing the work to progress the next day, while oils can take days/weeks to dry.
Acrylic medium also allows me to mix in all manner of other materials so it can be used as a sort of glue to help make a collage and develop thickness and texture to the canvas.
Dan: I understand you sometimes mix your paints with Tetrion, a kind of plaster. Could you talk about that?
Anthony: I often mix acrylic with Tetrion and then paint with it using a palette knife as it allows me to build up the surface texture which I can then file back if need be. It also makes the paint non-reflective which I prefer sometimes. I wouldn’t use it if I needed to roll up the canvas as it would just crack.
Dan: You’re known to incorporate varied mixed media in your works – from painted scraps of paper, cement, ash, wood, even old rags. What interests you about mixed media and collage?
Anthony: I think it is my unconscious way of problem-solving. I may want to use thick paint to cover up something or build up surfaces or be able to create visual Trompe-l’œil.
Dan: You are often described as an artist always on the move, working on multiple paintings at once, sometimes over decades, dabbing and mark-making as you go. Could you talk about this moving relationship with your paintings?
Anthony: Some of my works have complex ideas within them that can’t be resolved at will. The work dictates what is needed and when it is finished, which could take years. This means that I can’t work on a painting and solve all of its problems at once. I have to stop, give it some breathing space and move on to other ones where I might be able to move that work(s) on to its next stage.
Often I will rearrange works in the studio so that works are positioned next to each other than had not previously been in close proximity. These new juxtapositions can sometimes prompt the development of a work in an unexpected way. I need to feel a buzz from a work so that I can work on it. If that isn’t there, I have to leave it until it shows itself.
My works evolve as a function of place (their position in the studio next to other works) and time (my experience of life – I may learn something that will inform how a work needs revision or how I can solve a problem with a work). These time frames can be years or even decades. I have one work Portrait of Don Jimenez Valera (above) which took over 60 years to complete!
Dan: With your large paintings, how much of the work is a process of following intuition, and how much of it is a process of following a set plan or intention?
Anthony: I never have a fixed plan for a work whereby I have done all the thinking beforehand. Often I find that when I start something with a degree of intention something goes ‘wrong’, and the work starts to take a different pathway and turns into something else. This is an essential part of its evolution.
Dan: Despite the varied painting styles you have experimented with over the years, your works still retain a strong sense of your character. What advice would you give artists who are struggling to pin down their own visual identity?
Anthony: Ensure you make a lot of work! Experiment, be prepared for plenty of ‘mistakes’, be prepared to let go and change direction. It will be a struggle, but it is a journey that takes time. Allow for the unexpected to take place, incorporate these as possible new threads. Work out what interests you, analyse groups of works and deconstruct what is working and is meaningful to you… and what isn’t. Challenge yourself and your thinking and keep experimenting, always.
Dan: On the same note, how much would you advise paying attention to your peers?
Anthony: It is important to be aware of what is going on around you and one is bound to be influenced in the early days but it’s also important to look back in history at artists who inspire you. Find a reaction to what you see – years later you might find it influences you in some way.
For me when I was at art school in the 1950s I found what was happening in Paris with Picasso and Braque fascinating, but also the outrageousness of Francis Bacon’s work. I then looked back at Goya and Velazquez and found an entirely different source of inspiration.
Dan: What is a typical day working in the studio like for you?
Anthony: I often end a day knowing what I may want to tackle the next day. I start in the studio at around 8am and look forward to exploring the previous day’s work. Sometimes I know what I want to do, other times not. I have lunch around 12-1pm and then a siesta (a hangover from living in Spain!) until around 3pm. I then go back into the studio until around 6 or 7pm. Sometimes I will work on one or two works in a day or at other times I may work on many at once.
When I was able to drive to my studio in Bethnal Green (I had to give up driving a few years ago due to my eyesight deteriorating) I would get up around 5am and start work at 6am and work straight through until around 6-7pm. Lockdown has meant I work at a smaller scale as I can’t get to my larger studio in Bethnal Green, much to my disappointment.
When I was much younger I could work for 48 hours non-stop but then be utterly exhausted for a couple of days thereafter.
Dan: I gather your daughter, Zoe, manages your studio these days, and has been helping to sell some of your early sketches via the Artist Support Pledge (@artistsupportpledge) on social media. How have you found the experience and what sort of response have you received?
Anthony: It has been a tough time for artists, with the galleries closed and studio visits put on the back-burner. It has been particularly disappointing for the exhibitions celebrating my 90th birthday, that Zoe had spent many years working on, to have to close to the public.
However, I have found it fascinating to watch a whole new demographic encounter my work through Instagram (@anthonywhishaw) and the Artist Support Pledge (see examples below). There has been a wide range of buyers from all over the world – from recent graduates and artists keen to spend their hard-won savings on a sketch, to well-established collectors who want to broaden their body of work and may not have encountered my work before. It has been wonderful to know that my work can still genuinely reach people through the internet as well as through galleries.
The ASP is a great creative response to the pandemic and the difficult times artists find themselves in. I’m giving 20% of the proceeds to the RA’s emergency fund to help support the next generation of artists at the Royal Academy Schools.
Anthony Whishaw RA: With Spain in Mind will be on view at the Royal Academy from 5th – 16th August. Entry is free and ticketed.
Find out more about the new book, Anthony Whishaw – Works on Paper by Richard Davey