Conrad Clarke won the Emerging Artist Prize in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year and was awarded £1000 for his oil painting entry, Marina. His work presents a unique perspective on figurative landscape painting, where detailed texture and an inventive approach to colour elevate his familiar landscapes from the mundane to the otherworldly. Here, Conrad tells us where his method for selecting colours originated, his unexpected favourite studio materials, the importance of community for artists and how winning the Emerging Artist Prize affected his painting practice.
Above image: Sun Down, 2019-20, Conrad Clarke, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your experience of winning the Emerging Artist Prize this year? How has winning this prize affected your practice?
Conrad: After a great start to the year, things very quickly changed and the rest of it started to look pretty bleak with exhibitions being cancelled and the country in lockdown. So, as you can imagine, winning the prize felt so perfectly timed. I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t win, as I assumed the winner would be selected from the already announced category winners, so when I got the call I was totally floored, especially because it was such a strong shortlist. I have always been confident in my ability as an artist and trusted that I will eventually make a career out of it but sometimes your own convictions aren’t quite enough. Since winning the prize I have felt more motivated than ever and I am excited about getting back in the studio each day.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Conrad: After loving art all the way through school and having some great teachers, I decided to do an art foundation at Kingston University and chose to concentrate on fine art and sculpture. However, on completing that course I didn’t feel like going straight into a degree, so instead I chose to work as a studio assistant, as I wanted to see how people managed to do it as a career. Unfortunately, that meant my own art took a back seat for a number of years and painting was only really a solution to Christmas and birthday presents for a while. It wasn’t until I had a flat with space for a studio that I really decided to commit to painting as a career. The joy of art though came from my mum without a doubt. Ever since I was a little boy she encouraged me to be creative and we used to paint together or visit exhibitions as a family wherever we went. I think without her instilling that passion for it at a young age I would never be doing it now.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Conrad: Each painting begins differently really and the process is rarely exactly the same. As a figurative painter I do like to have a photo as a point of reference but I don’t like to be too literal to that either. So recently I have been creating digital collages or simply doing sketches in order to create a new image, or change a few elements. As long as I feel I have a rough idea about the final piece so I can have a plan in mind, I am happy to start.
I will then block out the entire canvas with an appropriate warm tinted base colour and once that is dry I will draw in the main subject matter usually using the grid method and a pencil. After that I do the rest of the painting in steps. I start by initially getting down all the darkest and richest base colours and then build up to brighter tinted colours, allowing each layer time to dry in order to keep the colours clean. The final step I call “cutting in”, which is where I do the negative space around the main subject matter. I like how this creates a really sharp edge and you can edit out the richer base colours to create even more detail.
Clare: The colour you infuse into your landscapes is so wonderful. Can you tell us about how you approach your palette. What are your favourite colour relationships? How do you decide which colours you’re going to work with?
Conrad: Thank you… I have always loved playing around with colour but it has taken a fair bit of experimentation to find what I feel works for me. A few years ago though, while invigilating one of my exhibitions, I met a really lovely bloke called Cliff who was an artist himself (I hate to say I can’t remember his second name). At the time, I was just starting to feel more confident with colour, but still with some varying degrees of success. He was walking with a stick so when we started chatting I offered him a chair and we ended up talking for over an hour about different colour wheel theories. One of the theories he taught me helps you choose 3 principle colours using triangles within the colour wheel, which I still refer to today when starting a piece. There are infinite possibilities as you can create different tints and tones of those colours, but having that as a starting point has been really helpful. As lovely as finding harmonious colour combinations is though, I think it is also brilliant to always have some really mucky over mixed colours next to them. This is almost inevitable with me as there is no system to my palette whatsoever.
Clare: What is it about a landscape that inspires you to want to paint it? Do you ever paint en plein air or do you work from photographs or drawings?
Conrad: I started taking a particular interest in landscape painting while living in London, and I think that is essentially because I missed it while living there. Back then I used to paint infinite landscapes with distant horizons and more abstracted features which is exactly what I guess I was craving.
Since leaving London and moving to Cheltenham in the Cotswolds, I am spoilt with beautiful countryside all around me so my subject matter has shifted more towards specific plants and their different ecologies. I feel like there is so much to explore with this change of scale and subject, as it is those seemingly mundane elements and plants that make each landscape unique.
I don’t do much painting en plain air as my process is so time consuming and detail orientated it doesn’t really work in my favour. If I do anything outside it is rarely more than a quick sketch or a bunch of photographs. I’m also probably not hard enough to deal with the inevitable drizzle.
Clare: You’re so generous with the insight you provide into your studio life on your Instagram page; from advice like how to stretch canvas to colour profiles on different paints and tools from your collection. Can you talk a bit about what motivates you to engage in this way and how it enhances your practice?
Conrad: I think this is one of the outcomes of lockdown which I have enjoyed the most. With so many exhibitions being cancelled earlier in the year I quickly decided I should use the time to make more of an effort with my social media so I was at least visible and showing my new work to people. Of course a big benefit is it increases your chances of selling your work, but it has also had so many unexpected benefits. As a self taught artist who didn’t do a degree I don’t have a huge community of artists around me to engage with. Instagram is so great for creating a sense of community particularly as an artist who works from home. It can feel rather isolated so talking with new people on a day-to-day basis is really brilliant.
Secondly, in the same way that Cliff’s advice on colour theories helped me out years ago, I like to think I might be able to do the same for someone else. Art can become such an “each to their own” industry and I don’t see how that particularly benefits anyone.
Clare: Do you have a practice of drawing in the landscape? If so, what are your favourite mediums to sketch with?
Conrad: When I do sketch I tend to like to use a combination of mediums. Recently I have quite enjoyed using different thickness drawing pens with coloured pencils or watercolours to add a suggestion of the colour afterward. I like the control you have with a pen and the detail you can include in the image. You will see a lot of recent sketches on my Instagram are done using that method.
I’m not too fussed though and will happily use any coloured pencils, watercolour, soft pastels, oil pastels, ink, chalk, charcoal, or whatever I have in my studio to create studies. At the end of the day each medium has it own charms and a sketch is just an exercise for me to explore different ideas. If I was at the point of selling my sketches I might take more time choosing the exact mediums, but for now its just about experimenting.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Conrad: Firstly, I am pretty obsessed with my studio chair. I know that sounds tragic and I’m not sure whether it is a tool, but I do spend quite a lot of my life sat in it so having one that is comfortable, on wheels and adjustable, is pretty essential. You will see it in many of my studio photos looking a little sorry for itself and covered in paint, but I would struggle to replace it.
Secondly, when plotting out my work, a wooden set square ruler is quite handy now and then for getting straight lines.
Thirdly, obviously good paints and artist mediums are worth spending money on but I’m not particularly loyal to one brand. Once I have found a paint that I like, I will keep the empty tube until I have replaced it for the same one.
And finally, I have probably made it through hundreds of 0 or 00 grade pointed brushes. I love the control you get when cutting in so I would say 90% of my process relies on them. However, for me it is almost impossible to keep them in good condition, so it is far easier to just replace them every couple of weeks when they are for the bin.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Conrad: I work from home so for the most part there wasn’t really any huge change to my normal schedule. My husband was about because of furlough and he even joined me in the studio for a short while which was nice, if not a little cramped. Both of his paintings are only 95% complete though, so I have to try and get him to finish them so I can share them at some point. As I mentioned earlier I did start spending more time recording and sharing my day-to-day studio life on Instagram and that is something I plan to continue going forward. Next, the combination of the quietness of lockdown and the boost that the competition gave me has made me generally more productive and excited about starting each new painting I reckon. And finally, like most people I had a huge studio sort out at the beginning which has made it so much easier to focus. Before I would be tripping over stuff or losing the thing I had put down 30 seconds before.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Conrad: There are obviously so many historical artists, but if I had to choose I would probably say Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Diebenkorn, O’Keeffe, and Paul Nash. All are very sensitive to natural elements in their work, confident with colour and ahead of their time in how they were painting.
Contemporary artists are again difficult to name just a few, but I would have to say David Hockney, Peter Doig, Andreas Siqueland, John McAllister, Tschiegg and Jules De Balincourt. All again are really bold with their colours, figurative in style, and capture elements of the landscape in their work.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Conrad: Generally a “good” day for me is one where I go into the studio with a clear idea of what I am going to do and by the end of the day I am happy with what I have got done. Like any other job you go in every day and try and achieve something by the end of it. The best days though are when I try something new with a piece or have a happy accident that inspires my work going forward. Making those little steps forward and evolving is so exciting for me.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Conrad: I’m currently organising my own pop-up solo show that will run from Wednesday 18th of November until Sunday 12th of December, 11.00 am – 5.00 pm. I am taking over a lovely vacant shop at 5 Suffolk Road in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, and moving my studio there for the month. I’m hoping for a good “socially distanced” turnout.
As well as that, my lovely local gallery Hadfield Fine Art will be exhibiting a few pieces in their winter exhibition, as well as making arrangements for some other exhibitions next February/March.
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