Angelo Murphy won the Amateur Artist Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with his work Citrus Fruit With Blue Paper. An instant love affair as a child with the smell of brand new sketchbooks and pencils has developed into an obsession with paint, canvas and the beauty of objects sensitively placed in raking light. In this interview Angelo shares what he loves in particular about painting objects and why process is just as important as the finished work within his practice.
Lisa: What would you say was your initial motivation for picking up a paintbrush, and how would you describe your artistic background?
Angelo: As an adult I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten those early memories of excitement and joy experienced from a pack of pencils and the pristine white of cartridge paper inside a new sketchbook. The smell of art materials is wonderfully evocative. Drawing was definitely my first obsession, painting came later and if I’m honest, everything I know about painting I’ve had to find out for myself. I think that’s true for a lot of artists because artist wants to achieve different results so that journey is unique to them and requires a specific skill set. That’s what is so interesting about any creative practice, it’s an ongoing journey of discovery. I’ve explored techniques and palettes and find myself painting a certain way at the moment, but I know that will evolve and change with time.
Lisa: What is it about painting still life that fascinates you?
Angelo: The subject matter is almost secondary. Placing objects together on a table is an easy, accessible way of managing and controlling your subject. I am constantly looking for interesting shadows or a quality of light hitting an object, there are certain qualities of dark and light that excite me; that inspire me to try and capture and recreate in a still life. The process of observation is fascinating, and a still life is a time-honoured exercise in intense observation. From that observation you hope to distill, light, shade, colour and tone, into a painting. I’m trying to create small dramas on canvas, the challenge is achieving this successfully. Still life is a worthy genre but perhaps, to some, seems outmoded and that’s exactly what inspires me. The challenge to create something contemporary is why I embrace it.
Lisa: How do you go about painting your still life? Do you work from life or from photos/drawings?
Angelo: I paint in oil on canvas. For a lot of my work, I bond the canvas to some rigid board. I prefer to have a stable substrate than experience the canvas ‘give’ as I apply the paint. Once I’m happy with a set-up I begin working out drawings that eventually lead to a composition I’m happy with. Drawing is crucial. You could spend hours on a painting only to realise that the composition and structure doesn’t work. These issues can all be resolved through working drawings. Light and the interaction of light with objects can provide everything needed for a good still life. Capturing the subtle effects of light is almost impossible with photographs. Photography can help with decisions about structure and composition, but the modulation of colour and light must be observed. It’s almost impossible to reach the real colours of things unless they’re right in front of you.
Lisa: Can you tell us a little about how much you consider lighting when arranging your still life, and if you manipulate the lighting of your subject prior to painting?
Angelo: The observation of light is something I’m constantly trying to get better at. Lighting is everything. Every time I consider an unsuccessful painting of my own, it’s nearly always because the lighting wasn’t right. I procrastinate for hours about lighting conditions before painting a still life. I’ve learnt a lot from looking at the Baroque period. The Dutch still life painters of the 17th Century absolutely blow me away! Willem Claesz Heda, Clara Peeters, Pieter Claesz and of course Vermeer. Artists from this period were pioneers of observation, of looking at light and shadow and the rendering of colour modulation; it’s breathtaking. They knew all the secrets as well, shadow boxes, light boxes, camera obscura, all sorts of wonderful gadgets that assisted them during the execution of great compositions. David Hockney wrote a brilliant book exploring the techniques of the great masters called ‘Secret Knowledge’, it’s all in there. Fascinating. What I attempt to do is explore a contemporary response to what I love to look at. An interpretation and appreciation of the baroque and chiaroscuro are essential for me. If you want a masterclass in painting light go straight to the Chiaroscuro found in the ‘Vanitas’ from this period.
Lisa: There is often an undone, or slightly unpainted element to the backgrounds of your paintings, where you allow the paint to drip and stain the canvas. Can you shed some light on the thinking behind this aesthetic choice?
Angelo: There are moments during the execution of a composition when you stand back and realise something interesting is happening in the process of making a painting. Later, when you consider the piece finished, you recognise that, although finished, something has been lost. That evidence of process can be visually interesting. I try not to over-finish pieces hoping to include elements of ‘the making’ rather than paint every centimetre of the canvas. It also, I think, helps create a more contemporary mood to my work.
Lisa: Talk us through your palette choices – are there set colours you return to for each painting?
Angelo: My first response to this question is the quality of paint on the palette. It’s so demoralising to spend hours or even days on a painting only to see all the vibrancy and colour sink once the work has dried. I have made this mistake in the past because of inferior materials, it’s just not worth it. For years now I have used the best oil paint I can afford. My personal preference is Michael Harding oil paint, they’re superb. I do have a loose set palette that has the obvious colours; Titanium White and a Lead White alternative are essential as are Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Yellow Ochre, Sap Green and Alizarin Crimson. The Cadmium colours are also present along with Prussian Blue and Ultramarine. One of my favourite colours is Deep Purple or a Deep Violet. I very rarely use black of any sort, so this helps get to those rich shadow tones. I also love Phthalo Blue and Phthalo Green. There are more limited palette choices but over time, I have gotten used to certain colours that suit my practice.
Lisa: And can you describe your favourite environment in which to paint?
Angelo: I have settled for a studio at home. After experiencing studios in large, shared buildings with other artists, I feel this best suits my time constraints and practice. It’s very important to create the right environment to work in. I have music on most of the time and enjoy an extensive studio playlist that contains music specifically chosen to work to. I listen to a lot of classical music, but Brian Eno, Steve Jansen, Arve Henriksen, Tim Hecker and Max Richter are also included. I do try, whenever possible, to get into the studio early in the morning. The quietness at that time is wonderful. Oh, and lots and lots of tea!
Lisa: What are the ingredients of a great still life painting?
Angelo: I think it comes back to a certain quality of light. It sounds simple but there are so many variables. The composition is crucial, but without a good balance of light and shadow it loses impact. I would then consider the objects that I have chosen to put together as a group. I do like placing slightly incongruous items together. A certain juxtaposition can add interest to a painting, a crumpled piece of coloured paper next to some citrus fruit for instance. It’s difficult to know exactly what works, that’s what inspires me to start the next painting, to keep searching for that illusive recipe.
Lisa: Are there tools or equipment that you find indispensable in your studio?
Angelo: I touched on this earlier, but I can’t emphasise how important it is to use quality paints. I prefer not to use any mediums as a vehicle for my paint, however, I do use a good quality pure turpentine. I love my glass palette and have it fixed to my small desk. Underneath this is a neutral tone, its just a piece of sugar paper but it’s invaluable when mixing colours. You can see the tone easier than using a white palette. I also wouldn’t be without my blade scraper that cleans the paint from the glass palette at the end of the day so effortlessly.
Lisa: What are you working on presently and do you have any plans for the future in your artwork?
Angelo: Presently, I am working on new still life compositions. I feel there is still a lot to discover from this genre. I’m learning so much about colour and tone. I’m acquiring information that improves my wider experience and knowledge of painting. I will return to more figurative work in the future, in fact I’ve already started noting down ideas in my sketchbook, but for now, I’m content to carry on studying objects.