Robbie Bushe won the Scenes of Everyday Life Award in Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with his work Night Visitor. In this interview, he discusses how his work has evolved since he last entered the prize, his sketching practice, and how he keeps his creative process fresh.
Above image: Robbie Bushe working on a painting in his studio with his border terrier Stanley, 2023.
Photo credit: @helenpughphotography
Josephine: As the winner of last year’s Landscape Award, as well as this year’s Scenes of Everyday Life Award, how has your work developed since we last spoke?
Robbie: I like to think my work as slowly evolving and I often work on several strands or projects concurrently and each develops in different ways. Last year’s landscape prize winner (Learney Incantation) was one of several ‘drone’s eye view’ larger paintings which I am continuing to do and was based on childhood memories or rural Aberdeenshire. This year’s ‘everyday life’ painting (Night Visitor) was one of a series of small paintings based on directly observed daily drawings from my garden which I added and invented a range of simple narratives within. So, development for me is not a linear thing as I juggle themes, subject, scale and purpose.
Josephine: We saw a sneak peek of your sketchbook displayed at the exhibition. Is sketching just as important to you as it was last year? Does this change depending on the project you work on?
Robbie: I usually have a least one sketchbook on the go, sometimes more depending on whether I have a specific project to keep separate. I am a drawing obsessive, and my sketchbooks work generally falls into three strands: directly drawn observations from everyday life, stream of conscious imaginative drawings usually done while at meetings or watching tv and compositional and preparatory planning of ideas. These books are an invaluable record of thought processes, reference, research, and aide to memory. I still have every sketchbook I have ever used; logged, dated, and sorted in my home office bookshelf. Dipping into any one of these, which stretch back to the early 1980s, is like conjuring up not just a memory, but also a sense of time, place, conversations, and personal perspectives at any given moment. They are all still recognisably me, and there are many themes I revisits again and again, often unknowingly – with a strong sense of narrative and storytelling at their heart.
Josephine: What materials or tools could you not live without? Do you use anything unconventional in your process?
Robbie: The first thing which comes to mind is strong kitchen roll paper towels – not very technical I know. Despite my detailed work, I am very messy painter, and to help with my control and dexterity I need a small piece of kitchen roll beside my palette after every brush stroke. I spend 10 minutes before every session cutting up each roll piece into 6 small pieces so as to not waste it. I am also fussy with the type of brushes I use for oil painting; My favourites are synthetic filberts sizes 0, 1 and 2. I tend to use either Jacksons own brand or Pro Arte. They have buoyancy and take a bit of punishment. I don’t think I use anything too unconventional – except I like to use watered down Gouache as an ink with a dip/scratch pen, as it allows me to use mix my own colours and tonal ranges.
Josephine: Night Visitor is much smaller in scale than your previous award-winning work, Learney Incantation (Tornaveen). You mentioned in your last interview with us that you first paint smaller works to prepare you for the big ones, as you move through the cycle of the project. Are you planning a larger version of this painting?
Robbie: I bought 20 small gesso-ed cradled panels from Jacksons to develop a series on. The small paintings are less studies for bigger work than a limbering up and getting a feel for a new direction or subject and see what works. They will rarely become studies for larger works, but may set the agenda, look and feel for bigger paintings. So, while I am not planning a larger version of Night Visitor, I am preparing for some bigger paintings which include some of the characteristics and ideas which have developed through the ‘Ghosts in the Garden’ series of which this work is one. These larger works are more likely to include greater expansive pictorial context and play more with perspective, viewpoint and sense of illusion.
Josephine: What’s your relationship with colour and how do you decide on the colour palette of a painting?
Robbie: I always used to think that drawing was my main strength and was the most important tool I had. Now I think it is my use and understanding of colour – and more importantly, its relationship with tone. This has been from a lifetime of learning, mixing, observing, and improvising with colour. I now give colour a huge consideration when planning or starting a painting. Sometimes I will create a series of ‘moodboards’ using collage materials to set the colour range, proportion of colour and tonal hues. Other times, particularly on smaller quicker works, I will decide on a dominant colour or a filter to keep the work as one. Whichever process, I now spend at least 30 minutes and sometimes up to 2 hours, mixing the principal colour values and tone and reflective variation on my palette. It is incredibly satisfying. I think we all have ‘go to’ colours and palette ranges, so I try to change it up regularly. My works often has dominant non-local colours like having a green sky and this adds to a sense of otherworldliness and detachment I try to achieve in my work.
Josephine: Your work last year was focused on urban landscapes – huge, sprawling, and detailed. Am I right in thinking that this year, your work appears to have zoomed into the details and now depicts individual, more personal scenes, perhaps connected to the previous works?
Robbie: Yes that’s right – I switch between the two. The garden paintings have mainly been made using reference drawings I make on location. So, they have a domestic human scale, whereas my panoramic works use tools such as Google Earth, archive photographs and a lot of conjecture and imagination. As I expand the garden paintings, I am playing again with spatial devices such as cutaways and excavations revealing what’s inside and underneath, and where my characters are. The places and narratives are deeply personal, visual daydreams, reflecting on forlorn memories and invented narratives.
Josephine: Which historical or contemporary artists have influenced you the most?
Robbie: Dudley D Watkins, who invented and drew the cartoon strips ‘The Broons’ and ‘Oor Wullie’ for the Sunday Post in from the 1950s until the 70s. His dip pen inkwork, multiple figure framed and linear perspective started it all for me. In terms of painters I could list hundreds but my current top ten would be (in no particular order) Pierre Bonnard, for the complex weaving and sprinkling of colour to find the composition, James Ensor, for his arresting imagination, Ben Shahn, for his playful depiction of New York life. Carel Weight, for their otherworldliness alongside Steven Campbell, Tal R, Hernan Bas, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Cecily Brown and Jules De Balincourt
Josephine: How long does a painting take, or does it depend on the subject? Do you work on multiple paintings at once?
Robbie: When I get going, I work fast. I have had to develop strategies to make work in the spaces and time between my academic and other work commitments. I actually have a short attention span and can only work in 2-3 hour bursts. So, I must plan carefully and usually have several works on the go at the same time. When I run out of energy and options on one work, I can move onto another. I build in preparation, colour mixing and ‘faff time’, but in order to have a successful session, I need to decide and plan in advance what passage of the painting I am going to work on. It’s essential for me, otherwise I may drift into self-indulgence and the painting with run away from me. I draw out my compositions thoroughly before painting and most of the experimentation occurs during the drawing stage. Get that right and then the painting has a fighting chance. So how long does it take me? On average a 50 x 60 panel will take around six 2–3-hour sessions from start to finish. However, I recently worked on three concurrent 155 x 170 cm canvasses which started in late October 2022 and were completed by end of February 2023. I have no clue on the number of hours as I also have a four day a week academic job and would also work on smaller works at the same time.
Josephine: How do you deal with artist’s block or moments of creative stagnation during the painting process?
Robbie: I’m pretty good at circumnavigating any kind of block; but it has taken me almost 40 years to figure out how. When an idea or strand of work becomes tired or formulaic you know it’s time to find something fresh and that’s a huge amount of pressure. But for me it is important not to go looking for the end goal, but to go back to some mechanical tasks. in 2021 I used the rebuilding period after my last solo show to make a new a new drawing every day directly observed from our maturing garden. I always create rules for myself and on this series, every drawing used the same media, size and approach and took no longer than 30 minutes – so it did not intrude on the rest of the day. This gets me looking again, visual daydreaming and not knowing the destination. I also use random collage elements as starting points for drawings – extending and adding from memory and imagination; it might me something from the news I have printed out, or one on of my own photographs, or from my endless archive images I collect. All this keeps me busy and thinking and eventually something gets under my skin, and I know its time to make some small studies which could lead to more resolved paintings.
Josephine: How was your experience taking part in Jackson’s Painting Prize’s first independent large-scale exhibition at Bankside Gallery?
Robbie: It was lovely to have a physical focus to the Jackson’s Painting Prize and good to meet some of the artists I have got to know via social media. I am very fortunate to have won a prize two years running so it has been good to see how the award has evolved and has become more professionally organised and received.