Iain Andrews won the Mind’s Eye Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with his work Double Portion. In this interview, he discusses less comfortable colours, the form of brush strokes, and how his work as a psychotherapist has affected the narratives of his paintings.
Above image: Iain Andrews in his studio
Artist Interview with Iain Andrews
Josephine: Could you tell us about your artistic background. How did you become an artist?
Iain: I was an only child, born to a working class family where it was usually up to me to make my own entertainment. My father worked for British Telecom as a draughtsman in the days before computers, and so would bring home reams of offcut paper, pencils and drawing instruments, and so I drew from an early age. When he left for work, he would often leave a drawing by the side of my bed, for me to complete, and so drawing became for me the most natural of activities as it was something that he did and that we did together.
Following school and a foundation course, I studied for a BA and then followed that by an MA at the School of Art, Aberystwyth, where the teaching was very much in the traditional vein. We were taught life drawing in each of the 3 years on my BA, and were given lessons on glazing, colour mixing and the preparation of grounds, and I think being away from London helped to foster a practice which was less focused on what others expected of me, and allowed time to grow as an artist. Those traditional skills are sadly becoming rarer now in art colleges, but I was grateful to have a course that cherished them. I then completed a two year Diploma in Art Psychotherapy at Sheffield University, leading to my current situation where I balance my practice as a painter with working with teenagers struggling with a range of psychological distress in a school in Moss Side, Manchester.
Josephine: What’s your relationship with colour and how do you decide on the colour palette of a painting?
Iain: On leaving college, I met with the artist Richard Kenton Webb for regular tutorials, and he was a big influence in how I think about colour. He taught me a lot about the tonality of colour, and the ways in which earth colours and spectral colours interact, and I have him to thank for galvanizing that interest. Colour is something I’ve always loved, but it’s rarely taught well in colleges. There are colours that I return to again and again, I hesitate to call them favourites since each colour has a particular beauty and utility, but I tend towards cobalt greens, turquoises, and violets, and sometimes need to intentionally disrupt these habits by leaning towards a palette that is less comfortable to me.
Josephine: What materials or tools could you not live without? Do you use anything unconventional?
Iain: I use both acrylics and oils sometimes in the same painting – the oils forming a top layer of glaze over the more gestural acrylic marks. I use a lot of medium, both acrylic glaze medium and also liquin, and these are both staple for me. I guess the most unconventional tool I might use is an airbrush, which I have resorted to occasionally in the earlier stages of a painting. I also get through a lot of sandpaper and scalpels, as I frequently scrape and sand down the surface of paintings and begin working on top of what’s left of the pervious image.
Josephine: Your work finds a fantastic sweet spot between the recognisable and the abstracted. How do you go about putting down just enough to form a scene, but not enough to head into realism?
I think the work often fails as it fall too far into either the realistic or the abstract, so this is a hard question to answer. Usually if I’ve left the work for a few days and return to it, and immediately recognise a figure or object in it, then I will try to disrupt that, but this isn’t always the case. I’m interested in the ‘object ness’ of individual marks – how brush marks can be objects in themselves with highlights and shadows, rather than just a means of a describing form, and the conflict between this and the need for the painting to remain recognisable in some way is central to my work.
Josephine: Your textured, multi-coloured impasto marks are really effective for creating space and three dimensionality in a scene, especially when layered over softer washes of colour. What can you tell me about the processes and techniques like this that you have developed?
Iain: Again this is hard to answer, as I don’t really have a clear understanding myself of how the different elements of my process inter relate. There’s a sense in which I need to get out of my own way when I’m beginning a painting, and the sanding down, large brushes and gestural, spontaneous marks form what might be referred to as the first stage of the work. Following this, much smaller brushes, oil paint and glazes may be used to adjust particular marks and areas of the work, and for this stage it’s a slower, more considered process.
Josephine: Do you ever use the properties of your materials (drying time, transparency, viscosity) to your advantage when painting? Does this vary depending on the piece?
Iain: As I mentioned previously, the speed of drying with acrylics is useful to me in the earlier stages of a painting, where I will often build up multiple layers quickly, before thinking about which areas need to be sanded down or scraped away. Acrylic glazing medium is useful here, as it allows marks to break up and dissolve when used in a high enough ratio of medium:paint, and since it reduced tension and increases the slippage of the paint application it allows to paint to sit more on the surface of the canvas, rather than be absorbed into it.
Depending on the piece, the use of materials will of course vary. I’ve just completed my first painting on a copper etching plate that I recently bought from Jackson’s, and this has been made exclusively in oils. The total lack of absorbency of the support allows the paint to slide and skate over the surface in a way that isn’t possible with canvas, and I’ve enjoyed this first experimentation.
Josephine: How do you find the balance between conscious decision-making and spontaneity in your process?
Iain: Working as an art psychotherapist, one is operating within a framework of boundaries, theories and ideas which have been learnt during training, and which have been established over years of practice and experience. At the same time, it is necessary to be thoughtfully aware of the psychological material that is communicated within the session, and to be able to respond spontaneously in the present, and this requires a degree of intuition and feeling. I think a similar interaction happens during painting – to be able to be in respond both intuitively at times and also to consciously mull over the image and adjust it accordingly. I think the interplay between the two is important, although I would rarely say that this feels particularly ‘balanced’.
Josephine: As the first Mind’s Eye award winner, how do you feel your work resonates with the dreamlike/surreal aspect of this category?
Iain: It is always a difficult decision to make when someone asks for a classification of my work, as I struggle to place in into a category such as landscape, figurative, abstract etc. I think perhaps some of the experience of working as a psychotherapist, of having to piece together and sort through the narratives of the children with whom I work echoes in the collage like way that I construct a painting, and certainly dreams are often collage like states in the way in which they subconsciously mix and match personal imagery.
Josephine: How do you know when a painting is finished?
It needs to hang around the studio for a while and be scrutinized. At some point it decides to leave, although it may have been reworked on several times first.
Josephine: How do you deal with artist’s block or moments of creative stagnation during the painting process?
Iain: I remember an interview with Nick Cave where he speaks about keeping on working and producing ‘bad’ art, since all of the failures and mistakes are necessary catalysts for the moments that do work. Being patient with yourself in those moments is important, and often what is produced may be painted over or destroyed in the future, but for me it’s important to keep working, however slowly and tentatively that may be. Because I work in a school as well, often stagnation may be eased through having that different focus.
Josephine: How was your experience taking part in Jackson’s Painting Prize’s first independent large-scale exhibition at Bankside Gallery?
Iain: Jackson’s have been great at every step of the way. Having a wide window in which work could be delivered to and collected from the Jackson’s shop in London was really helpful to me as I am based in the North, and London is a significant trip for me. I’ve been impressed at how the show has been organised and put together, and its been great that there was a physical show of works for the first time this year, since that can only help establish the prize further as a significant event on the art world calendar.
Josephine: Can you share anything you have in mind for future projects?
Iain: I’m exhibiting currently in Alaska with Contemporary British Painting – a group of painters who I am privileged to be part of, that show regularly nationally and internationally. I will be exhibiting in this years Trinity Buoy Drawing Prize, which is a great show to be part of. I’ve got some work out in Beijing at the moment too, and will be showing with James Freeman gallery in London sometime in 2024.