Chris Longridge won the Portrait Award in Jackson’s Painting Prize 2023 with his work Venus and Cupid. In this interview, he discusses acknowledging technology, gnarled and clumpy brushes, and how the subject of painting is paint.
Above image: Chris Longridge in his studio
Artist Interview with Chris Longridge
Josephine: Could you tell us about your artistic background? How did you become an artist?
Chris: I’ve painted all my life. I loved painting when I was tiny and it was the only subject I really enjoyed at school. Making something interesting, useful or beautiful that didn’t exist before is a profound motivation for me. It would be bombastic to say it’s the meaning of life, but secretly I believe something like that. I didn’t study art at university, because back when I was considering further education, a career in art was inconceivable. I wanted to learn but I had to make a living too, and from what I could see, if you got a fine art degree, you had to become an art teacher. I knew that wasn’t for me, so I carried on learning through practice, visiting galleries and reading people like Robert Hughes, Edward Lucie-Smith and Matthew Collings, trying to find my own voice as a painter. Even at the age of 50 I feel like I’ve barely started and am still running to catch up.
Josephine: What is your process for starting a painting, and is it always the same approach?
Chris: It always starts with an image, usually a photograph of people or of another painting. There’ll be something that instinctually excites me about the picture – almost always something compositional rather than narrative – and using Photoshop I try to deconstruct it a little to find what it is that I like about it. Sometimes I won’t want to do much with the original, I just render the aspects that I like in paint, fairly straightforwardly.
Other times I “remix” the source image and change it drastically to isolate the elements that appeal. Some of those things are tonal, some compositional, some are about colour, some are thematic. The last of those is where I get to have fun with titles, which can be the key to unlocking a painting for me. I like them to be a little oblique, which hopefully reflects the nature of the work and opens up new avenues of exploration.
Josephine: How important is drawing for you, do you keep a sketchbook?
Chris: Not gonna lie, I don’t like drawing. I admire people (like my wife) who are brilliant at linear mark-making with pen, pencil or charcoal – what they do is a kind of alchemy to me. I just can’t do it. My drawings always end up overworked, fussy and boring. Good representational drawing is more honest than painting, in that its two-dimensionality can’t really be overlooked. That isn’t to say that representational painting is less honest; more that it’s necessary to acknowledge its flatness even if it embraces the false third dimension. So, I don’t keep a sketchbook. All my preparatory work is done in Photoshop, though behind me there is a large digital wake of half-formed ideas in a folder on my laptop.
Josephine: What inspires you to work? What is more important for you, inspiration or daily work?
Chris: Like most artists I have to do something else to pay the bills, and because I’m also a parent, that means I only have a handful of hours each week when I can actually expect to paint. So painting, while it can be laborious, never feels like work! But to answer the question, I don’t see a distinction between inspiration and work. The work is the inspiration. I don’t do it because I’ve had an epiphany that I simply must gift to the world, I do it because I love doing it. The ‘doing it’ is what motivates me to seek new ideas, and ideas come while I’m doing it. It’s all part of the same thing.
Many artists see the need for a day job as a curse, but despite the loss of painting hours, it’s a liberation too: it means that when you finally sit down to paint (or sculpt, or draw…), your mind isn’t cluttered with unhelpful ideas of what will sell and what won’t. Despite all that, I’ve had years-long periods when I’ve not had any compelling ideas, and it’s a miserable time, because I can’t recapture that optimistic feeling of bringing something new into being unless there is something specific I want to create. I can’t just pick up a brush and make something up as I go along, that’s not my process.
Josephine: You talk about painting in a ‘post-digital environment’. How do you think technology informs your work in portraiture?
Chris: This one is a biggie for me. Since the mid-19th century, artists have had to embrace a post-photographic world. What do we do when anyone can create (and reproduce) images mechanically? Impressionism and abstraction were the answer 150 years ago, but we’re way beyond that now, in a time where not only can we manipulate photography but a free-to-use AI can conjure perfectly-rendered fantastical images from simple verbal prompts. What role does the visual artist have now, faced with that? What’s the point of us?
My answer is two-fold – first, to remember the status of paint itself as the fundamental fact of a painting, more so even than the thing the painting depicts (in a representational work). The subject of painting is paint. It’s a weird thing to still be doing these days, isn’t it? Moving coloured paste around a flat surface and trying to convince people it’s something special. So if I’m not considering the “brushstroke-ness” of every brushstroke, then I’m not concentrating hard enough.
My second response is to look back at art history, and consider my relationship to it as part of my practice. Because painting, as well as paint, is the subject of painting.
One thing I’ve done a lot recently is paint digitally-reconsidered, deconstructed Old Master paintings. Yes, an AI could do it too, but I feel that painting digitally altered reproductions of paintings says something that AI-generated digital images derived from paintings doesn’t. Quite aside from what it explores about history, being, identity and so on, it’s about acknowledging the technology that is wired into the very essence of our contemporary relationship to images, and manifesting it in physical reality. And by technology I mean the old and new tools together – brushes are “technology” too, just of an older order.
Professional artists rightly fear AI – commercial illustrators and graphic designers should be thinking very hard about their job security right now – but it’s not going to go away, and ultimately it’s another tool for humans to employ. AIs like Midjourney are only as creative as the minds employing them and their output only has as much worth as anyone is prepared to perceive in it. So far that worth seems to be “not much”. Images are cheap; art is valuable. The difference between an artist and a generative AI is that the artist wants to make art and cares about what they’re making and why. An AI can’t make art by itself, only images. That’s the value in what we do compared to AIs, even artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst who hire fabricators rather than pursue hands-on craft. It matters to us – and that’s what other humans respond to in our work.
Josephine: What is your relationship with colour and how do you decide on the colour palette of a painting?
Chris: I used to get confused when better educated people than me talked about artists (like Bonnard, say) being “colourists”. Because surely all artists are colourists, right? I understand the shorthand now – that for those artists colour is supposedly more significant than any other aspect of their work (which I’d refute) – but I still insist that selecting and positioning colour is really the only thing visual artists actually do, from Giotto to Hockney. Monochromes are a colour choice. Black line is a colour choice. Narratives and ideas are expressed only through colour choice and position. All composition is colour choice.
I choose my palette based on the original image that piqued my interest. I’ll usually tweak it in Photoshop, adjusting lights, darks, zones of contrast, vividness, line and so on until it approximates the possibility in my head that the source picture first conjured. Photoshop is where I chip away at the marble to find the sculpture inside it, if you like. Having said all that, I really struggle with greens. I find I can reproduce any of a thousand shades of brown using simple combinations, but when it comes to green, especially vivid, outdoors-y greens, I go to pieces. Green really sucks.
Josephine: What materials or tools could you not live without?
Chris: Pro Arte’s Sterling Acrylix long-handled flat-end brushes have been my go-to for years – they have just the right amount of bounce, smoothness and grip. I’ve never been especially attached to one kind of support over another, because sometimes you want texture and other times you want things perfectly flat, but if I had a wish-granting art genie to hand, they’d be able to conjure up fine-grade linen, drum-tight on 3cm deep stretchers, and triple-prime it for me on demand.
Josephine: Do you ever use your materials in unconventional or ‘wrong’ ways, to get your desired effect?
Chris: I abuse my brushes terribly. But sometimes a gnarled, clumpy brush is exactly the right tool for a paint effect. Sometimes an old supermarket loyalty card is the right tool. I once did a small portrait using an inch-wide brush that was so claggy it looked like a fork, but it worked really well. Likewise, I use my fingers all the time. I’m all for using whatever is to hand to get the desired effect – there’s no wrong way to do anything as long as it achieves the desired effect.
In one painting I wanted to depict skeins of fluorescent-yellow wool, but fluoro acrylics are very transparent. So I marked off fine lines with masking tape and filled the gaps in with titanium white, then painted over the white with fluoro yellow. The result wasn’t a crisp, sharp line like I had hoped, it was barbed, broken and fuzzy – so much woollier, better effect. Accidents are great, they’re the moments when the muse grabs the wheel and yanks you down an unexpected road.
Josephine: How long does a painting take, or does it depend on the subject? Do you work on multiple paintings at once?
Chris: I work at the kitchen table and keep all my supplies in a small crate in the dresser, so I only have space to work on one painting at a time. How long it takes depends on complexity. Some I can knock out in a few hours, others take months. I find it very frustrating having to wait for layers to dry, which suggests I should work on more than one at a time so that I could switch between them.
Josephine: Can you share anything you have in mind for future work/projects?
Chris: I’ve been working on a series of responses to Rubens’ apostle portraits. I can’t see myself addressing all twelve but the fabulously anonymous St Simon and St Matthias have both gone pretty well, so there may be more to come. I’m drawn much more to Old Masters as a source of inspiration at the moment than contemporary images, but that might change. I can only work from publicly available sources or pictures I’ve taken myself, and as I mostly take photos of my family, they’re probably a bit sick of being my subjects. I need to get out of the house and photograph more people! I envy painters like Mark Tennant who seem to have a bottomless well of amazing source images.
Josephine: How do you know when a painting is finished?
Chris: They’re never finished. I stop when I can no longer kid myself that I’m improving them. There’s a point where I have to concede that I’m just making things worse, and that’s the time to let go. But the dissatisfaction I feel with every “finished” painting is one of the main motivations to make the next one. The next one will be better!