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Artist Interview: Alex Kelly


Artist Interview: Alex Kelly

With a significant a rise in sales of oil paints, we have begun researching more oil painters from across the UK and we have been lucky enough to  interview contemporary oil painter Alex Kelly. Based in Birmingham, Alex began his varied creative career as a Ceramic Sculptor moving into teaching Art & Design before working as a graphic designer. Alex is a self-taught oil painter using his artistic background to build a professional career as an artist and teaching through workshops.

Q: Can you tell us about your Artistic background/education?

Like many artists I have been dabbling in artistic endeavours from an early age. My formal learning experience includes studying sculpture to degree level at Manchester Metropolitan University. After graduating I set up studio making ceramic sculpture for a few years. Later I also began to teach art and design in schools and colleges. I went on to study graphic design and then worked as a graphic designer for about 10 years whilst still making art in a non-professional context. After being made redundant in 2012 I took the opportunity to develop oil painting skills which was in part catalysed by seeing the alla prima paintings of Richard Schmid. As far as painting is concerned, I am wholly self-taught though I think these days that is a somewhat of a blurry distinction because of access to a wealth study aids which the internet enables.

Q. Do you work in a studio or from home?

I work in a studio which happens to also be in my home :)

Q. Who are your Art Influencers? inspirations?

I have many artistic influences, both past and present. Some past influences I would highlight are: Antonio Mancini, John Singer Sargent, Nicolai Fechin, Anders Zorn, Caspar David Friedrich. Present painters who inspire include: Richard Schmid, Tibor Nagy, Mark Boedges, Nick Alm, Laura Robb, Daniel Keys, Kathleen Speranza, Quang Ho, David Curtis, Mia Bergeron, Lindsey Kustusch, Keevan Donahue, Julian Merrowsmith, Duane Keiser, Brian Astle, Derek Penix, Simon Pasini.

Q. What helps get you in "the zone’ to create your work,  music? out in nature? quiet?

Getting in the ‘zone’ for me is more a matter of the internal rather than the external world. So sometimes I will have music (instrumental is better I find) as a background as can sometimes help to tune into your internal state. The main obstacle as far as setting up a good attitude is one’s internal space. If you feel oppressed or overly distracted by external events, this tends to get in the way of painting well. A broad open awareness in general is most conducive as this reflects in general the attitude of taking in the whole work of painting – kind of like stepping back to the view the work as a whole – which is a good habit to get into.

Q. Do you keep a sketchbook? How often do you use it and do you travel with it?

I do not keep a sketchbook as matter routine. I think you must ask what would benefit you would get from doing that. A sketchbook might be important if you are preparing for larger/ more complex piece that you need to work out your ideas for. As a tool for practice it might also prove useful. For myself I paint most days so I am always practicing anyway so it would serve no additional benefit.

Q. Where does a piece of work begin for you?

My inspiration can come from literally anywhere. Sometimes I see another artist’s work and a particular aspect will inspire me to explore that: it could be a colour harmony, a light effect, value structure, composition, texture, paint application etc. Sometimes I see a particular light effect in real life and want to try and capture that experience in paint. Occasionally an image will come to mind of an idea for a painting and then I will try to recreate that idea in paint. Many times, inspiration comes while actually in the process of painting itself.

It also depends on what I am aiming to develop. I regard the subject itself as a vehicle for the theme of the work. Subject and theme are interdependent. I treat the ‘problem’ of how to represent the subject of floral, still life or portrait subjects no differently. I enjoy working with floral perhaps more than other still life subjects because they have an inherent abstract quality which helps get past the tendency to a paint the symbol of a thing. For example, thinking “I’m painting the shadow area of this cup” instead of “I’m painting dark values of a shape”. Floral subjects get around this tendency I think to a certain extent and I am especially interested in the boundary between abstraction and representation.

I think work on paintings can broadly be separated into two categories: performing a current skill and developing new skills. The performance of a current skill will be executing a particular idea to produce a finished work. Here the choice of a subject may be randomly inspired (see inspiration above) or part of an ongoing theme (a translucent light effect for example). Development of new skills is an opportunity for experimentation. I will take more risks and work in ways which removes the pressure to produce a finished piece.

Q. Can you describe your process?

Through experience I have found oils to be the most versatile of all the painting mediums. It can be applied thinly or thickly, built up in layers, retains textural marks, is capable of both transparent and opaque qualities, and glazed with. In fact, it can imitate watercolours, gouache and pastel. It also remains wet for a long time if desired for wet-on-wet application and allows for further manipulation on the painting support. This is key to the way I work, which is known as direct painting where you are working with wet paint. This contrasts with the classical indirect method where the painting is built up in several layers. My paintings are not always alla prima (in one go) as I sometimes work on a painting over several sessions. The alla prima approach is simply the most enjoyable to me! One can realise the concept for a painting in a short, concentrated period.

Q. What technique do you prefer to use?

I don’t rely on just one approach to building a painting but will describe my general method for a still life painting.

First comes the conception which may be quite vague or more fully formed in the mind’s eye. If one can envision the completed painting in the mind, then the chances of success increase dramatically. On the other hand, being open to the unexpected and experimentation also has its place.

This quote from Nickolai Fechin sums up my approach nicely:

“To me, technique should be unlimited... [with] constant growth in ability and understanding. It must never be mere virtuosity but an endless accumulation of qualities and wisdom... First comes the initial idea for a work - what the artist desires to portray, to bring into concrete manifestation. In order to fulfill this task, he must begin to build, to organise."

I sometimes work on oil primed, unstretched canvas which is taped to a board or wooden panels which I prepare myself. The advantage of working on loose, unstretched canvas is that the painting can later be cropped if you decide to change the proportions. I work exclusively on oil primed surfaces as they are much less absorbent than an acrylic gesso primed surface. This means the paint can be manipulated more easily on the slick surface. Oil primed panels can be made even smoother than canvas which is allows for even greater manipulation. I sometimes tint the surface with an earth or neutral colour, which is then allowed to dry. Other times I will apply an imprimatura and work into that while it is still wet.

I spend time arranging the objects, thinking about theme, composition of the elements, focal point(s) and deciding on a size and format for the painting.

If the subject is simple, I will make some preparatory drawing marks in paint to indicate where the focal elements will be placed. Then I will start by blocking in the most obvious value shapes. This is usually around the focal point. My aim at this point is to separate what is in the ‘world of light’ and what falls within the ‘world of dark’. I carefully build up the value structure for the whole painting: it is the fundamental hierarchy of value relationships that the painting depends on. I usually work from the most obvious to the vaguest. By starting with what is obvious I will have something certain on the canvas from the start with which I can then make comparisons with. My primary aim is to establish the values (lights and darks) but I also consider hue and saturation relationships. I avoid adding any details at this initial stage. Once the ‘value map’ has been established the painting should already ‘read’ properly as a whole.

Once the block in stage is complete, I will start the process of refining the value (also known as tone), hue and saturation (chroma) relationships. Usually, I will work first on the focal point which is the main ‘actor’ in the painting. By concentrating on the focal point and working on this until it is nearly complete, I can more easily gauge the level of finish I would like for the other elements of the painting. In this way some areas are more refined than others. I find that paintings which have areas that are less developed gives more drama to the areas of greater subtlety and finish. Paint is applied into, and on top of, the block-in so the paint is partially mixed on the support. After the block-in stage I will also begin to develop edge relationships, which means making some edges harder or softer. This is mostly dependent on the presence and absence of light observed in the subject. I do this in two ways, one, by painting into edges to create softer transitions and two, by using a dry soft brush to pull one edge boundary into another. I am careful not to over blend edge boundaries as this can destroy both hue and saturation differences. At this stage I might also take the opportunity to apply more bravura approach to brush work especially in areas away from the focal point. Here representation gives way to abstraction and I find that this can add interest and drama to a painting. To achieve the hardest edges, I sometimes use a palette knife to paint with. Having previously established the value structure for the whole painting I may then go back and re-establish the darkest darks and the highlights. The whole process is quite challenging as it requires a good level of concentration throughout. Painting when you are not fully attentive or tired can often lead to mistakes.

Q. What are your most important artists tools?

Oil paints, brushes that hold their shape (do not splay) and oil primed support. Aside from this I do not have any ‘special’ tools. I don’t normally focus on ‘mark making’ as a special activity while painting unless it is something I am particularly exploring. The marks made are determined by the form and light I am trying to represent. Brush marks may follow the contour of a form to better describe it. In this way brush marks can describe the form rather than just applying random strokes. This is usually more intuitive than premeditated. It was recently pointed out to me by one of my student’s that I will often practice making a stroke, rehearsing it, before committing to the stroke. This is an aspect of visualisation which happens at different scales, from the individual stroke up to the painting as a whole. I like to say, “edges are where the action is”. By this, I mean edges describe where light is interacting with form. It can either reveal, where it makes contact, or falls into mystery where it becomes absent. Where I have specifically experimented with mark making I have sometimes partially ‘destroyed’ a painting. It struck me when I was scraping back a painting that was ‘failing’ that interesting marks and textures were made. Because of this I decided to methodically, but partially destroy the painting after the block-in stage and then to selectively rebuild parts of the painting. ‘Happy accidents’ often occur in doing this, so you keep those if they help to enhance the painting. I sometimes use a soft dry brush to manipulate edges, or my fingers, a rubber scraper over larger areas, or even a printer’s brayer. Any tool can be used to achieve interesting textural effects. I like to explore the tension between representation and abstraction in a painting and this approach is one way to do that.

Q What are your favourite materials?

Oil paint: it is the most versatile and forgiving of all the mediums in my experience.

Q. What are you currently working on?

Floral subject of orchids painting from life observation.
I paint from life mostly, but not exclusively. Over the years I have become less dogmatic about the need for painting directly from life. Beginners often think that painting from photographs is going to be easier and in some respects it is. Painting from life is more demanding than painting from photographs but the rewards and the potential for developing new skills is so much greater. The experience of vision is far more subtle and nuanced that what can be gleaned from even the best photo reference. Once a painter has some experience with painting from life and then must work on a painting from photographs only then do you realise there can be an enormous lack in photographic references. Value, hue and chroma subtleties and relationships can be lost and distorted. On the other hand, a painter who has some experience of painting from life can understand what is lacking and make up for it to some extent. There are of course some subjects which are impossible to paint from life, such as time dependent events, and this where photo reference is especially useful. Even when a painter works from imagination or memory, having experience of painting from life can be enormously helpful.

Q. Where can we see more of your work online or in person?

My website: www.alexkellyart.co.uk

Instagram: @alexkellyartuk

I currently have work on show with the Birmingham Contemporary Art Gallery until 3rd June 2021.

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