Richard Whadcock is a British artist who does some of the most mysterious, yet elegant landscape painting that I’ve ever seen. I could just get lost in his work which for me, lends itself to deep contemplation and meditation. I wanted to find out what inspires such work and he didn’t disappoint. Here’s our cool chat …
“…I don't think they are immediate paintings. The images enveloped in light and air reveal themselves the more you stand in front of them, if you are willing to let them, in the same way that a real landscape is taken in as you walk through it…”
MICHAEL: Richard, Your work is so intriguing. Your landscapes are mysterious, ethereal and very contemporary. I get the feeling that you're not abstracting, but rather blurring what we see in nature. It's like a fading memory or something. What's your inspiration?
RICHARD: Well as far as inspiration is concerned, I have the South Downs on the studio doorstep to provide as much inspiration that one could want. Within ten minutes, you are out of Brighton and on the Downs. The Downs are more of a rolling landscape, not a craggy, rough one. They are however subject to the whims of coastal weather fronts sweeping in and out and leaving their mark. If you walk along the ridge of the Downs through places such as Ditchling Beacon or Devils Dyk, then you are above the landscape and literally amongst the weather. Scale can be ambiguous here. This makes the landscape very amorphous. What you think is there one minute is swallowed up in long, deep shadow or burned out in the glaring sun. It’s enveloped and muffled in an early mist or battered by an incoming front. It creates what are in essence marks, lines and shapes that are constantly moving and shifting. These conditions are what inform my work.
MICHAEL: And so, you capture the changing face of the landscape. Given the sometimes quick movement of nature, how do you do this? Do you paint fast and fill in the rest in an impressionist way? Do you take photographs and paint from them?
RICHARD: It isn't very often that I paint onsite. Most of the time, I walk around with a pad or camera. These only act as memory aids as we don't see the landscape like a camera does - all in focus for a split second. The photographs serve as a starting point for a painting which at some point can develop in its own direction. So it isn't painting from a photograph, they are just pointers, something you can keep referencing as a piece develops. I suppose this is where you could say the images are abstracted, although I'm not entirely sure that would be accurate either. There is no point in painting fast to capture something that is already escaping you. I think it should be less about speed and more about building momentum that drives the painting, during the initial stages at least. I have likened elements in the landscape being reduced to marks; marks that have evolved and not been planned. This is to a certain degree how the marks, shapes should develop in the painting, to organically develop around a frame work of the memory you hold.
MICHAEL: Your work seems very meditative and musical to me. I almost hear ambient music when I look at your website. Lots of free thinking, lots of spaces between notes and plenty of contemplation. Am I right?
RICHARD: I think you have got it just about right there. I am glad that you are having that reaction after looking through the work. As with music, a central theme can be played around, expanded upon or pared down to its basics and sometimes brought back to reinstate certain foundations. Similarly, I do want the work to draw you in and expand the more you look at it and bring out small subtleties that you may not have seen before. This is where the actual painting has taken over in some ways and evolved within itself. Taking time out to stop painting and just look at a piece is just as important for its progress as the time putting paint to canvas. Perhaps this is where the more abstract qualities come to play in the work, although I’m reticent to call them “abstract” as that has a lot of baggage with it.
MICHAEL: Given that, what frame of mind are you in while you're painting? What's your emotional state? Do you listen to music or watch TV? Is the process spiritual? What are you thinking while you're painting?
RICHARD: I never really thought about what emotional state, frame of mind I'm in when painting. Is the process spiritual? No. There are days when whatever you do goes well and you don't seem to be having to think about it and others of frustration when you assume you have forgotten how to paint for the day! The latter are still productive as these can lead you to do something out of your normal pattern and throw up new ideas. If a painting is going well, then I tend to just focus on that and nothing else. Music or the radio are usually on. For instance, when I started this interview, I had been listening to Matthew Halsall's new album. Jazz does tend to be the one that accompanies painting. I think there is probably a close link between the way a jazz piece will develop and the possibilities that can be found within a painting. Painting just doesn't happen. It is linked to a lot of experience. Knowing your craft’s possibilities and being able to build on it intuitively and freely – that’s perhaps similar to playing around with melodies, scales and themes in music.
MICHAEL: What I've seen of your work seems to be dark and moody as opposed to light and airy. Are you painting from a dark and moody, emotional and intellectual place?
RICHARD: I suppose that could be a fair comment in part. I don't particularly see them as coming from a dark, moody, intellectual place. Many of the paintings are dark, but hopefully with a depth to them that pulls you in. Many are started from overcast, misty or turbulent days across the South Downs. These are the sort of conditions I am drawn to. The chiaroscura is at its most prominent and can transform the landscape into a set of forms, shapes and marks that can lead a painting into a new direction and away from just a “landscape of the Downs.” I suppose I'm not looking for just a straightforward reading of a painting, but for it to be somewhat amorphous and require time spent in front of it for it to be evolving. They need to be able to draw something out of the viewer as well so they perhaps trigger something in their memory of similar times and places. I find it interesting to hear their interpretation of a painting.
MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? What does painting do for you?
RICHARD: When I think back, I don't think art was something I thought I was going in to particularly. Music was probably more of a likely career path in some way until about 16. I had ideas of going into architecture at one point, but thankfully got introduced to the American Abstract Expressionists and took an art foundation course which then led me into the fine art arena.
A couple of tutors in particular at Bristol Polytechnic introduced me to new artists and jazz music which in combination confirmed a path to take. It was seeing artists such as Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell and watching musicians such as Keith Tippett and Dollar Brand that opened up an awareness and possibilities in work that hadn't been there before. It developed ideas in terms of how paintings came about, why they were made and the involvement in making a piece became so much more. The processes of making a painting became an important aspect which in turn then played a role in the finished work. It bought much more of an excitement, for me, in developing a piece and seeing where it could lead to. A painting still has to offer me something as well at the end that I perhaps wasn't expecting and has evolved from the process of making it. I don't think of there being a particular time of becoming aware of being an artist -things develop (and are developing) over a long period of time.
MICHAEL: How do people respond when you tell them that you're an artist? How do you think most people view artists these days? Stereotypes or reality?
RICHARD: Usually with surprise or “Really?” or disinterest or “Can you repaint the front of my house?” used to be a favourite. I probably don't go out my way to tell anybody anyway unless it seems a genuine question of interest. It definitely isn't seen as a job, a way of making a living as such. (People think) it doesn't involve any hard work and gives you the time to do exactly as you want when you want! Having said that, it’s getting better. A lot more people seem to be going to galleries these days and there are a lot more commercial galleries to go to and the so called 'Blockbuster" shows are really drawing people in. So they’re being exposed to the fact that there is a lot of work out there to see, not just the 'highlighted few' that cause(d) some sort of controversy on television. The studio complex, Phoenix Brighton, where my studio is and other studios that I know, go out of their way now to make 'Open Days,' a main event on the calendar. Getting the public into a studio situation goes a long way to breaking down a lot of misconceptions and you can find yourself with people who carry on following your work through galleries that you exhibit with.
With the internet these days, one can find out an awful lot about an artist and their work even before they have been to a show. This used to be where gallery representation came in, still does if it has a really good relationship with the artist, but obviously not solely any more. It also opens up a source of other people’s opinions and other artist’s work. Perhaps it makes going to a gallery showing your work less intimidating because there is already a connection. I think prospective buyers are finding it more and more important to meet the artist, i.e. at open studios, galleries, etc. Even private viewings aren’t quite what they were. Being able to arrange a time on a one- to-one basis during a show is also becoming something to consider.
MICHAEL: Light, space and air seem to be the running themes in your work. You could be presenting an environmental message, but I just get the feeling it's about the luxury of light, space and air … just basking in it. No?
RICHARD: I think you sum it up pretty well. I would never say there is an environmental message in the work other than the viewer taking it and considering the spaces presented to them but even that would be pretty tenuous. It isn't consciously on the agenda.
Light, space and air are all present and are the main subjects of the paintings, more so than the place itself which is mostly subdued by the painting itself as it develops. I don't think they are immediate paintings. The images enveloped in light and air reveal themselves the more you stand in front of them, if you are willing to let them, in the same way that a real landscape is taken in as you walk through it. This still all has to work within the canvas though. So the space here has to work and somehow, with paint, it has to contain its own light and air. Turner is an obvious influence, but it is his later work and his watercolours where they are bathed in atmosphere, dramatic or quiet, that interest me the most. There is something alive in these works which makes them resonate as if constantly shifting. As a comparison, I also find this in works by Twombly, a painter whose work always draws me back time and time again.
There is so much time, space and air in his paintings that keep you looking. The paint in both becomes something else. Vermeer can do something similar. They are on a different scale physically to many of Twombly and Turner’s work, but carry the same weight for me. I find myself looking into the spaces in the work as much. The manipulation of paint rendering something as simple and seemingly unimportant as a wall tracing the light and atmosphere in the background, quietly adds to the work as much as the main subject. He gives them equal importance and I think they generate that same passing of time and presence when you are in front of them.
MICHAEL: Finally Richard, when you tally up all of the time you will have spent painting, do you feel it will have been time well spent?
RICHARD: Probably best not to tally up all those hours! I definitely feel it will have been time well spent. Whether other people look at it and see it that way, who knows? Obviously, it involves times when you feel it hasn’t been well spent, as well as times when it’s going in the direction that leads you somewhere that feeds into the next set of works. You can spend far too much time worrying about what could have been anyway and forget what you may have done. Answering questions such as yours also makes you assess what is happening now, has gone before and where things may be leading to. Thank you for the opportunity to take part in these Q&A's as well.
MICHAEL: Thanks Richard. I enjoyed our chat.