In conversation with Malcom Taylor
Painter Malcolm Taylor talks to Art Speak about his journey from railway designer to full-time painter. His beautiful abstract and figurative work is full of delicious colour, interesting motifs and characterised by a restrained sensitivity to subject and composition.
What effect, if any, has Lockdown had on your art practice?
Apart from there being no galleries open, I’d say fairly positive. My studio’s only five or six steps from the back door so I went in most days to do something, even if it was only sitting in the chair looking at a painting on the wall or reading the newspaper.
What was your route into being an artist?
It was a very wavy line – like most people, I imagine. I trained as an engineer, a design draughtsman actually, and having gone to college for quite a few years, I decided it would be nice to do something I wanted to do. I took a ‘painting for pleasure’ course. It was very basic, but I started going to life drawing classes and it developed from there. The leap into being a full-time artist came at the end of my career when I stopped working.
What did you design?
As a railway engineer I was designing lots of railway infrastructure. Later on I ended up working for Arup, one of the biggest design companies in the world – the prestigious job they always mention is that they designed the Sydney Opera House. But I was leading the rail design teams.
Is design a big element in your work?
Yes, you might say I’ve got away from straight lines to curved lines. The last 10 years of my working career I was just itching to get away and paint, but you’ve got to have the income as well.
How did you make the transition from designer to fine artist?
There was a point about halfway between starting work and finishing, where I wanted to take the plunge (into being a full-time fine artist). I was keen to ‘just do it’, but it’s not that easy with a family. I did it when it was right for me.
How do you combine painting both abstract & figurative styles?
You might not believe this, but when I go into my studio to start painting, I have no idea what I’m going to paint until it starts to develop. Sometimes more figurative work comes out, and of late I’m going more and more abstract. I also work from sketchbooks, and the influence of other artists – you might see something that you think looks good and that’ll trigger you off in another direction. I keep a sketchbook I draw people in, another which is more for doodles and abstract work, and landscapes in another.
People seem very surprised that I do landscape and figurative work. Now, there’s no comparison here between me and this artist, but if you take someone like Richard Diebenkorn, he did very abstract and very figurative work and portraits and no one ever queries that. I find it more unusual that people will just stick to doing landscape work that people can recognise.
Is the pressure (to stick to one style or another) coming from galleries or from the artist?
There’s a different art scene depending on where you are. In London they’re comfortable with quite abstract work, but in the Manchester area, not as much. One gallery I’ve worked with is more interested in the ‘boaty’ type of paintings because they’re based on the seashore. But I try not to let that influence me as I’m painting.
What are your main artistic influences?
When I first started, the northern art was an influence – people like Lowry, and Theodore Major – Theo exhibited with Lowry but went his own way. He influenced me in the beginning. He lived not far from me, and was open to people coming to have a chat with him, so I used to do that. He wasn’t very keen on galleries or people who were trying to buy his paintings!
St Ives was a big turning point for me. I’ve been going to St Ives since my children were small – for the past 30 years. When I first went – to the School of Painting – there was a gang of five of us, plus plus wives and children. There was no such thing as the Porthmeor Programme then, but it was the same venue.
Could you see a time when your work is almost all abstract?
Yes. A lot of people say to me: ‘Oh another boat painting.’ The shapes are there – they just appear – doodling really, and things get left in there. You do a few like that and think: ‘Okay so I’ll go in that direction.’ That’s not the same with figures – they always start as figures.
I like the freedom of it (abstract), and the journey – you don’t know where you’re going to go. I like seeing where they end up.
Have you got favourite colours?
Yes! You do have periods with favourite colours – at one time my paintings were very warm, very autumnal with lots of browns and oranges and greens. Green doesn’t come into my painting at all now – not deliberately. They’ve gone cooler, with more greys, blues, and reds.
You asked my favourite colour and I’m tempted to say black. Henri Matisse said black is the queen of all colours. I think it’s because I use a lot of charcoal: it gives a painting some punch. I like to use black, red and blue. Red’s very limited – maybe a dot or splash somewhere. I like white too.
Can you describe your painting process?
Sometimes a painting takes two or three weeks. I paint it so far, then leave it to fester. Then suddenly leap out of the chair and put another few brush strokes in. My process is to prime, then put a few base colours in. Then the charcoal comes out and I scribble a rough outline of what I’m trying to do. Nothing is pre-considered – I just plonk it in. I sometimes map out colours in my mind – how a lot of big blocks might go here and there. But seascapes keep popping up, and sometimes landscapes. There are farmers’ fields behind my studio and sometimes the light on the fields gives a push in one direction. I may think it’s lovely light – it’s just the start of something.
How did you find your own voice, artistically?
I’ve no idea! Happy accidents? Just keeping on painting and you develop your own voice, and settle down into your own groove. It takes its time, and it takes its toll. Eventually … people can see one of my paintings and recognise it’s painted by me, which is nice. At one time they could see the influence of someone; they probably still can but it’s more of a mongrel influence now of several artists. It’s only in the last dozen years when I’ve been painting regularly, and honed in to where I am now.
You’re President of the Manchester Academy of Fine Art …?
I’m in my second year as president. It was established in 1859. I’m the 24th president. We do a lot of work with Manchester University Art Department – we try to give a prize each year at the graduate exhibition. It’s pretty much on the same basis as other societies, like the Royal Birmingham or Royal West of England Society … except we haven’t got the Royal behind our name, but I won’t get into that!
Blue. Cobalt blue.
That might not be painting. I like playing around with collage. In painting it’s got to be acrylic, although I’m a member of the Pastel Society. My paintings are usually labelled mixed media. I started off in oil painting, but I find it going muddy the way I paint, and it takes a long time to dry. My mediums are acrylic and pastel – I use pastel in most paintings for making marks. I fix it in there and leave it. Once it’s in place you can varnish it with the rest of the painting. Sometimes I might just want a zip of orange, and pastel will give it to you immediately. Collage sometimes goes into my paintings too. There’s pencil marks in them, bits of scribbling drawing; there’s also charcoal in them and pastel, but 90% is acrylic paint.
Favourite painting tool?
A Scraper (spatula-type scraper), and a screwdriver: something to scratch into the painting to make some marks.
Abstract or figurative?
Can I say somewhere in between? I might start somewhere completely abstract, and then a shape will come and I’ll think, oh that looks like a boat, or whatever … don’t resist, I think is the answer!
Canvas or panel?
Either panel or paper, or card (for small collages). Paper – I can work in gouache or acrylic if it’s a nice thick paper. Canvas has a bit too much give in it and my technique isn’t very giving!
Big or small?
Getting bigger! As my body goes slimmer, my painting gets bigger! You get to point where they’re such a size you get agoraphobia – there’s so much space on it, you think I’m lost here.
Any there any recurring shapes or marks in your work?
You might find something (that looks like) a slice of melon – a little half-moon shape. I do like to put scratch marks in – not manic, though I could be sometimes. It needs to be fairly quick and definite rather than shilly-shally.
How do you feel when you’re painting?
I’m usually listening to the radio and other influences, and just crack on with painting. The better question is: How do you feel the day after? Whacked, sometimes, especially the older you get. I stand up to paint all the time – I can’t paint sitting down.
Why do you paint?/Do you have an urge to ‘be seen’?
I must be an exhibitionist! I like showing my work in galleries otherwise it just piles up. I feel much better in myself if I paint each day. A friend of mine had a great saying. He said, it takes two people to paint a painting: one to apply the paint and the other to hit him on the head when it’s finished. Usually it’s the natural break in what you’re doing. You go and do something else, have a meal, go to bed and come back in the morning and it tells you it’s finished.