In conversation with painter Paul Wadsworth
Paul Wadsworth is a real ‘painters’ painter’. His expressive works of the Cornish landscape capture the colour, rhythm and energy of place, while storytelling is an important feature of the paintings which come from his travels in India. In this interview he talks about his painting process, teaching, how to stay current and authentic as an artist, and how to find your own artistic voice.
Paul’s quest for new experiences and fun have taken him on an eclectic voyage in which his life and art are inseparable: from pavement artist and travels in India and the Middle East, to setting up stages at Glastonbury and immersing himself in the Cornish coast, or planning children’s books … Paul’s boundless well of enthusiasm, energy and ideas are evident in the rich, complex surfaces of his paintings.
Is where you live important for your art?
Yes. I live high up on the moors (Bodmin Moor, Cornwall) surrounded by Cornish walls and cows, just below Ding Dong mine. I can see the sea from up there, and I have an old tin barn which is my studio, and where I run courses and teach. I’ve also got a studio in Trewidden Gardens in Penzance, which is smaller and more sheltered. There are 18 studios there which is nice because you meet people. I live up on the moors where it’s pretty isolated … but I love it! I’ve also got this two-acre field at Botallack, overlooking the sea on the north side, where I paint as well. I’ve cemented five massive easels into the ground there and I’ve put canvases on them so I come back to paint on them whenever I want to.
All my landscapes start outside – it’s all about being outside, in the elements. Sometimes I’ll take them back to my barn, but the energy, movement all comes from being outside.
How did you become an artist?
I was always into art. At nine I remember painting a tiger and that was the first thing I ever got congratulated on at school. Then it was about understanding you could do this as a living, because I wasn’t brought up in that life. I’m not from that kind of (arty) background at all. My Dad worked in the sugar beet factory – we lived in Norfolk at the time – and my Mum worked in a hospital.
I did my A Levels, and then went to Ipswich Art College to do my Foundation when I was 18, but dropped out after one year – it was supposed to be for two years! I’d just had enough. I bought a bus and went travelling around Europe, doing other things. I ended up getting into doing street painting – pavements and stuff, because I had to earn a living somehow! I did it in Spain (Barcelona), Italy, France – all over the place. Until I was about 25 I just travelled around doing that. I did paintings on big bits of canvas and would copy well known paintings – Pre-Raphaelites, whatever it was – I’d roll them out and then you’d sell them to people. It was a good learning curve and a fun thing to do. Then I got bored with that and went back to art college to do my degree, and that’s how I ended up in Falmouth, in Cornwall. I was ready for it then; I wasn’t ready at 18 for colleges and university … but when I went back, it was like ‘Give it to me, I want it!’.
I ended up doing murals, theatre production, working at Glastonbury – stuff for the music stages there, – all sorts of weird things, before I started doing paintings on canvas.
Does the canvas ever feel a bit small for you?
Yes. I do still paint really large sometimes. I do work on unstretched canvas – I put huge bits of canvas up on these easels I’ve built. They’re about 300cm x 200cm. I’ve got a big stack of them in the studio, and one day I’ll do something with them, show them.
How did you find your own style?
At Ipswich I was very traditional. I loved Gwen John, people like that – really traditional tonal painters. I hadn’t had an artistic background so it was something I had to go through – I wanted to understand all that kind of thing and I just loved it. So, for about two or three years I painted like that.
Then during my degree, my life painting started to get more and more free, to get looser. Then I virtually threw the figure after that – they started going totally abstract, and I lost the figure altogether. It disappeared! I started playing with textures and surfaces and paint – paint for paint’s sake.
Why do you think many artists have that urge to go more & more abstract?
Any good artist should really go through all the basics first – so that’s learning to draw, to paint, to paint the figure. It’s like learning to play the guitar, or any instrument – you’ve got to learn your scales before you can go off and become a composer. It’s the same in painting – if you don’t have the basics, you can’t go off and do something pure abstract.
I’m not saying that (abstract) is the highest part of art, just that your natural path will then lead you away from the basics and you can find your own style, because you’ve now got the tools to play with. Then it starts to become about who you are, and how to put yourself into the work. That’s the important bit.
If I had to teach someone for a few years I’d make them draw heavily, paint the figure for about two years before I allowed them to move on to something else. Then you can start finding your own (artistic) voice. It’s a gradual thing. Obviously, subject plays a role in this – what interests you; what do you want to paint?
How did you find your own style?
I’m quite a physical, energetic person so my paintings are about movement, paint, rhythm. It’s about putting yourself into a painting. There are quieter elements in them, but also quite vigorous and energetic. It’s about trying to find who you are, and putting it into a painting.
I’m looking at a painting I did a few weeks ago, and I’m quite happy that that says who I am right now – that’s it. Not every painting is successful on that level. You’ve got to create failures too. If you don’t fail with stuff, then you’re not going to create the ones you really love. You just make little steps. Six or seven might not have worked, but then there might be this one which takes you on to another body of work.
How was Lockdown?
I’d been out in India for the winter. I got back just before Lockdown, and had all these ideas in my head. Quite often when I come back (to the UK), I don’t have that long to get the ideas out before I’m back into doing this and that, but this time I had all the time in the world. But Lockdown gave me a lot of time in the studio painting – again, a lesson learnt that sometimes you’ve got to take time out, to allow the work to happen.
In terms of process, how do your landscapes differ from your India paintings?
My landscapes are about reacting to the landscape, being out in it, in the way I need to. The India ones are much more about telling a story about my experiences. They’re more …not exactly dreamlike, but they have an ‘other’ thing to them, a story. They take a lot longer (than my landscapes) too – I’ll be working on at least eight or nine of those in the studio at once, and I just bounce from one to the other. I can’t just start one and finish one. I don’t start with any great ideas, I just start by chucking paint and colour at the canvas, and have that real playful time. Then, suddenly, something starts to happen – it might be a figure, or architecture – something leads you into a story. You paint to bring that out. That’s the way I work. I don’t work from sketches or photographs – that kills the freedom for me. It comes from my head.
I put paint on with a palette knife, with rags, my hands, brushes, whatever, and just start developing it. In the studio at the minute, I’ll have at least eight or nine canvases half-done. I can’t start one and think I’m going to finish it (before I start another). I can’t work like that. Some days you walk in and can finish stuff, but some days you can’t. There’s no pressure to finish – that’s why I have a lot going on.
Talk me through the stages your paintings go through …
If I’m dealing with India paintings, my colours go up – it’s like getting the sweetie box out. I’m not much of a planner. I just go with gut feeling. The first stage is quite quick – that’s where you’re installing energy, rhythm, that initial layer – a physical process of putting it on, playing with colour and having fun. It’s a nice thing.
I’ll have that manic stage, then maybe three days later I’ll see something and start to paint a bit slower, and images start to appear. I’ll keep working at it and more layers go on. There’s no plan at any stage!
What happens if you really like an early stage – do you stop or carry on?
I’ve just got to carry on, ‘cos that first stage can be very seductive. When you’ve got a white canvas and you’re chucking paint on, it’s very seductive. You’ve got to go past it. Anyone can pick up three or four different colours and bang them on a white canvas and it’s going to look all right. There is a beauty to that initial hit. The marks are probably quite fresh, and on white canvas – it is seductive. I do get it, but just move on because there’s a more amazing painting somewhere to be had – when you’ve struggled through it, and you’ve got the layers on. There’s a fun time but also times when you’re going to be hating the thing. You want to go through that, if you can.
How long does each painting take?
Each one’s so different. Some have taken up to a year, some up to a month, some maybe two weeks. Then it’s a gut feeling about when it’s resolved – when things are balanced, the rhythm feels right, the energy is right, the story is right, and I can’t put another mark on the painting that would make any difference.
Tell me about your teaching …
I love teaching. It helps me look at what I do too. I’m not a teachy kind of teacher. Basically, I’m painting while other people are painting and they can see how I work. Then I help them with their paintings. The best way for me to teach is for me to do it. It keeps you grounded – makes you look at what you do without going off into some kind of egotistical land.
What have you learnt from teaching?
Keep that energy going, to let go, don’t tighten up, step away from what you’re looking at, treat it as a painting and don’t always get sucked in to what you’re looking at. And remember it’s about the painting. The painting is the most important thing – how the paint sits on the canvas. Take elements of what you’re looking at but don’t let it control you. The picturesque bit of your brain is going ‘Make it look like this’, and it can make you forget what painting is about, which is movement, expression. I’m always telling people that, so teaching makes you come back to that and think, maybe I should do that! It reminds you what you’re supposed to be doing.
How important is it to stay true to yourself in painting?
Also, be true to yourself. Be true to how you paint. Don’t paint for other people, don’t paint for galleries, don’t paint for picturesque reasons. Don’t paint for anything but what you want to do. Don’t paint because it’s historically correct, don’t paint because so and so is doing it, because it’s a seller. There are fashions that come all the time. And some people get sucked up into that. You’ve got to be careful. Just paint who you are.
It’s hard – if you’re trying to make a living out of it – to be true to yourself all the time. Galleries are putting pressure on you to stay put, the stay the same person and create the same thing you did last year that sells. To have a career as an artist and keep changing is extremely difficult, and to find galleries who are going to keep changing with you, because they don’t. They’ll drop you and find someone new. You have to find another gallery to deal with what you’re doing now.
It’s hard. I can understand how some people get stuck, producing the same thing again and again.
Do you ever get stuck?
No. I have so many subject matters – the Cornish landscape, I travel in India, I work with circuses, and with models who pose for me. If one’s not happening or I’m bored, I go to another. There’s always something lovely to paint. At the minute I’m wanting to go into doing kids’ books – painterly things, but for adults as well. I’m never short of ideas.
What’s your favourite colour?
Orange. Cadmium orange. I come back from India with a favourite colour in my head and things all suddenly become this or that, and orange is cool at the minute.
Which is most important – colour, line or design?
Colour. But, if I’m really honest, when I look at paintings, what really attracts me most is the paint. I’m more interested in how people put paint on the canvas, because that tells me everything I need to know about them.
What’s your favourite medium?
Oil. I sometimes work in acrylic too. It has its uses. Sometimes I’ll start a painting in acrylic and paint on top of it in oil. For about five or six years – when I was travelling around in the Middle East – I used oil sticks loads because they were so easy to carry around in a bag. And, in this country, I was doing a lot of Cornish landscapes in oil bars. They were great, but expensive – I got through loads of them. They’re nice things to use. You get those Sennelier oil sticks – they’re a bit yummy, aren’t they?
Favourite painting tool?
That’s a hard one. My hands. I like connecting myself to the paintings, feeling the painting. There’s this point when you get a connection. A brush disconnects you from a painting sometimes, so you need to get in there with your hands. It’s a different feeling.
Thick paint or glazes?
Thick. Glazing’s not my thing really. I like working wet on wet, moving the paint around, then scraping it off, in a sculptural sort of way.
Sketchbook & planning or intuitive?
Planning just doesn’t work for me.
How do you feel when you paint?
It’s a mixture of emotions. When you start off you get the jolly fun times, and it’s all woo-hoo, chucking paint around. Then you can have that slow time when it’s quite meditative and slow, and you’re sitting on your studio couch staring at it. Then anger times when you aren’t getting anywhere with it. Sometimes it’s good when you get annoyed with something, because you get destructive and you don’t care, and then something good can happen. I think you should get annoyed with things.
There’s a point when a painting allows you in – sometimes that takes half an hour, sometimes a day, sometimes ages – when one mark takes you onto another mark, and another. That’s when you’re really painting: just responding, from one mark to another and another, bouncing it around, bringing colour, and marks and rhythm. That’s when I start to care about the marks I’m making. You’re working the whole canvas at the same time, not just one area, and that’s how I build up rhythm.
Who’s your favourite artist?
I don’t have one. You’ve got to like Auerbach and all that gang, and the Bloomsbury lot. The heavy texture guys like Bomberg. I used to like Gwen John. Got to love Turner’s later stuff. I like Gaugin a lot for his storytelling and colour.
What’s the best thing about being an artist?
Being yourself, really. That your life is what you do.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
I don’t know – I often wonder that. Maybe a fisherman. I’m from Great Yarmouth and used to be really into fishing. My Dad wanted me to be a scientist, but I couldn’t ever see that. My Mum was cool with me being an artist. My Dad used to say, ‘You’re still painting, then? When are you going to get a proper job?’ A lot of people don’t think of you as an artist until you’re actually making a living from it, do they? That’s the problem. Being allowed to be that person is very difficult. You’ve got to be pretty stubborn.
What do you hope the viewer will see/feel when they look at your work?
That’s a hard one. I do sometimes wonder what people see when they look at my work. Saying I want them to like the painting’s a bit too easy, isn’t it? You should be able to get over the rawness of a landscape, or the feeling of India – I want to be able to get that over.
It’s like this show I’m running here. You get people who come in and then run out straight away, while other people engage for half an hour or more and stick around, looking through all your sketchbooks. Why does someone like it and someone else doesn’t? I don’t know – is it because of their own personal experiences?
To me, when I look at your work, I get the feeling that freedom is very important to you …?
Yes. Well, it is. Maybe people who like my work – that’s important to them too.
Painting’s my life, it’s my living. It’s who I am. And I like that. I like that.