Technique & Studio Practice
I decided to become a painter after visiting the National Gallery in London with my parents at the age of nine. Just like most children at that age, I had an insatiable desire to know how things worked, and for me that applied to paintings. I tried to discover how the painters of the past had created their work by looking extremely closely at their pictures. I was drawn to the beauty and the magical effects achieved by the 'Old Masters', whose paintings magnetised and mystified me. I set about my search for the secrets of painting in second-hand bookshops from a very early age. On the whole, I found the older book, the more useful it was to me. I was also thrilled to discover that many artists of the past wrote down their working methods. They also instructed students of art in the creation of their compositions so that they tell stories. They explained how to organise one's studio. The were at pains to explain that to be a painter was a noble calling, and they gave instructions regarding how to behave professionally in order to succeed as an artist. I discovered that all the information I needed was available, but one has to be absolutely determined to find it. I then set about to copy the work of some of the artists I more admired, and at the age of sixteen I made a full-size copy of Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Mrs. Siddons. At eighteen, I made a copy Hans Holbein's portrait of Sir Thomas Moore which you can see here. I embarked upon all this activity entirely on my own. I was working in direct opposition to all contemporary ideas about how art should be created. In the 1980s the act of figurative painting was universally frowned upon.
Whilst studying at The University of London, by day I read 'The History of Art & Architecture', and by night I was an alchemist, devouring treaties written by the Quattrocento masters. I meticulously followed the practical advice I discovered in ancient books, such as Cennino Cennini's Craftsman's Handbook, and I spent three years learning how to make the perfect gesso from rabbit-skin glue and chalk dust. While studying in the library at The Courtauld Institute I discovered Leonardo da Vinci's own descriptions of the 'verdaccio' method in his Treatise on Painting. Firstly, one creates a fine drawing (or cartoon) on paper, which is then copied onto the canvas or panel in great detail. The techniques I learned in my early twenties are the same ones I used to create my portraits of country houses and gardens for twenty-five years.
I generally prepare all my own 'supports' (canvases and panels), by applying several layers of my own hot gesso to Belgian linen which is laid onto a timber panel using animal glue. After adding a sepia 'ground' onto this gessoed surface I then paint the entire composition in monochrome. (grisaille) This is finally 'glazed' with layers of oil colours in extraordinary detail. Although the method I use is extremely time-consuming, it ensures that the painting possesses unusual richness and great sense of depth.
I use paints manufactured by 'Old Holland'; a company that once supplied Dutch masters such as Vermeer and van Ruysdael. The pigments are ground between porphyry rollers rather than steel, a process which ensures their purity and permanence of colour. I also like paints manufactured by Michael Harding, and I also make some of my own.
Building up an oil-painting in layers in the way I've described above is the method that was used from the late 13th century until the early 20th century. It requires great patience and completing a painting takes several months. This technique is known as 'verdaccio'. Paintings executed in this way have enormous luminosity and will last for hundreds of years with very little change to their appearance. If properly cared for they will stay as radiant as the paintings of the European Renaissance. I also used the 'verdaccio' technique for my portraits of people.
Since 2016 I've also been painting in a looser style. Artist's techniques tend to change throughout their careers - and sometimes that change can be quite dramatic. Now I'm using paint very boldly, and applying it to the canvas with large brushes and palette knives. I often work over these pictures with 'glazes' of oils over a period of several weeks, and the effect is very different from my earlier architectural work. In these recent paintings I've been heavily inspired by J.M.W. Turner, (1775-1851), who also underwent a similar, dramatic change in style throughout his career as an artist.