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An interview with Anthony Eyton

18 May 2016

Can you tell us about the pictures you are exhibiting in the Mall Galleries?


I am particularly interested in the one of St Mary Woolnoth. There is a contrary feeling of people going into the underground beneath it. They are taking no notice of the church, but in the end the church remains dominant! It is to do with opposites. I am interested in opposites, in the tension between them. The picture is a bit of a pastel mess, but in a good way, it leaves a bit to the imagination. The one of St George-in-the-East is accurate, but I don't think it has as much movement as the others.


What do you like about working in pastel?

It's the immediacy. I use Unison, have been for thirty years, for both the sizes, and the sharpness of the little ones. If I am painting in oils, I have to mix the colours. But in pastel, I can just find the colour and put it immediately on. They are more active, aggressive and sensitive to the subject itself.


How do  you choose which medium to work in, as I believe you work in watercolour and oil too?

Yes, but I find those very difficult to work at speed. I like drawing people out in the street. I do all my pastels en plein air, I seldom touch them up in the studio. Oils are, for a long haul, my favourite medium. Watercolours are difficult. You make marks and then you can’t remove them. Pastels are a lot more convenient and portable. Given enough colours, you and combine drawing and colour. They can catch light and movement. I only use fixative during the process, partly to have a hard surface to work on. The pastel marks put on top are wonderfully fresh and best left without fixing so as to retain their vibrancy.


Can you describe what is going on in your mind while you are painting?

Just getting the drawing right: choosing the colour, responding to the structure you see in front of you, the dynamics of it, and the light.


Are you relaxed when you are painting, or is it a tense business?

When people say it is relaxing, it is not at all, it is hard work. Frustration at not being able to get it right, it’s not going to make you relaxed is it?


Are you happy with your work when you are finished?

Not really. Sometimes a year later, I think, that's not too bad! It's hard to tell. When I was teaching, my students would say about their own work, ‘That's good, I like that one’. But how can you know? I suppose your ideal is much higher than you can actually achieve: but by some magic, a mixture of accident and concentration, letting go, you do achieve it. However it's not every time by any means.


So do you have a very clear ideal in your mind that you are trying to reach, or does the painting have a life of its own?

I have a very clear idea when I start, but it changes on the way, as you go a bit deeper. All the time you are discovering new nuances in the subject, which you never even thought of doing!



Are you ever a slave to the painting?

I am a slave to nature! I am a conduit. Yes, I am doing an oil at the moment, have been for three months, and yes I am a slave to the picture!


What have you learnt in yourself through being an artist?

Perseverance! Ability to be excited, moved, to respond. Japanese painters were often expert swordsmen, and there is that element of cut and thrust that comes into painting. One is a kind of hunter. Cave art started thousands of years ago. The real satisfaction of being out on the street, or in the studio, and being up against it, but at the same time doing what you enjoy most! I capture the subject in the end. Francis Hoyland, a painter told me a Zen story.

A forester was at work in a wood and saw a strange beast. He wanted to capture it and take it back to the village. He tried to kill it. The beast turned around and said, "Are you trying to kill me?" The forester tried once more to capture the beast, then gave up, and returned to fell a tree with his axe. At that moment the axe head flew off and killed the beast! Accidents can sometimes be better than concentration.

See what I mean. That has some truth in it, when you are not really trying, it works out.


What vivid memory do you have of travelling?

India is the epitomy of life and colour. I remember the view of Varanasi from a boat in the Ganges, going in close to the shore to see bathers doing their daily ablutions, with steps and temples mounting up beyond.


What have you found enjoyable or difficult about teaching?

I liked teaching very much, as it has helped me with my own painting. It was more like being a consultant. I got to know my students, and they got to know themselves. In those days it was much more painter to painter, no red tape or forms to fill in. It was wonderful to be in touch with young people, fresh ideas. The teacher gains as much as the student. It was inspiring.


Would you ever consider retiring?

I will carry on until the last gasp! There is so much to do yet!

It's a wake up call every day, to get up and get going. Life would be unsatisfactory without being able to do that. There are always new things to solve, there is the idea that you know something, but it is the problems that get you going. There is always much to learn. One gets a bit slower, but you have got to strike out. When we are born, the first thing we do is to reach out to touch our mother. I think we all have this inherent creativity, this desire to reach out.


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