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An interview with Les Darlow

2 October 2015


You studied scientific and technical illustration.  What did that involve?
It was anything from the exploded views of the inside of an engine, to the inside of a squirrel, or a wasp in its environment. It was very interesting. I also studied the history of art as part of the illustration course.
When did you become an artist?
I have always painted from a very early age. I loved art at school and did exceptionally well. I got a GSCE in 4th year and A level in 5th year. I had a really, really good art teacher, who was very enthusiastic, and spotted people to work with at an early stage. I decided I wanted to go to art college, but the choice to do scientific and technical illustration was maybe influenced by my parents, who didn't believe one could make a living as an artist. When I left college I applied for around fifty jobs, but they all required at least five years’ experience. Rather frustrated with this, I joined a rock band instead, and became a rock star for five years!  After that I got a job in East Lancashire, working for the Heritage Centre, drawing all the historical buildings in the county. That was my first real job as an artist, it was mainly pen and ink work, but I was earning a living as an artist although I was still spending a long time doing my own paintings, with my photo-realistic background.
You describe freeing yourself from this photo-realism, how did that happen?
I was spending hundreds of hours on paintings, but people didn't really know me as an artist. They weren't prepared to pay what I needed, or what I felt was justified from all the work that had gone into them. I wasn't prepared to let them go for nothing. One year a family member bought me some pastels and that is when I saw the light, literally! I realised what I had been missing all these years, having gone from a single hair on a watercolour brush, to this huge stick of pure rolled pigment. The medium of pastel changed the way I painted. It helped free up my style. I have always loved the Impressionists, and whenever I go to an art gallery, I always hone in on those works. So when I received this gift of pastels, I started to experiment a bit, and went a little bit crazy! It changed everything, overnight!
Did you experience a sense of freedom?
As I said, it was like seeing the light! Being a scientific and technical illustrator is not like being an artist, it is a different sort of training, totally controlled. Pastels helped me to become an artist, because they are really a very expressive medium. You are not only using the pigment, which can be manipulated in so many different ways, but also all the different textured papers, at your fingertips. It is a versatile medium. A fine technical pen in comparison is quite constraining. 

What is your process when you start a painting?
I look for something to inspire me. If you try to force something, the painting will have nothing special about it. So I look for something to inspire me, it could be a weather event, such as a storm, or the sinking of a boat. Then I will start doing some drawings, to establish a great composition, and evaluate tonal values. If I spend a couple of hours working on the technical aspect of what I am trying to achieve, personally I find it works so much better. Then when I start to paint, it all comes together, and I can let myself go a bit. As an illustrator I was trying to copy things, and many people I teach are also under the impression that this is the right way to go. But I got to the stage when I started to question why I was painting like this. I already knew I could copy things, so what was the point in proving it again and again? So initially working with ideas for composition, the tonal values - which is establishing the light and dark areas, and the colour palette. All this technical work happens first, and then when I start painting it only takes twenty to thirty minutes! I have thought about it carefully, so I know exactly what I want to achieve.
Do you make notes when you are thinking about it, or is it mainly in your head?
It is mainly in my head, but with a few sketches in relation to the composition of the painting and how it is going to flow into the focal point. Then I choose the paper colour, which is very important to me. The colour of the paper is a main part of the painting. Sometimes I apply very little pastel on the paper. There is a lot of colour coming through from the paper, so the colours I am using will need to complement that perfectly. I am looking for three things in my paintings, light, energy and movement. If I get one of those things I think I have done pretty well.

How would you advise someone who is trying to capture those elements themselves?
Firstly you need to be inspired. For example my painting, ‘The Hand of God’, was based on the hurricane Sandy that hit New York.  I followed the events on television, and realised these events will become very real for a lot of people and possbily the norm. Obviously I wasn’t there, but I wanted to try and create something that showed both the beauty and power of one of these storms. Often the skies, before, or after a storm, are quite amazing.
Then start to work on pencil sketches. Exceptional paintings seem to all be about light, and if you can capture that magical quality in one particular part, so people hone in on that and think ‘Wow!’ I often work from black and white photographs, so I am not influenced by the colour. I do prefer to work outside, but the weather in the UK doesn’t always allow that, so photographs are very useful. In the ‘Hand of God’ I decided to make the Statue of Liberty the focal point, but use all the light in the clouds to light up behind her. So I make the decision of where I want the light to be. Light creates the atmosphere of a painting.


I think energy in a painting comes from the way you paint. I am quite expressive with the way I apply the pastels, quickly and loosely. If I paint objects solidly and meticulously it can be static and flat and just hasn’t got that energy or movement. If you copy a beautiful sky, with all the colours you can see, rather than capture the essence of what is there. If you work loosely and quickly you will capture that essence, because clouds are moving all the time anyway! It is especially the looseness of the style. So many people come to my workshops particularily to do this, to loosen up, and get away from just copying things as they are.
The added dimension then, is not what you see, but the essence of what you see. Is it also your response to what you see?
It is definitely an emotional response. I am always capturing scenes that hold my fascination. I am constantly looking for those magic things that make a great painting.
Do you try to make that fascination, or sense of magic you feel, visible?
Well you can’t always see it, can you? I collect skies, light and how it falls, reflections, what you usually would not be looking at, and I put it in a painting. It’s a bit like photography, you need to be out first and last night!
Do you know where your fascination for skies, storms, or sense of imminence comes from?
I have always had this fascination for storms, lightening. I have been storm chasing in Florida. It just amazes me how it can change so quickly from a beautiful day, to something quite terrifying.
A storm is uncontrollable, is that part of the attraction after your very controlled scientific illustration?
It’s like the chains have been taken off, I can just go wild now! The more I paint now, the more I prefer to have little or no subject, just that total expression of trying to capture certain light, so I am becoming more impressionist over time. To develop as an artist I think you automatically  move through these different stages.
Have you painted the same place over and over in different lights?
I like to paint outside, and where I live there are some great locations. I can see all the way from Morecambe Bay to the Lake District, or straight across the Irish Sea. I never get bored because the light and weather are always changing. I climb Hellvelyn  in the Lake District, and it is different everytime I go up.

You say skies are the key to a great landscape, why is that?
I think I have just been fascinated by skies my whole life. I go flying with a friend of mine who is a pilot. Even when I am on a long haul flight I will look out of the window for ten hours! Even at night, I will look out at the moon on the clouds. Clouds are the making of fantastic landscapes. I don’t mean you can’t paint a great tree landscape for instance, but when you see skies, they are uplifting, they make you feel good. Someone recently bought one of my paintings saying that everytime he looks at it it lifts him up a little bit. I think the key is to paint what you feel connected to. If you don’t it doesn’t work the same. When I am totally connected I can paint. My other obsession is snow! Light on snow. Artists who paint the sea well, have spent thousands of hours, just looking, at how the waves come in, go out. It is the same with clouds, if you look and look at them you will paint them much better. I have studied a bit of meteorology to understand them a bit better. And when you fly through them you realise they are not solid, and constantly moving. Those connections are different for different people, and you just have to find what makes you tick.
That could be quite subconscious?
It is knowing what you want as an artist. One of my greatest passions is flying, I have had a few lessons. My art might take me in that direction, which might be a winning formula.
Would you ever have imagined that your life would be as it is now?
No!!! I wanted to be an astronaut when I was 8!!! I would never thought I would have been a professional artist. I have done demonstrations in front of hundreds of people recently and the thought of standing in front of two or three people years ago would have made me physically sick! But now I love it, I love meeting different people, and chatting!
I think most artists are show-offs really, they have a solitary time doing a painting, then they want everyone to see it!
What I love most is that total freedom, thinking what will I do this week, where do I want to go, what do I want to do, what do I want to achieve? Everything is in my hands, I am in total control. I am free, free to bring out my creativity. I have been in an office job before, and I felt it as such a waste. It’s so great working for yourself. The only scary bit I suppose, is making sure you earn something to pay the bills.
And teaching, you create that possibility for others, give them some hope?
You meet some incredible people, from all walks of life. I thought they would be all little old ladies, but I have taught, S.A.S. soldiers,firemen,radiologists,electricians, and pilots -  whom I make sure sit with me at lunch!! , I have one lady who is a Xray specialist with Egyptian Mummies. A lot of soldiers come, to help with Post Traumatic Stress and women who deal with domestic violence. Many of these people say that when they paint, they forget everything else, it is theraputic and relaxing. Art  touches all walks of life.

What would your top tips be?
For painting skies, being outside is fantastic, but the chance of seeing an amazing sky is hit or miss, so I collect skies!  I might use more than one image to create a painting. I want to express a sky in my way. Get away from copying is my main message. That can destroy the whole creative process. Keep things simple, use the paper texture and colour, don’t put on too much pastel. Choose the colour of your paper carefully! Build your layers.

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