You say that you are inspired by eighteenth century French artists. Which ones and how?
My background is actually a history graduate, so I am slightly 'nerdy' when it comes to dates!
The interest arose, actually when I bought some of your pastels about five or six years ago!
There were a couple of artists who were showing in London who were using pastel collage, and I liked the movements, and the overall effects they were getting with their figurative work, which is my main interest. When I started to research, I found the golden age of pastel portraiture was in the mid-eighteenth century, primarily in France and northern Europe. There were a couple of artists who worked solely in pastel, going against the grain and making it an art form on its own. They secured commissions from the royalty of the time. One of them was called Maurice Quentin de la Tour, quite a grand sounding name. He was born in a town outside Paris called Saint Quentin. You can see his work there, as his work is some of the best preserved of the time. His hey day was the 1750's and 1760's . Other artists of the time used pastel as a basis for their portraits but then finished them in oils. They have some of his work in the Louvre also. The quality of his work just inspired me and I thought that if I can get anywhere close to it that would be amazing.
Can you describe the particular quality of his work?
In his day, if you look at the diaries of people who were looking at his work for the first time in exhibitions, the one thing that struck people more than anything else was how natural his faces looked. In the days before camera, T.V. and video, working from life, and getting someone relaxed enough, particularily around the mouth, was quite a skill. He was obviously a very good raconteur and good at making people feel relaxed. That comes through in his work, the naturalness of the sitter. When you look closely, it is very free, not precise, quite radical. He really moves the pastel around the paper with bold colours next to each other. Looking at it today, you wouldn't imagine that it was 250 years old.
Was he viewed as quite radical at the time?
Yes I think he was. He moved pastel from being a background medium, used for sketching, to being a rival to oils.
He was a great showman too from what you can tell. He seemed to be offensive to his clients, and the more horrible he was the greater his notoriety and the more they paid him!!
Was this what made you want to do portraits or were you doing portraits already?
When I first got into portraiture, in my early teens, I was copying the Hollywood greats from photos in my bedroom, like Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. Years later, after doing a lot of work in acrylic and charcoal, I got established with galleries in London, and had work shown in international art fairs in New York, Singapore and Europe. When I got into pastel it gave me the control of a pencil, but the freedom of acrylic or oils. Pastels are the perfect combination of drawing and painting.
When did you discover your wet technique?
It was partly accident and having seen artists using mixed media, with various drips and dribbles, I wondered how I could incorporate that into my work. I got some standard pastel paper and just stretched it and then just let rip. With wet technique you can lay down an under-drawing, which gives you a skeleton of the drawing, and then picking key areas out, that enhance the picture, but without overworking them. So it's putting as little in as possible.
Do you always work with your wet technique?
No. I do a lot of commissioned horse and dog portraits, and they are mainly done dry.
However I work with clients when doing people portraits where it is a lot looser, whilst still getting the precision in the key features on the face. With a client, you need to give them confidence that you are going to give them something they will like. Gradually people are more trusting. Although in the end it's personal taste.
So doing them dry gives greater precision, and wet more freedom, is that right?
Yes I would say. Also you can cover more ground doing them wet, so I tend to use that technique on larger pieces too.
It's easier to feel free on a larger size like A1.
You live in the Ribble Valley, does living in such a beautiful place make any difference to you as a portrait artist?
I don't think it does in terms of portraits, but definitely in general as an artist. We are lucky that both me and my partner, who is also an artist, work full time here. So we don't have any commute to work. In such a beautiful, rural location you are much more aware of the quality of the light and the change of season.
Your partner Cassandra paints landscapes, do you debate the virtues of portrait versus landscape?
We have a personal and business relationship, so it's more about telling each other where the other is going wrong (only kidding)!!!
I will browse into Cassandra's studios and comment that she needs to change the sky, and she will shoo me out. Or she will come into my studio and say that that nose needs tweeking and I will shoo her out!! But on a more serious note she is the person whose critical judgement I value. Certainly before anything comes off an easel and goes to a client it gets the final once over. The person who hasn't produced the work can often see things that the other doesn't and vice versa. For instance Cassandra will often comment on the balance of my work, or the transition from the nose to the head, making sure it is flowing well. So there are technical bits that we highlight for each other, which definitely makes for a better painting.
Does seeing her working on landscape make you want to do landscape? Or does she want to do portrait?
She has started to use some of the wet technique for the provisional parts of her paintings. For Cassandra wet technique is work in progress, but the work she has done looks amazing. I would love to do some big skies, but I am hopeless at landscape! I can't get it together at all! I need the anchor point of a face so I can think about what I am doing. Equally, Cassie is hopeless at portraiture!
So for you, portrait has an absolute point of focus?
Yes I suppose it's the eyes really. To convey the wetness of them, and the colour and clarity, feels like the starting point for me, and I tend to develop it from there. In animal portraits though, especially dogs and horses, it is the nose that it the prominent feature so I tend to start with that for them.
A landscape is too big and daunting?
Yes it just emerges from something rather than having a focal point. Have a chat with Cassie about it, she will be much more insightful!
How did your gallery come about?
It's called The Studio at Bashall Barn Art Gallery, in a complex of the same name, which is also a working dairy farm! You can literally walk past the cows into the gallery most mornings. Over 10 years ago the owners diversfied, so it is now a farm restaurant and shop, and they even have a wedding licence. So there is a lot going on in the actual barn itself. We have been onsite here for two years. Initially it was a studio for Cassie. There was an opportunity to also retail some of our work. At the beginning of 2015 we moved into a bigger space with its own entrance. We are located on a mezzanine, with room to show other artists' work alongside our own. We have some fantastic sculpture and paintings in the gallery. Showing other artists work is a great way of keeping you on your toes really, as it is inspiring to see the quality of their work.
Do you find the mind that is running a business and the mind of an artist sit well together, or do they come into conflict?
We are fortunate to have had other careers before becoming artists. I was working in the NHS, and Cassy was an engineer in the nuclear industry. So we both had skills in planning, clarifying goals, and a sense of budget. We knew we could deliver the artwork, it was making it pay for itself that was the most difficult thing. We are still a young business, and we have tried not to run before we can walk, and do things by increment and just let things evolve. The gallery area is what we started with primarily thinking about doing commission work directly with clients. And things have gradually evolved from there. It keeps moving on and we love every moment of it. Actually most artists are not dreamy and flaky, and work hard at getting established, obviously creative, but get on with the day to day grind of the process of making paintings available. The artists we show are very serious minded about what they are doing.
In terms of mind I find having that mixture of painting and business very enjoyable. When being creative I set aside time for this and then I can relax. In fact I probably plan around eighty percent of my time. For instance this week I have a particular portrait I am doing which is a hand-over for a present, to a client. It is a portrait of a black German Shepherd. I have an end point by which time I know it needs to be completed, but I have flexibility in how I go about it.
Do you ever show your clients a picture before it is finished?
Yes, I do offer that. It depends how involved people are, and if they want to get into the nitty gritty, and see the sketches before you start the master painting. So you take those people on a journey. But others just want to see the finished portrait. Everyone is slightly nervous to start with, as it is often the first time they have commissioned a portrait. So there is a little bit of education with clients at the beginning. Some clients will visit the gallery several times before asking about a commission. It's quite an unusual process to go through, as most things nowadays are bought off the shelf or on-line.
How do you feel when you have finished something and you are handing it over?
There are two things really. One is glad that I have reached the deadline and the work is finished. I go through this sort of sad vacuuming ritual. As you know when you work with pastel it goes everywhere, it's in your hair, everywhere. I like to clean everything down. Mentally, it is getting the last commission out of your head and ready to start afresh.
The actual hand-over, even now, is the most nerve-racking experience. We have a few tears too, as it is quite an emotional thing to be given a portrait of say your children when they were small, and whom are now twenty. Or a pet who is no longer alive, and they see this painting with life in it's eyes. I have found the power of the portrait quite a shock actually. And so far no-one has said they don't like it or asked me to change something. I think the 'quality control' Cassie and I have for each other work is so important, as it gives us great confidence that clients will be happy with the finished result.
The relief when someone is happy is great and we get some lovely testimonials. The ultimate test is people coming back for more and we do get a lot of repeat business now which is great.
Sounds like things are going really well?
Yes we have a mantra, 'We are grateful for today, and hopeful for tomorrow!'
Are you just where you want to be, or do you have an unrealised artistic ambition still?
On a personal level, I would like to shift the balance of my work from seventy/ thirty percent animals to people, to the other way round, like my 18th century heroes, doing people portraits. I would like to be known as a portrait painter, and Cassy as a landscape painter, to have a high profile subject matter. But we are happy having some financial security to start with for now.
To read about John's wet technique click here.
To read the interview with his partner Cassandra click here.
To find out more about their gallery click here.
Article Header Image: Cirilla