Dan Llywelyn Hall in conversation with Andrew Lambirth
What Goes on Amongst Those Lights, 2012
AL: Rachel Campbell-Johnston has described your work as being Ďbright, sometimes hazily nebulous, sometimes wilfully jarringí. Is that fair?
DLH: I would say yes. I definitely try to create slightly jarring effects.
DLH: Because I donít like the slickness of something thatís too well polished. I like a slight awkwardness thatís created by the jarring of forms Ė itís more convincing. And itís harder to cultivate, actually. When you first see that awkwardness you think itís something accidental, then when itís repeated in certain forms, you appreciate it more.
AL: And you strive for that rather than achieving it by accident?
DLH: I try to, certainly with figures. Itís a very hard thing to achieve. But if you do get it right, the form can be awkward but it creates its own harmony.
AL: Letís consider your general approach to your subject. Youíre very keen to go off and investigate new places, making what might be termed research trips.
DLH: A lot of the time Iím going in the steps of somebody I admire, not necessarily a painter, it could be a writer or someone like that. I suppose Iím curious about the commonality of experience and how it validates the work by going to a place and experiencing it for yourself. Then Iíll branch out from that...
AL: You donít get disappointed because the place doesnít live up to the way theyíve painted it or written about it?
DLH: I donít actually, because I already have an appreciation of the book or whatever, and the place in some ways is irrelevant. Itís a starting point, and it only becomes relevant when the work Iím doing is realized. Experiencing the place is important, but what takes over is memory and some sort of emotive reaction.
DLH: Not really. I think of imagination as being something that is made up, that hasnít happened as a sensation. Memory is crucial.
AL: But memory distorts, one remembers certain things not others. Do you like that process?
DLH: Yes I do, because when I say memory I suppose Iím really talking about oneís emotional memory. You go through a set of experiences in your life and something will trigger that feeling again, and that makes the whole thing for me an exciting process. Not always a nice process: you can be unpicking wounds.
AL: So is it all autobiographical then?
DLH: I suppose it is increasingly so. Iím less interested in just recording a place, for the sake of the place itself, I think thatís a slightly pointless process really.
AL: But when you first go somewhere, donít you make studies of it which are just recording its appearance?
DLH: I do but I donít really like relying on the sketches to work from. When I get back to my studio Iíve put it behind me already so I donít refer to my drawings. Iíve already committed it to memory. Iíve never worked from sketchbooks and studies when Iím back in the studio. Itís something Iíd quite like to do, because Iím sure it can help you to refine certain things, but again it goes back to creating this awkwardness. Itís something that canít be rehearsed Ė you have to catch it, and if itís right, thatís it and the magic is there. But the moment you start to try to cultivate a way of processing it, you lose the immediacy and it becomes obviously trite.
AL: Actually thatís a problem with all studio work, isnít it?
DLH: I think it is a problem for paintings that are made in that way, by process and a methodical way of working. The problem for me is to strike a line between that way of working and being in front of the subject. With my portraits, all of which are painted alone in the studio, I see the sittings as research: one or two hours of drawing or taking photographs.
AL: I know youíre quite interested in the British Romantic tradition of painting. Would you consider yourself to be a part of that?
DLH: I do feel as though I carry the baton in some funny way. The Neo-Romantics worked in a period which I think was honest. They were charged with a sense of place, and that great lineage through from Samuel Palmer to Sutherland. That interests me a lot. I feel as though Iím more at home in that milieu.
AL: So theyíve been quite an influence on you?
DLH: The biggest, I think, in the last five years.
AL: And among them Sutherland most?
DLH: Yes, but less so now. The works on paper, the studies, are more interesting.
AL: You saw that show at Oxford, didnít you? [Entitled Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World, it concentrated on Sutherlandís drawings and ran from December 2011 to March 2012 at Modern Art Oxford.]
DLH: Yes, it was terrific.
AL: Do you paint a lot?
DLH: I do. I work intensively, but not constantly. You need time to think about the paintings in a conscious and subconscious way. So much of it just simmers away without you realizing. Thatís how you keep real emotion in pictures. I think itís important never to force the issue Ė it has to be as organic as possible.
AL: One of the things that annoys me about contemporary art is that so much of it is washing dirty linen in public. Surely the aim is to balance it in some way: to have emotion in art but also distance from it. You have to have that distance, donít you?
DLH: Oh, definitely. You donít want to be saccharine about it or pour everything out. You donít want to alienate the audience, but you want them to participate, you want to create a point of access to the picture so that they can make it their own. Otherwise you might as well tear out a page of your diary and give it to them.
AL: Weíre agreed then that art has to take raw material and transform it, to translate what youíve seen through what youíve experienced. How much do you think about the formal aspects of what you do? The way shapes and colours go together Ė or is that instinctive?
DLH: I liken that really to playing golf. Itís a game much like painting. You learn the formal elements and then youíre always tweaking and improving. You learn the game at an early age and then later when youíre playing properly youíre thinking about the shot and where the ball is going to go. Youíre not thinking about how youíre going to swing the club. Itís like that with painting: youíre thinking about what you want the paint to do, what you want it to say, youíre thinking about the content, and all the rest of it is second nature. If you start stumbling over how youíre using the brush or what shapes youíre going to put down, youíre definitely not thinking about the end game. So I always have the idea of the painting in my head. I think about the title, for example, the words of the title, and sometimes I think thatís not really relevant to the picture, but it keeps me focused on the idea.
AL: Does one mark lead to another? Do you find that the process drives it along? Or is it the idea thatís keeping it all together?
DLH: The process Ė the joy of applying paint to a surface Ė guides you through. The forms that are more appealing to your eye and more harmonious go down first, and then one mark does lead to another. That transition is very dependent on emotion as you move across the picture.
AL: Where do you actually begin a picture?
DLH: I think I start off-centre, to the right probably. Which can mean you have problems with the composition when you get to the back.
AL: Have you ever had to add on a section to a painting?
DLH: Never. I donít like the look of that Ė it has a clumsiness to it.
AL: You stick to the given rectangle.
DLH: I do. That restraint, that sense of forcing yourself to work into one area, is a discipline I like. Otherwise where do you end?
AL: What do you call the kind of art youíre making? Realism?
DLH: No, I think Expressionism is the closest. For example, take the realm of portraiture. Now weíre in a very conservative period as to what a portrait is, and what portraiture is doing, and itís left unchallenged. Big institutions champion the highly slick, comfortable, photographic medium, which is so far away from what painting is or should be about. If you get into the position of making a painting look like a photograph, people will always compare it to a photograph, so they tend to pick holes in it. You end up in the wilderness, because you lose the appreciation of the common man, and those that know a bit more and love painting are never going to appreciate a photographic portrait.
AL: When you put marks on a canvas, are they to do with what something youíre trying to paint looks like, or because you like the pattern they make? Or is it a mixture of the two?
DLH: A mixture, really. I do begin by trying to translate a form onto the picture, by building up the paint. Sometimes you observe a pattern that you create, normally accidentally, then you adapt or adopt that as a separate motif worth working with, and it can become a focal point. But I never think Iím going to make a nice pattern here Ė it will always emerge from looking at something.
AL: So you welcome chance?
DLH: Yes, itís very important, otherwise you do nothing new. You just become very formulaic, saying the same thing over and over again. Everybody will be inclined to work in a comfort zone, and do something theyíre familiar with, but theyíre not learning anything, or furthering their experience. Theyíre not moving in any direction at all, theyíre stagnating. So chance is critical.
AL: Do you find it works differently with different materials? Do you have a preferred medium? You use acrylic, oil, watercolour and so on.
DLH: A lot of that is dictated by practical considerations of where youíre working and what can be transported. When Iím travelling, I always take acrylics Ė partly because they dry quickly but also because they have their own qualities which can be worked on. But the medium itself is important, whether Iím using a crayon or a nib, for instance. A crayon can be much more gestural Ė you take on a different set of marks, and youíre drawing on a different set of emotions as well. You can surprise yourself by how differently you can react to a subject by using different materials.
AL: Have you done much printmaking?
DLH: A fair amount. Iím starting a set of etchings for Dylan Thomasí centenary [27 October 2014], working directly from his poems. Etching is a medium I would liken very much to words Ė the rhythm and line perhaps Ė and the drawing on the plate is almost like a form of hand-writing.
AL: How important are the landscapes in your oeuvre?
DLH: Landscape creates the theatre, the set, for much more crucial things. Landscape painting these days has had such a bad press, a stigma Ė as a genre itís mistreated by contemporary art. You canít really make it ironic, and thatís its drawback for contemporary art galleries.
AL: All art doesnít have to be ironic...
DLH: No, but a lot of fashionable art is.
AL: And thatís partly because people shy away from directness of emotion.
DLH: Irony certainly seems to be the common thread in the contemporary art scene.
AL: Not in your work?
DLH: No. Irony is for people who havenít got any backbone, who are afraid of putting their emotions into the work. I think youíve got to be very brave if youíre going to make something that is heartfelt and meaningful, youíve got to be prepared to put yourself on the line. Thatís absolutely essential.
Recorded in Suffolk in January 2013 and subsequently edited.