On the cuff of Sky Arts’ ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’ 2017, The Foxley Docket had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the show’s gifted individuals competing for the prestigious title. Meet 29 year old Liam Dickinson, a naturally talented young artist from Chorley, Lancashire. We discuss Liam’s early entrance into the artistic world, using your eyes instead of your brain, and “the bad boy” of painting.
THE FOXLEY DOCKET: Where did your passion for art begin? Was it something you were always talented at, or was it something you actively pursued to make a career in?
LIAM DICKINSON: It probably began back when I was in nursery at Duke Street in Chorley. I was about 3 or 4. They had a drawing and painting room – one room would be full of toys, I was basically the only one who was always in the drawing room. I was sat in there day in, day out, drawing anything I could think of. I used to draw a lot of Thomas the Tank Engine, but it would be out of my head. Sometimes I’d go from references, but with that sort of thing, I used to watch it all the time on TV and collect the little figures. I must’ve done it out of my head, because I drew them at nursery but I never took any of them in. I did this one drawing once – it was all these little engines lined up, but it was all really well-proportioned for a three-year-old; it was weirdly good! They had it sent off to this University in London to get studied. At the time, I thought that was cool, but I don’t know what they were testing for, they probably thought I was autistic or something!
I guess from an early age, it was recognised that I had a knack for it. My grandad used to paint a little bit, but it was watercolours, so I wouldn’t have said I was particularly influenced by that. I first started to draw when I’d watch things on TV. I’d sit with my dad and ask “will you draw me that?” and he would. I think eventually he got sick of it and went “draw it yourself!” so I started doing that. We had video players back then – I used to have all of the Disney films. I particularly remember Aladdin, but my favourite was probably The Lion King; my favourite now is Hercules! I put Aladdin in, and I used to just sit and pause every frame or every little different scene, then I would just draw it off the TV. I honestly had piles of papers of various Disney characters, it was almost like a bad flipbook. It was even annotated with the dialogue! It’s quite funny – I’ve still got that – I even looked at it a few months back. I used to teach myself to draw that way, and it went from there. I used to copy things too, I’d draw crisp packets or anything, it was really odd.
I stopped doing it around the age of eight. I’d dabble occasionally, then I started again in high school. I had a really good teacher. Initially, we had an art teacher but he just didn’t seem that passionate about it. He was really talented, but I feel like he thought he was making easy money doing it. I was going to go into teaching myself but I binned it off in the end for that reason. He said “you seem a bit more into your own work than doing anything else”, I thought “that’s probably true, to be honest.” I think you have to be a particular kind of person to teach. I got to GCSE level around Year 10 or 11 and we had this teacher who was really good; she was really encouraging and she spotted it straight away that I was gifted. I first used oil paint under her – she gave me some oil paints and went “go on”, because I think I’d probably just drawn up until then.
I’ve always been an oil painter in my professional career. I’d say I was quite versatile when it comes to what mediums I use – I do occasionally use acrylic, I’ll have a bit of a dabble with watercolour, but a lot of people say I’ve got a very diverse range of work. I do paintings, drawings, I’ve done ones with biro before, I can do digital work. I like to experiment, I don’t like to stick to one thing as such. In general, I’m good on the route of oil painting.
I think in the last few years, I’ve experimented loads and now I’ve found my niche. I’ve found my style and a way of working that I’m happy with. I think you’re always learning as an artist. I’m hard on myself about it, but I think that’s the best way to be – criticism is the best way to learn. All your friends and family are always going to be supportive, but you don’t learn, as you rest on your laurels that way.
My dad is quite a straight shooter – he’s quite good at drawing himself, so he always points out any little bits that aren’t right. I wouldn’t say he’s particularly harsh but he points stuff out. I think that’s the best way to learn – just by having that kind of feedback. There’s always ways to improve. I’ll do a painting and look back on it in a year’s time and think “mmm.. could’ve done that better”, which I think is good in a way that you recognise that you’re progressing. I think you’re never truly happy with your work. Especially if you’re trying to sell your work, you’ve got to be confident that it’s good – and I am – but then I just wonder if in a few years’ time, I’ll think it’s not great. I have to say now that I’m happy with my way of working and how they turn out. I work quickly too, which is good. I still do learn something with every painting that I do – you learn shortcuts. If something’s a bit tricky like an eye or a nose, then you find ways around these. I think practice does make perfect. You strive to get a likeness – that’s the easy bit, like “right, okay. That looks like that person” but then you have to try and make it into an interesting painting. It becomes all about the mark making and placement and how you apply your paint while making it interesting in a painting sense, as well as putting your own spin on it. From a distance, I want to be able to go “yeah, that’s that person, that’s fine”, but then when you get up close, you can see that it’s all lines and shades – a loose combination of different brushstrokes and marks, and then finding it interesting in that way as well – that’s the challenge. It sounds weird, but simplifying your work is the hardest thing to do. I’m quite into a loose style, but bringing all that together to make a rigid painting – nothing overly laboured but quite loose and energetic, that’s probably one of the hardest things to get right.
TFD: At what point did you decide you could make a career from your artwork?
LD: I suppose even when I left school. I did take it at A Levels, but then I fell out of love with it a bit again; I just found that it was all very curriculum based, and a lot of it revolved around art history and conceptual art. I get all that, but I just wanted to draw and paint, but I think that’s the case with a lot of artists. Some of it was interesting and I did learn, but I couldn’t wait to just get out of the education system and that side of things and just do my own thing. I went to University to study Fine Art too – initially I was down south in Canterbury at the College of Creative Arts. It was quite a prestigious place, and it had been built to embody this focus on traditional methods and a lot of life drawing, a lot of emphasis on learning new techniques. I thought “yeah, brilliant!” because that’s what I wanted. I could teach myself to paint, but I just wanted someone to show me things I hadn’t thought of. We did at first to a certain extent – we used to do a lot of 3D work, stone carving and chiselling – I wouldn’t say I was great it, but I enjoyed having access to materials like that because it’s not just something you can do.
It soon became something where they stick you in a studio and leave you to your own devices, but it didn’t help me in the areas I wanted help in. I just kept thinking to myself that I could be at home right now doing this – I’m all the way down south, paying all this money and I didn’t have a job at the time. I always like to have a job and have a car – I wasn’t into the whole student life really. I just didn’t like being skint and borrowing money off my parents. I’d had a car before, but it’s amazing how restricted you feel when you can’t drive. So I decided it wasn’t for me, especially given the fact that I didn’t really feel like I was learning anything, so what was the point? I finished my course at UCLan. I went back, lived at home and got a job and a car. I was quite happy then, I had the same issues that I was facing at college, where I just wanted to draw and paint all the time, and they were saying “you’re on the wrong course, you should be on an illustration course”, which in hindsight, may’ve been true. But I didn’t want to start again, I just wanted out. I finished the course and had a good time, but I wouldn’t have said it created me. When I show people my work, they go, “did you go to Uni and study it?” and when I tell people, I feel like I’m almost giving them credit for it. They gave me access to a studio, but they didn’t teach me how to paint. I try not to put too much emphasis on that – I consider myself a self-taught artist, whereas normally if you’d been to Uni and studied that, you’d be classed as a classically trained artist.
After that, I’d always done the occasional commission just painting people’s dogs or kids just for a bit of money on the side. So, I thought I’d try and see if I could built up a bit more of a customer-base. I started doing cheap portraits of people. It started off as just friends and family, then I started advertising through Facebook which was emerging at the time – it still wasn’t as big as it is now. I got my name out there through Facebook and word of mouth, you’d do something for a friend or family member, and then they tell their friend or family member and it snowballs. I’ve been working at Tesco – I’ve done all kinds of shifts there but I’ve always done part time work – I can fit my painting and drawing around there. It’s worked out quite well – I always thought if I went and did a 9-5 job, I wouldn’t paint. It’s not the coolest place to work, but it’s worked well for me as it’s given me that flexibility to still be able to paint. Currently for example, I still work there and I do 5am – 10/11am shifts, which sounds difficult, but it actually gives me the rest of the day, I’m burning the candle at both ends. It’s quite a good balance.
TFD: Are there any artists, past or present, whose work you were always particularly interested in? What is it about their work that stands out to you?
LD: I feel like my tastes in other artists has changed throughout the years, but when I first started out, because we’d study them at school, I enjoyed all the old masters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio. He’s one of the famous Renaissance painters. I just used to be quite inspired by that.
They call Caravaggio “the bad boy” of painting. He was just a bit of a rebel, he was naturally good at what he did, he wasn’t formerly trained as such and he was just a bit of a character. He’d cause a lot of fights, he pretty much spent his life on the run because he killed someone! He’d go from place to place, funding his escape from each town by painting. He’d start off in one place then he would get a commission from whoever it was – he was well known, and he was young as well. By the time he’d done the commission, the authorities had caught up with him, so he’d be on the next boat to wherever. He used to do that, and eventually they caught up with him. I thought it was quite a cool story. I think he died quite young, in his late 20s/early 30s – he got killed. In no way do I associate myself with that! But I used to think it was quite a cool story – it’s intriguing, and I enjoyed the edgy, anti-hero nature of him. This guy seemed to be good at what he did and didn’t know how good he was – he had this gift for it.
I feel like I’m only good because I’ve done it for so long – when I first picked up a pencil, I wouldn’t’ve said I was any better than the next person to pick up a pencil. I think maybe ‘the gift’ is the patience or the perseverance to stick with it. A lot of people would probably get bored with that, but for some reason, I’ve never got tired or bored of it. So I think that’s the thing that’s instinctive, rather than the actual drawing side of it.
Back in school, it was the old masters. I started learning about photorealism, which I was really into. I loved hyperrealism, and an artist called Chuck Close. He started the whole movement, it was a big thing in America and that was literally, ‘photorealism’ – you’d look at it and have no idea it was a painting and I thought that was amazing, I’d never seen anything like it before. I used to be really into that kind of style, but at the same time, I’ve seen how it’s done and it’s very mechanical and obsessive and I think you have to be a certain type of person to do that – it almost doesn’t look fun to do. I can admire it from a technical point of view – it’s impressive and very talented, but they take months, sometimes years. I tried it and it looked alright, but I thought it wasn’t worth the time. It was a self-portrait in college – there’s a famous Chuck Close portrait which I tried to replicate in a project in college. I wouldn’t want to see it now, it’s probably not as good as I thought, but at the time, I thought it was decent. It took weeks and I didn’t really have the patience for it. I think with those kinds of works, they are impressive but once you’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them all. You couldn’t really distinguish styles as they’re so perfect. Even if you get up close to them, you just think “it just looks like a big photo” because it was airbrushed – there was no texture or anything gritty about it.
I enjoy looking at those, but I also enjoyed looking at the more impressionistic paintings – ones where they were a lot more loose and energetic with brush strokes, where you can see the pallet strokes, almost the emotion in it. It was just interesting from a painting point of view, so I think over the years, my style is combining the two. Photography does feature in my work quite heavily, but more in the sense of photographic elements, such as you’ve got that depth of field. I watch a lot of films and stuff – it’s more that we live in a digital age now and there’s so much you can do with technology. I like quite arty films I guess – I enjoyed La La Land from an artist’s point of view – it’s all really nicely filtered and shiny and polished. It’s not realistic as such, but it’s just very easy on the eye. It’s almost laid out like a landscape painting, everything’s laid out with a sunset and it’s overly saturated – the colours and lighting and how everything is illuminated.
When you paint a lot, you see the world in paints – you look around sometimes and ask yourself “how would I capture that?” – I look at reflections and how I’d recreate that. I guess maybe through watching those kinds of films and seeing things like that all around us, it probably crept into my painting style.
There’s a guy called Casey Baugh – I take a lot of inspiration from his work. He does the whole depth of field thing in his work and he uses coloured filters and things. You get a lot of painters that think that you shouldn’t use photography or any digital methods. Some people like to stick to painting from life, but I just think it’s got a lot of limitations – you have to have natural lighting for that and a stationary model, they can’t be moving about. I think when you incorporate photography, you can be a bit more daring and a bit more experimental, so you can incorporate movement and lights in different scenes – areas other artists may not be able to get from painting from life – it’s physically impossible, you’re not going to get that depth of field that you do with a camera. I guess I like to think of a reaction to that. Painting seems to be the only thing where we’re stuck in our ways and have to sit on traditions. In every other place of work or discipline, we use digital methods to help us do it better like with computers for example – everything is moving forward except painting. We seem like we have to treat it like they did in the 16th century, and I think if they had a camera back then, they would’ve used it. I think a lot of artists do use photography but they’re almost ashamed to admit it. Why are we ashamed to admit that kind of stuff? So I like to think I can embrace it, instead of shying away from it. I guess with the really hyperrealist work, that is very mechanical and it’s done square by square and airbrush. I think to myself, I can see why people do think it’s too mechanical – there’s no human elements, so I do like to try and combine the two. I want it to look like something that could’ve been painted from life, but with something that’s a bit more interesting. That’s why I’d describe it as an impressionistic form of photorealism.
TFD: You describe your style of art as being “an impressionistic form of photorealism.” What exactly does this mean?
LD: I’d probably end up showing them examples of each, but what I mean is, I guess my style is ‘impressionist’ in a sense that I think impressionism is all about seeing how the paint has been applied, so it’s giving the impression of an image with paint. So I think they’re the ones that you go up close to and it looks like a mish mash of brush strokes and pallet knife, then you step away from it and it all comes together. I think that’s one of the hardest things to actually achieve – it looks quite simple, but it’s complex in its simplicity. It’s got so much depth to it – I’d rather look at something like that than something that was perfectly photographed. You can look at it from distance and say it’s flawless, but once you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen them all. But with impressionist pictures, I feel like every time you look at it, you notice something different every time you go back. It’s not just about what the image is of, if you’re into painting, it’s all about that. I like to think of them as impressionist paintings, but the photorealism comes in the sense that the composition and the layout are like photographs or like films.
I like to do a lot of portraits in a landscape, cinematic setting. I just think you can include more content in a way, because you’ve got more space to work with. I prefer working landscape to portrait, it’s less generic and a further area to cover. You get to capture a portrait, but also it gives it some context – there’s something more interesting about it. I think you can do less on a portrait setting, and the focus is on the face, which rightly or wrongly, I don’t just want portraits to be focused on the person as such. Landscape pictures have a setting and a narrative to it which you don’t always get with just a straight up portrait. I think that’s another portrait which I try and get across – that narrative, and raising the questions, “what’s that person doing? Where are they going?” I want the viewer to ask questions. In that sense, everybody gets something a bit different from it, rather than just taking it for what it is.
TFD: Are there particular emotions or thoughts or feelings you’d seek to withdraw from them? Has your work ever been met with any reactions that’ve stayed with you?
LD: Not as such – we did a lot of this at Uni – all that kind of conceptual art and I never quite got it. I always thought art or painting was just to be looked at, basically. You put it on your wall and it’s there to be looked at, but when it comes to modern art and conceptual art, people ask me and I feel like they think I know what it’s all about, but honestly, I have no idea – it’s not really my bag. I guess first and foremost, I just want it to be enjoyed from an aesthetic point of view, for it to be looked at and thought “that’s nice!” – I try and paint good looking people, and I try and make them as colourful and interesting as possible. I want them to be looked at and admired for that reason, rather than anything else. If they can get anything else from that from a narrative perspective then fine, but it’s not intentional on my part. I just want an image that looks nice, that looks good on someone’s wall, is well painted, has got interesting elements to look at. I’m not going to try and tell people what to make of it, it’s down to viewer interpretation, and if they want to take something from it, then that’s good. But if they just want it because it looks nice and goes with their furniture, then I’ve no problems with that whatsoever. People look for things that aren’t there to justify it. From my point of view, I like to admire things for what they look like, it doesn’t always need a deeper meaning.
In most cases, a lot of the work I sell is commission based – I’ll do pet portraits or pictures of their kid. I think people come to me because they know I can get a good likeness and that’s really what they’re after! Every now and then, someone will say “you’ve captured more than the photograph!” I work a lot from photographs, people go “there’s a picture of my child.” I prefer to take a reference photo and go away and do a few little sketches first, then come up with something myself. I don’t really like working from other people’s shots unless they’re really good, just mainly because I know what would look good on a painting and I can manipulate the scene in whichever way I want, or I’ll even alter the photographs digitally and get them to a point where I want to work with them. Ideally, if I’m able to take them and it’s convenient, I’ll take them myself, but if it’s not practical, I can work a lot from other people’s photos and make do. I guess it makes me a better painter, because I’ve worked from some awful reference photo images, just because you don’t have a choice sometimes. But beggars can’t be choosers. I’ve worked with some rubbish, but I’ve always found a way to get some light in it. I like to think I paint quite realistically or true to the original photograph, but that I bring something a bit more to it by painting it. It just brings some more colour to it, or a bit of energy with brushstrokes. I guess people’s main reaction is “this is better than the photograph”, which is always nice to hear. Or “it’s different” …. “interesting” is another one. I wouldn’t say I’ve had much negative feedback, not to my face anyway. That’s all I’m bothered about – happy customers, hopefully!
TFD: How do your pieces come to life? Can you talk us a little bit through the creative process?
LD: Let’s say I’ve gone and taken a load of reference photos and done a few sketches. I will take all that home, put it in the computer and mock something up according to the size that it’s going to be. Once I’m happy with that, I’ll start the process of transferring it onto canvas. I occasionally use canvas, but more often than not, I use wooden hardboard.
I work quickly and I do a lot of painting, and when you’re stretching your own canvas, it’s not practical on that level – it’s expensive and time consuming and I like to just churn stuff out. There’s that side of it, and also if you use a canvas when it’s stretched, you get a bit of a bounce off it; it’s less resistant to you. Using a hard-wooden board, I like how firm it is against the paint. You can also manipulate the surface of it. With a canvas, more often than not, you’re working on the tooth of the canvas which is crosshatched, whereas when you’re priming your own boards, you can be a bit more experimental. I try and get them as smooth as possible so there’s no tooth underneath, and others I’ll be a bit savvier. The grain of the prime comes through and shows through the painting – it gives it texture. I can pick and choose what kind of surface I want to work on with a hardboard, so that’s more or less the reason I do that. By that stage, I’ll have a board that’s primed and ready.
I usually work off a grid technique – that helps me get the likeness. I’ll put a grid over the canvas board, and go about transferring the image from one to the other, square by square. It breaks the image down, so rather than working on one big piece, it’s done bit by bit. It ensures that you get all your proportions. That’s mainly how I do it – it can be a bit overwhelming when you have a big canvas, and your eyes aren’t good enough, especially up close – you have to be able to see it from a distance and it’s never quite right. Doing it that way is quite a mechanical method and there’s probably a lot of maths involved in that – I used to be good at maths at school – maybe that’s crept through. I did maths at A Level – so that’s how I transfer my image across. That way, I know that while I’m painting, I know that that eye is in the right place, that nose is in the right place etc. It’s scientifically correct, in a way.
It allows me to then focus on the application of my paint. If you just went straight up with a brush with no kind of preparation, you always wrestle with “that nose is a bit long”, and you end up muddying your canvas with paint because you’re always wrestling with it, whereas I do a little sketch beforehand, I’ve got my grid, I know what goes where. You can keep your colours quite clean as well – I think the more you start throwing it about, it gets a bit messy.
A lot of my paintings use a lot of bright colours – you can only get that vibrancy the first time. I like to paint on different colours – I think it’s more challenging – it encourages you to use your eyes more than your brain. For example, a wall is white, right? But if you’re going to paint it now, it’s not white at all due to the shadows and lights and other factors – it’s a blue-ish grey – that’s using your eye to say what the colour is, whereas your brain would say “that wall is white.” I think a lot of painters who are just starting out would say it’s white. It won’t look natural at all. I think a lot of painting is about breaking it down and using your eye to see what the actual colour or shade is, rather than doing what your brain thinks.
It’s the same with the shape of an eye – don’t see it as an eye, see it as a combination of shapes and lines and build it up that way. I think your brain will instinctively step in and say “that should be an oval”, which isn’t the case at all. Things look different from different angles. I don’t think there’s any such thing as skin tone in painting. You’d look different in a green room than you would in a red room, for example. I like to paint the coloured filters, just because I think it’s good practice. I think it encourages you to use your eyes more in painting.
TFD: In your opinion, what is integral to the work of an artist?
LD: I’ve said all the way through this – don’t be afraid to paint from photos, but I think that life drawing is one of the best ways you can practice and learn. I’d encourage them to draw a lot – you don’t have to go straight into painting, but get your drawing down. Then you can always step into painting after that. Drawing is fundamental, I’d say. Just do it as often as possible, it’s still not really paid off for me as such, but I do it every day or as and when I can. I think you don’t really get anything without putting work in. There’s a lot of setbacks, but you have to keep going at it. Be passionate about it. I’ve got to a point now where it’d be a shame to just stop doing it. I’ve been doing this whole part time working, part time painting thing for years, and I’m still not where I want to be with it, but I feel like I’m gradually getting on the right path. Stick at it.
Don’t be afraid to accept a bit of criticism. Get honest feedback – it’s nice to be told that something is good. If it is good, then fine. But I think there’s always things you can possibly improve on. Get someone who’s going to be honest with you and say “you could change that next time.” You can be harsh with yourself as well – don’t rest on your laurels, and I think the trick is never really be happy with your work, and that will encourage you to keep doing more and more and more. Never be happy with yourself. Just always think, “how could I step this up?” – you can still be happy with it and the process of it, but never finish something and think “that’s perfect.” Because it never is, and you’ll never learn. Always strive for a little bit more.
TFD: What are your thoughts on the current British art scene? Are there particular artists you feel who are particularly making waves right now?
LD: It sounds weird, but I know a lot more about the American art scene than I do about the British art scene. I use Instagram a lot; I follow a lot of American artists, mainly because over there, they’re still very focused on painting, whereas I think over here, we’ve moved into conceptual. We’re trying to get across a message; it’s very political. I love Banksy, but over in Europe or America, they’re still focused on creating work that looks nice and is beautiful, and less about the political connotations of it all. They just want to make work that looks nice and is easy on the eye – I identify with that, and relate to that way of working most. I wouldn’t say I’m the most political person, it’s not really my thing. I’m a very visual person – I want to look at things and admire things, just from an aesthetic point of view. There are some great painters in Britain though.
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