I met my friend, Carl Chapple when we were both exhibiting at Parallax Art Fair here in London in 2011 and I have been a fan of his ever since! I agree so much with his statement about art fairs in general too.
As a figurative painter myself, I'm drawn (no pun intended!) to his figurative paintings the most and of course I've been intrigued for a long time about his methods of working and what his studio is like and what types of colours he has on his palette and all sorts of other curiosities!
So I was really pleased when Carl agreed to let me interview him for my art blog! The biggest challenge with Carl and so far with all the other artists I've interviewed, is that I have so many questions that I have to whittle them down or I'm sure artists would be daunted by hundreds of questions! These questions in this interview, I think are the most pressing of the over eighty that I originally had to edit down from! I had so many questions about his materials but as a painter myself, I really feel that to understand another painter is to see how and where they work rather than what they produce! So I love the above photo of Carl's studio space with his work and all the interesting details surrounding!
I'm excited to share with you my interview with Carl and his fascinating work and practice. Please do check his social media links at the end of this interview to stay updated with his work, especially as he has upcoming exhibitions which is quite exciting! Any red highlighted underlined words are links you can follow. Please like, comment and share with your friends!
Franceska: When did you first know you were going to be an artist and what helped you decide this?
Carl: I’ve always been interested in painting, but wasn’t certain that I wanted to be a painter myself until the first term of my art foundation at Oxford Polytechnic. I’d spent the previous year working in a print shop doing bits of graphic art, and went into the course with a vague plan to go on to art school somewhere and study graphics, but that all changed after the experience of drawing from the nude and using oil paint for the first time.
Drawing from the nude and using oil paint for the first time can really shift your perspective on things. I found both impossibly difficult, and realised very quickly that they would be central to all that I wanted to do.
Franceska: How do you set up your palette? Do you have a specific system with your colours?
Carl: I think Whistler once said something about it being impossible for an orderly painting to emerge from a disorderly palette, and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully for a long time to learn from that.
I start each session with a row of colours arranged chromologically (I may have just invented that word) across the top of the palette, with a dollop of white beneath, but it all soon descends into a kind of blur as work proceeds, colours are mixed, and more paint is added. There is a system, of sorts, and I always know where everything is, but the nearest I come to any kind of discipline is realising periodically that I need to stop and completely clean the palette and start again. I try to do this at least every few hours.
Franceska: Who or what inspired you to become an artist?
Carl: My mum encouraged creativity in me as a child (we always had paints and glue and a junk box full of toilet rolls and cereal boxes, etc, from which fantastic space stations could be built), and at primary school I was labelled as the one who was good at drawing, meaning I’d get pulled out of lessons to copy pictures (the inner workings of the human ear, a Roman soldier holding a spear…) onto other teachers’ blackboards, which was obviously to be welcomed.
I went on to really enjoy studying art at secondary school, and had a great teacher (Stuart Stephens at Tavistock Comprehensive) who had a very open and informal approach to teaching his subject. Under his slightly arm’s length guidance, pupils were given a lot of freedom to explore ideas and techniques, and to make mistakes, etc. I found this to be a fun environment to work in, and took it very seriously.
Franceska: Do you have a specific subject that you enjoy the most in your art?
Carl: People - most recently dancers. It’s the only subject I’m really interested in. Over the years I’ve painted a few still lives and the occasional landscape, animal picture, etc, but nothing engages me like trying to depict another human being.
There’s a Vonnegut story in which a character responds to a vast and impressive landscape painting, suggesting to the artist that for all that’s great about the picture, there’s something missing: a figure, an access point for the viewer to place themself within the scene, and to more fully connect with it. The figures in my pictures tend to be front and centre, but I’m probably thinking along the same lines as Vonnegut’s critic. With a few exceptions (much of the work of Cezanne, for example), my favourite paintings and drawings all involve people.
Franceska: How do you come up with your compositions and what are your challenges in this process?
Carl: I’m artist in residence with the wonderful dance company Ballet Cymru, based in Newport, South Wales. Over the past few years they have inspired most of my work - either as I respond to rehearsals and performances, or work more collaboratively with dancers in the painting studio.
After years working from the nude and later painting portraits, I think of my current practice as very much a combination of the two - though now created in response to and in partnership with other artists. As I’ve been discovering, dance and figure painting share many common themes and concerns - line, gesture, narrative, the exploration of relationships between figures and the spaces around them, for example - which has given me new insights into painting. It’s been an extraordinary experience.
There have been some challenges. Sketching figures as they fly around a dance floor is quite different from working from a motionless sitter, and I’ve needed to innovate a good deal in order to adapt some of my working methods. In rehearsals, for example, I now film sequences of dance which I later loop and play back in the painting studio, so I can work over a longer period and more closely study dancers’ movement, etc. These experiments are ongoing, and I’m now in the process of working out how I can scale things up and create more complex compositions.
The residency has been a great privilege, and I can’t imagine working with a more creative and disciplined group of people. If you get the opportunity to see Ballet Cymru perform, I would urge you to take it.
Franceska: When do you prefer to work in your studio? Do you have specific times that work best for you?
Carl: I try to be in the studio before eight in the morning, especially in winter when daylight is limited. The first few hours of the day are generally the most focused and productive, I find.
Now that I’m working on more larger scale pictures, I’m thinking of changing my routine a bit to end the day with making smaller, quicker pieces, to reduce the risk of making bad decisions about big pictures when tired. For me, painting can be quite precarious, and not stopping when I’m starting to wilt can be a big mistake.
Franceska: Tell me what a typical "Day in the life of Carl" is like?
Carl: The focus of my days tends to vary between work in the painting or dance studio, occasional teaching (life drawing, portraiture, etc), and admin.
In the past week I’ve had three days in the painting studio, two with Ballet Cymru (including the final rehearsals and premier of their show Ballet Cymru 2 - Made in Wales), and one entirely spent at a computer. Next week I plan mostly to work in the studio.
Franceska: Tell me about Bertie?
Carl: Bertie is a house cat/panther/ninja who can disappear at will and spring out of nowhere to mercilessly savage your ankles (or bring down a bull elephant) without warning. She’s a true master of camouflage and concealment, blending effortlessly into any (dark) surroundings, and has the discipline to remain completely motionless and invisible for seconds or even minutes at a time. Her only weakness is tuna. If a can of tuna is opened anywhere within a quarter of a mile of her she will instantly appear next to it with a pleading/entitled/threatening look on her face. In these circumstances, it’s best to acquiesce.
She’s named after the painter Berthe Morisot, though is more of a Gwen John fan. I still feel bad about getting that wrong, but hope that she’s forgiven me.
There are some photos of Bertie on my Instagram, though of course you won’t be able to spot her.
Franceska: What other types of creative practices do you really enjoy?
Carl: I like cooking. In the kitchen, as in the painting studio, I generally make stuff up as I go along, too often forgetting lessons already learnt though occasionally making something which turns out ok.
Franceska: Do you have a favourite colour and has it changed over the years?
Carl: For several years I painted with a restricted palette of three colours - Cadmium Red, Sap Green and Naples Yellow - before eventually introducing a fourth, Prussian Blue. These colours are still the core of my palette, though whatever changes I might make and experiments I may be doing, Prussian Blue is pretty much always there. It’s a beautiful and hugely versatile pigment, and is often quite dominant in my work.
Franceska: How do you feel about art fairs like the one we met at?
Carl: It’s depressing to think that there may be other art fairs like Parallax, though I imagine there must be. I feel pretty angry about them really, and would encourage artists - especially those less experienced or at the early stages of their careers, whom these people seem very specifically to target with their flattering advances - to steer well clear. I feel a right chump for getting drawn in on that occasion, and if I were to show at an art fair again it would only be after a good deal of research to be sure it was a legitimate, worthwhile event.
Franceska: What are your goals for the future with your paintings?
Carl: To make better pictures than I did before. That’s always my goal. I may return to working from the nude at some point, but at the moment I’m completely immersed in dance as a subject, and hope to continue with that for some time.
Franceska: Do you have any more exhibitions coming up?
Carl: I have a few, yes. The Arts Council of Wales recently awarded me grant funding to build on my work with Ballet Cymru and produce two big exhibitions later this year, which I’m hugely excited about. The first will be at Ffin y Parc, a beautiful gallery on the edge of Snowdonia, in September, and the second at the huge Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, in December.
Both shows will feature work made with the dance company throughout their 2019 season, with the funding enabling me to work on a much more ambitious scale than I’ve previously been able to do. There will be audio tours for people with visual impairments (developed and delivered by a great company called Word of Mouth) at both exhibitions, and the WMC show will be accompanied by a series of figure drawing workshops for children and adults, which I’ll be delivering with Ballet Cymru dancers.
Before then, in April I’ll be showing some of my earlier dance paintings in Basel, Switzerland, with a brilliant pop-up gallery called frontofbicycle, and there may be a couple of other little shows in the UK, though these aren’t yet confirmed.
Franceska: What are you working on right now?
Carl: I’m between canvases. I recently finished a painting with the snappy title Ann Louise Wall, Giulia Rossi and Colleen Grace (Ballet Cymru rehearsal 149, EX SITU), featuring three dancers with Ballet Cymru’s Pre-Professional Programme working on a piece choreographed by Jack Philp. It’s two metres wide (my biggest picture to date), and has given me a lot to think about. My immediate plan now is to spend a few days drawing, and hopefully to develop ideas for further large compositions.
Franceska: Do you have an artist who really inspired you?
Carl: The Greeks, Italians, French, Dutch and Germans, among others. Years ago I travelled quite a lot in Greece and Turkey making studies of Classical architecture and sculpture to try to learn about some of the principles which informed them and to develop my draughtsmanship. I later lived in Florence and continued in the same vein, though with a focus on Renaissance sculpture, painting and drawing. I’m constantly experimenting with materials and techniques, etc, and have developed wider interests in art history and practice, but this period of focused study of early European art remains the foundation of my work.
On a side note, I’d mention that although it’s fantastically inspiring to study great work by great artists, it can be tempting to overly romanticise the Renaissance masters as superhuman paragons from whom flawless, beautiful art effortlessly flowed to echo through the ages - though I’d suggest this would be a mistake. There’s something fundamentally reassuring in coming across a drawing by Michelangelo, for example, in which a hip appears dislocated or an eye’s a bit wonky. It’s important to set challenging standards for yourself, but also to keep failures in context, recognising them as part of the process. Wonky eyes are part of the process, and I’m constantly having to remind myself of that.
Franceska: Where did you study and has it helped where you are today?
Carl: After Oxford Polytechnic I studied at St Martin’s in London, which at that time may not have been the best place for a wannabe figurative painter. It had its moments though, and being within walking distance of the British Museum, Courtauld, National Gallery, etc, was pretty great. This got me into the habit (and over the anxiety) of drawing in public spaces, which led to much of what I did next and where I am now.
Follow Carl and keep updated on his work:
Website - http://www.carlchapple.com
FB - https://www.facebook.com/carlchapplepainter
Twitter - https://twitter.com/carlchapple
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/carl_chapple/
Ballet Cymru - http://welshballet.co.uk
If you enjoyed this artist interview and would like to see more then please check back every Friday at 9am (UK time) for more.
My name is Franceska McCullough and I'm the owner and artist of Toothpickmoon. I'm interested in blogging about art materials, art events and conducting artist interviews.
*Disclosure: The links I'm using on this blog will only ever relate to the products I myself use in my own practice.