Kit Wells talks about life and painting
I have been interested in the urban landscape - or rather, the figure in the landscape - since starting art school in the late fifties. I grew up in a London where our playgrounds were bomb sites and the streets south of the river were car-less.
I am fascinated by the effect man has on his environment and the effect those built locations have, in turn, upon him.
I remember being intrigued as a young painter by Caspar David Freidrich's painting of a monk staring out at the limitless ocean [Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809] and all that meant by way of loneliness, solitude and hopelessness in the face of infinity.
I was equally impressed, later in life, by Seurat and his positioning of figures in La Grande Jatte; and, more especially, in his many Conte drawings of Paris. I loved the way that Seurat integrated his people into their surroundings and how delicate he made the balance between background and figure.
Much of my career has been involved with the arts in one way or another. Many people reading this will be more than aware of the fact that art and money do not always readily mix for the artist. Money is not always available.
During impoverished times I was fortunate enough to be given a job by my surveyor brother which consisted of wandering around measuring and recording hundreds of London’s railway arches.
Those, largely unknown, desolate, rat-infested voids beneath the rail lines are often beautifully constructed soaring sweeps of cave-like arcades revealing Victorian brickwork often built with skill and architectural daring. All remain mostly unseen beneath the thundering urban trains. Nobody knows how many railway arches there really are. Someone sent all the plans to be pulped during the last world war.
These arches provided me with a slightly scary occupation, which was to alter my concept of the drawn figure. There are workers, printers, coffin-makers, taxi repair firms and merchants who inhabit these places today; the rail company still lease out some arches as workshops or parking sites.
One set of arches beneath Waterloo Station has actual streets, kerbs, paving stones and all, together with crude hut-like dwellings. They have been used as shelters in times of crisis but now store barrows from the nearby market in The Marsh.
I saw a strong correlation between the clay of man and the clay of the arched wall. Figures merged into and materialized Scylla-like out of the darkness; tissue becoming dank, textured material, brick becoming mouldy flesh.
As I drew and painted these figures over the years, they developed into a sort of underground tribe system with a life, carcasses and meaning of their own.
Combined with the psycho-geographical nature of my London exploration, my fascination with the impulses that drive man to alter nature and to stamp his mark upon it, the classical and timeless nature of these underground pits, all combine to extract a painter’s visual response to a primitive call.
I learnt to prepare canvas and board the traditional way and that is the way I set up my ground. I tend to use an acrylic medium and colour to paint with as it dries faster than oils and I do work fairly quickly. I use glazes a lot. Drawing, though, is the key to all my work.
I believe firmly that you cannot even attempt the abstract or semi-abstract unless and until you understand nature and the human figure thoroughly through critical analysis by drawing.