In conversation with Sam Dalby
Recently I was on Twitter avoiding my paintings because I'm struggling with some technical issues. Experiencing feelings of defeat and the whole 'maybe I'm not really cut out for this and I'm just delusional' thinking - it's not uncommon. And despite not seeking out any art on that day (I was way too immersed in self pity) I somehow got pointed in the direction of an artist who I am not following via another person who I am not following. I really ought to do a tutorial on how exactly Twitter works. Anyway, this turned out to be a strange bit of serendipity because the next thing I’m looking at these paintings by a Yorkshire-based British artist called Sam Dalby and they are really really good. They are good in a way that is making me experience the aforementioned feelings of debilitating unworthiness. There is a really strong underlying quality of draftsmanship to his paintings; this guy knows how to plan, and draw, and I love how he observes and expresses colour. These are the very sorts of things I am struggling with in my own work at the moment.
When faced with work that is a lot better than yours, you have two choices: You can be bitter, resentful and dismissive, or, you can say to yourself: What can I learn from this person? You can also throw a strop, put a foot through your canvas and give up - so maybe there are three things you can do. I went with the second option and contacted Sam to find out more about how he works and hoped that maybe, you know, some of the magic could rub off on me.
Sam Dalby is a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and is regularly commissioned to paint portraits both through the society and by word of mouth. He also teaches art. On the phone he’s welcoming and generous and he’s intelligent and articulate. Plus it turns out he’s quite meticulous and organised in terms of how he works.
This intelligent articulate nature combined with a serious and organised work ethic is something I’m increasingly seeing as a common thread in the artists whose work I admire. I used to have this romantic notion of the dischevelled bohemian artist painting when the mood strikes, disorganised, wine bottles and overflowing ashtrays on the floor. Waking up at noon, a semi clad lover or two lingering on unmade beds. In reality the artists I talk to seldom look like raging eccentrics by the way they dress. They are highly motivated and organised individuals, and painting is work. They get up, they go to the studio or class they are teaching, and they paint or teach for several hours each day. There’s a lot of planning and there’s certainly the business side of things to attend to too. I'm not sure about the ashtrays and lovers - somehow it never really occurs to me to ask.
The following conversaton with Sam Dalby came out of a combination of a phone conversation and email exchanges and includes my requisite version of the Proust Questionnaire for artists.
Q: Please tell us how you came to art?
I can't remember a time when I wasn't drawing, I started drawing as a child just to amuse myself, and it developed naturally into what you see before you. I was good at it, and not good at much else. On the phone Sam tells me he attended art college and in the breaks he worked as a decorator to help pay the bills. Following on from art college he effectively had two full time jobs: Decorating during the week and then painting in the evenings and on the weekend. Eventually his painting and teaching became his full time occupation.
Q: How did you come to be a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters?
I applied for the Bulldog Bursary, which was from the Bulldog Trust, via the RP. I was shortlisted for but unsuccessful, however it put me in contact with members, who were encouraging and helpful. I owe much of my relative success to the RP, and I'm very grateful to them. I started exhibiting with them at the annual exhibition after my attempt at the Bulldog, and was elected a full member in 2013 after my fourth year of candidacy.
Q: Please talk to us about the process of working on a commission. I'm assuming you get commissioned through the Royal Society of Portrait Painters? How does that work?
I get commissions from all quarters, a number of which come from the RP.
The RP brokers the initial contact with the commissioning party, and then take a percentage of the final price for their services. After that initial contact, it's a direct negotiation between the sitter (or commissioning party) and myself.
Initially, a portrait is just a nebulous whirl of ideas, but a series of factors act to narrow this down before pencil touches paper. The size of the wall it will eventually hang on and the size of the budget determine a lot, The sitter usually has some sort of idea for a pose, a setting, and a mode of dress, and these are again narrowed down by the application of common sense. For example, most sitters are drawn at their home or workplace, so the setting relies on available light, available seating, and the space to take two people and an easel. They are also going to have to sit still for long periods of time and be comfortable. So by default, the picture has half-designed itself without much need for wrangling.
I start with preliminary sketches, made over a couple of days of sitting. I will try to make one clean and precise line drawing that carries the bulk of the information that I'll be using. I will make a tonal sketch to establish atmosphere and an overall scheme, and take reference photographs. Reference photographs are a helpful tool when used intelligently, and are essential when the sitter has very limited time, is under the age of four, or deceased.
The sitter has usually seen and approved the sketch before I head back to the studio, and if not, we re-convene and keep going until they are happy with the sketch. I then take the reference materials back into the studio to do the bulk of the work, and I do not show them any more from this point. Micro management or design by committee seldom lead to good paintings.
I design the paintings fully on paper before I draw them out onto canvas. The drawing out is done lightly and sparely, no more than an armature to spin the paint across, not a fully realised drawing that has to be fastidiously coloured in. The brush needs freedom. Once all of my work in the studio is done, I return to the sitter for however many sittings are needed to resolve any outstanding issues (usually a couple of days). I avoid disappointment for both parties by not promising a completion date, although sometimes there is a deadline imposed by circumstance.
Q: When you visit your subjects to resolve those final outstanding issues, I'm assuming you take your paints with and have to set things up in their home/place of business? And at this point are they allowed a look?
Everything goes with me, and it's hard to stop them looking. If you scowl enough people tend to refrain from saying too much
Q: Talk to us about to what extent the interaction between you and the sitter is important and or impacts the work? I'm just thinking of scenarios of say painting someone that is not particularly talkative, or a tough or tricky personality. How much talking goes on between you?
It depends entirely on the person, and the way they behave in the sitting is an important clue for an artist. Some people will talk almost as much as I can, or they are happy with silence. I want whatever makes the sitter comfortable, a better sense of the person emerges from it. Sometimes you get very little time with a sitter, so you hardly have time to get a read on their personality. The sitter is the most important part of the equation, and you have to find a way of working that functions for the sweetest and quietest, to the most belligerent or fidgety. It's up to the artist to be responsive and accommodating
Q: How do you manage people's expectations with commissions?
I don't, I try and get a clear idea of those expectations so I can exceed them wherever possible..
Q: What's the strangest question/request/commission you have ever been asked?
No comment :)
Q: Is there a well known person you would love to paint? Someone whose face you find really interesting and would enjoy the challenge of capturing?
I like the serendipity of having to paint whoever turns up wanting to be painted, and I ask friends and relations to sit because they're free, beyond that I haven't ever given it enough thought to come up with a sensible answer.. :)
Q: Do you have a go to palette for your skin tones? Of the artists I interview it seems quite varied. Some use five colours, others use dozens. I'm increasingly using burnt sienna, chalk white equivalent, cadmium red, cadmium yellow pale, and french ultramarine, although sometimes I change this for cerulean blue.
I had a very limited palette a couple of years ago, which was: titanium white, lemon yellow, yellow ochre, venetian red, alizarin crimson, cobalt blue, and ivory black. But that's now expanded to incorporate cremnitz white, naples yellow, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, french ultramarine, viridian, and paynes gray.
Q: What is your view on what students are currently being taught in fine art programmes in the UK? And what would you do differently?
I teach and mentor some undergraduates and postgraduates, all of whom had a similar experience. They have in effect paid nine thousand pounds a year for a studio space, as they have received no tuition to speak of. Some courses are conceptual art monocultures, and while some conceptual art is fine, there should be the choice of accessing decent tuition in the fundamental skills of drawing and painting. These fundamental skills are important for building comprehension, and form an artistic practice that becomes the conduit through which self expression can pass. Something I tell my students is that good painting is good drawing, and good drawing is good thinking. Art is more about thinking than it is about making pretty pictures.
I know that I can't do anything about the weaknesses of institutions, and just concentrate on what I can do myself. I teach life drawing to anybody who wants it, I tutor and mentor private students over longer periods of time, and generally look after waifs and strays from the higher education system who turn up on my doorstep looking sickly.
Q: As a teacher what is it you hope to achieve with your students? What is the one thing you hope they will leave with when they are no longer studying with you?
I want my students to master the skills of intelligent enquiry, and a decent level of proficiency in the fundamentals of drawing and painting. When they leave my mentoring they should have a robust practice, and an independence of thought that will allow them to be self motivated and self determining.I don't want to apply dogmatic teaching, and turn out clones, each student has a different path.
On the phone Sam tells me that he teaches two classes a week as well as doing one to one mentoring. He believes that teaching life painting allows him to unobtrusively insert technique into what his students are doing without infringing on their personal style.
Q: How do you work creatively on days when you lack inspiration? You know you get up, you don't feel like doing anything - but you owe someone work or there's a show to get together. I'm interested in how you get yourself going, how you work through blocks?
I've never been blocked. I'm a degenerate workaholic, as my girlfriend will attest. I have too much to do, and even if I'm not working on commissions, I have many projects ongoing. That way I can just switch over if one starts to become a drag.
Q: How do you know when a piece is finished? At what point do you stand back, put down the brush, and say: OK this is it. (Related to this - the risk of overworking something)
I know what I'm after. I'm a painter with a well honed process, so a lot of guesswork (and time-wasting) is removed by clear planning. In retrospect things might look overworked, but I'm usually happy with things when they leave the easel.
Q: Has there ever been a piece/s that you completed and then it felt difficult for you to sell, and why?
Nope, all for sale for the right price, I'm not sentimental.
Q: Do you ever struggle with the dichotomy between being commercially successful and your personal aesthetic as an artist?
I have done in the past, but you just have to realise that they're different strands, and follow different rules. In my own work I can meander, digress, and experiment with impunity, whereas the portraits are a more predictable product. Once I grasped that, the whole process became so much easier.
Q: What makes you want to paint/create? What drives you?
a) I want to observe all the time.
b) I need to pay bills
c) I need to practice like a pianist needs to do scales. The facility needs to be at my fingertips when I start to draw a sitter, otherwise I will suffer for it
d) I have more ideas stored in my head than I have time to paint
e) I'm terrified of dying before my potential is realised
Q. What do you struggle with, what is your achilles heel in terms of your working process? (Mine is backgrounds - how much information do I paint, or do I do something very simple? And hands - I really really struggle with hands. Also the amount of realism versus expression I put into my paintings is an ongoing argument in my head).
I struggle with all sorts of things, but when I observe a shortcoming in a particular area, I practice it until it improves, and don't let myself off the hook. By just concentrating in on technique, a lot of what I would understand as stylistic concerns resolve themselves. A mature artistic voice is something that emerges in its own time, and can't be hurried or forced.
Q: Do you have any superstitions / magical thinking regarding your work or how you work?
Q: What are your thoughts in terms of price tags and how your art and indeed art per se is valued?
If a billionaire wants to buy a Damien Hirst for several million where's the harm? They're both happy with it. Art sales at that top end have little or nothing to do with intrinsic worth, it's not about art, just commerce. My own world and that of my closest contemporaries is a very different one, I am not earning much more per annum than I was as a decorator, and if I could nudge that up to being a little bit more comfortable, I'll be happy.
Q: Which artists, living and deceased do you most admire and why?
Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Durer, Michelangelo, Holbein, Rubens (drawings).
Because they are artists who attained the highest pinnacles of western culture, and leafing through their work is as terrifying for me as looking up at the milky way on a clear night.
More recently, Stanley Spencer for the visionary aspect of his work, Norman Blamey for his dedication to his art, and as an example of what can be achieved through good design and technique Both are resolutely British artists with sensibilities that I understand.
Q: If (money permitting) you could buy any piece of art, what would it be?
The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt, I could sit in front of it all day every day and not get bored.
Rembrandt's Jewish Bride. The Rijksmuseum
Q: Do you listen to music when you paint? And if yes, what's on your current playlist?
All the time, and at high volume. Cluttering up the studio at the moment, in no particular order: David Bowie (full back catalogue) Warren Zevon, Black Tusk, Sepultura, Scarlatti, Bach, Chopin, Wagon Christ, Four Tet
Q: What book is on your bedside table right now?
Nothing at the moment, but the last good book I read was Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Q: At the end of the day, when you put your brush down, what is your favourite way to relax?
Playing with the cats, and complaining
Q: Do you have any other talents hobbies that might surprise people? An instrument, a sport etc?
I am a fell runner when I'm not injured..
Q: What have you learnt about yourself through painting?
That I am awkward, irascible and opinionated, and that I like the smell of turpentine.
Q: If you weren't working as an artist you would ...?
I was a decorator for many years, I'd just go back to that :)
I come away from this exchange as I do with everyone I talk to here: feeling enriched and inspired and uplifted. And as for the magic I hoped might rub off on me? Well it came in the form of hope, based on some much needed practical advice from Sam: "Drawing is the bedrock of everything. So many people think that they're missing some magical mystical ingredient, or that they can't do it because the cosmos hates them, but it's all a lot more simple than that. A small amount of sensible tuition from a clear head and a lot of practice of a few basic exercises has a massive effect on peoples confidence." And so for me it's back to the drawing board. I mean, literally, back to the drawing board.
Self portrait by Sam Dalby
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