In conversation with Tim Benson
For me taking up painting has been akin to learning how to drive. The initial process is composed of a series of practical components you have to learn and master, followed by doing lots of driving to get experience. And then in time, when a lot of these things have become second nature, your style of driving sort of transpires. In the case of art, it's been (and continues to be) learning how to draw, how to compose, how to mix colour, how to see colour, lots of conscious skills to get to grips with before arriving at what my style is. And I'm not entirely sure I am there yet either. However seeing that painting of Tim's had a profound effect on me and somehow spoke directly to what I felt painting was about and how I wanted to express it. I continue to be drawn to paintings where you see the artist's hand in the work: visible brush marks, the movement of paint, and an expressive use of colour.
It would take a year and a half before I managed an evening workshop with Tim Benson - the realities of having small children. That night our portrait sitter was the head of my art school as our model failed to turn up. Tim painted alongside us with a single large brush and also looked at our paintings and tutored us. He paints quickly, energetically, and with an uncanny brevity of brush strokes. And yet simultaneously the subject is complex and astutely observed. You get a real sense of the person.
I left the workshop with a nice enough painting, but it was done with my usual assortment of brushes - ranging from big to really small for the fine details. And my skin tones were a lot more blended and, well, predictable. Unfortunately I stuck to what I knew and what felt safe in order to get a likeness, instead of taking a risk and actually learning something. However watching Tim work and hearing his feedback left an indelible mark on how I have since approached my paintings. Most notably he doesn’t use charcoal or graphite to do the drawing first, but paints directly. Building the form by making marks with a very large brush, avoiding drawing and getting stuck in the details early on. His reduced palette was another revelation given skin tones especially can be formidable when you are new to painting. And of course how he sees colour, and expresses it.
In February of this year I contacted Tim to do an interview for The Fashion Globe magazine about his current project: He is painting 40 portraits of people he met and interviewed in Sierra Leone that have been touched by Ebola. The work will be exhibited in the Threadneedle Gallery in November. You can read that article here.
In addition to this we also spent time talking about his artistic process. Tim is an award winning British artist based in North London. He is also the Course Director of the Diploma in Portraiture at the distinguished Heatherley School of Fine Art in Chelsea, and he is the Vice President of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters. Impressive for a man who is still in his 30s. During the two plus hours that we talked Tim was serious and intense and had an energy that you see in athletes - a kind of coiled tension that seems only momentarily and involuntarily contained before the person is free to spring into action again. He was also reassuringly approachable and a natural teacher in terms of how he received my questions and answered them. What follows is our conversation pieced together from the audio recording.
Q: You have a unique style of working and it’s your signature. You use a big brush, what looks like an economy of brush stokes, and a limited palette of colours and yet your work is remarkably rich and the characterisation even within that minimal approach is astute and well observed. Please can you tell me more about your particular style and your choices related to this.
Yes I generally use one brush for each painting. Wherever possible and that's the biggest brush I feel I can get away with given the size of the canvas or board I'm working on. The reason I do that is to have big discernible brush marks, the form, sort of the structure of the head. If I use a small brush, you end up detailing. I don't want to have any extraneous detailing. I want to reconcile areas in as few marks as possible. That gives you quite a sort of a dynamic interpretation of the subject. I like to see marks in painting. I'm not keen on very very detailed work because I feel you're missing an opportunity to show the paint for what it really is.
Q: Seeing the paint and the paint marks is an important part of the process?
Very much so. From my own sense of satisfaction but also, I think, to show the structure and form of a subject. It adds a sort of, not geometric, but sculptural quality I suppose. If you force yourself to use the one tool, you become quite adept at it. Even quite a crude tool. You find ways of developing subtlety if you force your hand to use that one brush. It's really interesting.
How did I get there? I don't know really. That's just always what I've done. I suppose the work that I was interested in, as a student and before that, was always quite, sort of, robust in a way. Thinking of some of the Rembrandt self portraits. The more abstract ones. The ones where they're really sort of visceral and quite chunky.
Q: What do you think your way of working says about you as a person?
Gosh, I suppose it reflects the fact that I like to ... I'm quite impatient ... there's an immediacy with the work. I suppose that is a reflection of the fact that I want to get things done quickly. I like results, I like something tangible, quickly. Also, I generally have quite a lot of energy in my life. In my way of being. Simply that translates in my style of painting. I don't draw on my canvas, for example, not because I should, it's because I just don't. I'm very immediate, I'm not patient enough. I think that my drawing skills don't need it to be rendered with a pencil. I can just make the marks and I know whether they are in the right place. I feel with the paintings, that the quick ones are the ones that work. Something that takes longer is not necessarily going to be as interesting because, quite simply, I get bored with it. When I get bored it translates into the mark-making, the mark-making becomes boring.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration from? How do you come up with the idea for a painting or even a series of paintings?
The present project that I'm doing (the Ebola portraits), is giving me a huge amount of inspiration. I'm very aware of the bravery and the strength of the people that I've met. It’s inspirational. If you can sort of interplay that into your work if you have the privilege to paint these people, that is by definition for me, inspirational. Beyond this, where do I see my inspiration coming from? Similar sorts of projects, that actually mean something.
Q: Raising awareness about things?
Definitely. Also, I love traveling, I love seeing the world, I always have. Anything that can combine my work with travel as well, I find inspirational. Not that I want to go on a jolly and paint, that's not what I mean. But I like to have a sort of a world picture, a world view, generally.
Q: With your current project, there’s an element of reportage?
There’s definitely a sort of reportage element to this particular project. I think that's the sort of the way I would like to go forwards with the work generally. To record it, a recorder of events, within a medium that isn't necessarily associated with the news or reportage. Obviously there's photography, there's journalism, but in a sense this is a sort of journalistic approach to painting.
How do I come up with an idea for a painting or even a series of paintings? That's the hardest thing, actually. I find the painting, painting is never easy, obviously it's tough, but it's the ideas, it's having the inspiration for those that is the hardest thing by far.
Q: What about your palette?
I use the same colours for every single painting I do. Whether it's a portrait or a landscape.
Q: Irrespective of someone's skin tone?
Irrespective. The same colours on my palette. How I mix them, obviously varies greatly. I use the following: Titanium white, French ultramarine blue, lemon yellow, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, and burnt umber, that's it. I think that's the point, that it simplifies. I'm always looking for, not the path of least resistance - that sounds lazy, but I'm looking for simplicity. To be able to bring as few elements together as possible to create the effect that I'm after. The same thing with the one brush. Then I can really invest myself in the actual painting, the physicality of it, the mark making, rather than thinking: there's thirty eight colours on my palette, which one am I going to use now? The colours I use also tend to give a uniformity to the painting, throughout the painting.
Q: How do you approach a portrait?
People come and sit in my studio. Because this is my working environment, oil paint gets everywhere. I don't want to cover the fleur-de-lis wallpaper with oil paint. That would be a bad idea. This is where I work. The light here is good and you wouldn't ... trying to think of an analogy… if you bought a car, you'd go to the showroom to buy it.
[We talk about a painting in the National Portrait Gallery that shows a prominent figure in his study at home.]
Those are society portraits. There's a big difference between what society portrait painters do and what I do. They're going to be painting pictures of judges, of Deans of universities, and people like that, who need to be seen in their environment. The painting is sort of historically, it's always about showing them in their environment. It’s contextual, so it's about ... that's why it's called a society portrait. If you look back historically it's been the same way throughout the centuries. The trappings of their life - I'm not about that. I'm about paring it down and removing all the trappings of that person's life and bringing it down just to them. Just them, exposing them.
Q: That sounds a bit daunting. Do I, as the sitter, want to be exposed?
Indeed, so I'm not going to get many portraits comissions from high court judges.
Q: What about asking the judge: "So when you're not working as a judge, what do you love to do?" Maybe painting him doing that thing?
Yeah, but if they wanted that then they'd commission me and not a society portrait painter, wouldn't they? Unfortunately, or fortunately, whichever way you look at it, a lot of people just want to be recorded for posterity and for it to be highly polished and very sympathetic. That's not what I do.
I'm proud of that, because that's ... I'm not interested in it and you've got to go with what your interested in. I'm going to get certain commissions and other commissions I'm simply not going to get. That's okay because I'm not really about commissions anyway. It's much more about projects.
Unless I had a really interesting commission, somebody like, although somebody's already painted him, but someone like Stephen Hawking. Where there's a real tension, a real story there, also somebody incredibly interesting to meet, as well.
Q: How long, typically, would a sitting take?
Not long. Typically what I'd do is, I would do one sitting and then I'd have photographs and I'd work from those.
Q: And how long would that sitting be?
Four hours normally, not normally more.
Q: What, just one day?
Yeah, absolutely, it's all about immediacy. Keeping things loose, instinctive. Then having photos as just a reference really to position. By the end of the four hours I hopefully have the colour and tonal balances sufficiently well done to sort of work it by itself really. If you know what I mean. Just to have the reference should I need it.
Q: How do you manage someone’s expectations with a commission?
Normally they manage their own expectations, they tend not to commission unless they know my work. Even so, when they come into the studio I say: "Just so you know, I'm not in the business of flattery, nor am I going to scandalise you. I'm not going to make you horrific, but it's not about airbrushing." They know that, and to date so far I haven't actually have anybody who's seen the painting of them and said: “No."
The fact that you are dealing ultimately in a commodity like any other. Sorry, but it kind of is. There's always the chance that somebody just doesn't like the painting, even if you think it's decent. I wouldn't hand over something unless I was satisfied with it. Ultimately it's my judgment, I'm the artist and I'm producing it. Beyond that it is a subjective issue. I can deal with objectivity - I know whether it is any good or not. I know whether it's a representation of the person as far as I'm concerned. Whether or not they like it, that's a subjective decision and I can't ... I've got to protect myself against that. That's where the function of a deposit comes in.
Q: So have you ever had someone look at the completed painting and say, “I don’t like it I don’t want it?”
That's never happened, I know it might very well happen one day. If it does then that's regrettable. I do my very best to accommodate that, if somebody said, "Can you sort the nose out," or something. Yeah, I would do that within ... to a certain point. Within reason and beyond that you can't really go any further with this because it's not really me anymore. Because of the sort of work that I do, people are prepared. I think that as a client you have to put yourself in the artist's hands. You say, "Right, that's why I'm commissioning you, because it is you."
Q: Your work is highly regarded and is collected which must be an incredible feeling of achievement. Does this influence new projects? Does it set a standard for you?
It is, it's a lovely feeling when your work sells, of course, it's a great feeling. That doesn't change. It's a lovely thing, because people are buying into you and your vision. That's rewarding, but it's got to be the work that you are invested in. Otherwise it means so much less, then they're not buying into you, they're buying into what you think you should be doing. I don't think it's the same at all.
Q: There must be a certain expectation that comes with being well known. As in, my last show was really well received, so my next one has to be just as good - perhaps even better?
You know, I don't feel that. No, maybe I've got something sort of wrong with my wiring, but I don't feel that.
Q: You don't have the pressure of that?
I think it's probably there subconsciously, but I don't feel it, explicitly, which I'm very glad of, because I think that could be quite crippling. I've heard this from a lot of people, who've said, "This whole Sierra Leone project must be very daunting for you." The only thing that was slightly daunting was beforehand, going to Sierra Leone. The fact that you only hear bad news about it. You think that you might be in danger, beforehand. The reality is actually, you're not really. For me that was the issue, not would I be able to produce the work, but would I have it in me to go through with it.
Q: Tell me about the first ever exhibit you did?
Oh God. I was picked up by a gallery from my degree show actually, they left their card and said, "We want to exhibit your work." So I had a mixed show, in a very trendy gallery down in Shoreditch, it was in 2001. The opening was September the 11th, 2001. As you can well imagine, not many people turned up.
Bad luck right?
Q: They say everybody knows what they were doing that day, you certainly know what you were doing that day
Sitting around eating peanuts and drinking bad wine.
Q: What's with the bad wine at art exhibitions? It's always bad
It's always bad. Warm, bad wine. Not at my shows though. Fortunately I have a say in that side of things.
Q: What does your role as Vice President of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters involve and how did you get elected?
That was great, it was all very quick actually. I was made an associate member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, I think that was in 2011, and I was made a full member one year later. Vice President nine months after that. I’d been going through the submission process and showing in their annual exhibition for five years before that. I won the young artist award (artists under the age of thirty five) and that was very flattering. A real confidence boost, because you know the worth of what you do but sometimes you do need somebody to say, "Yeah we appreciate what you're doing."
In terms of my role as the VP, this involves choosing work for the annual exhibition which is also open to the public. We look at images online in the gallery as part of a judging committee.
Q: What are you looking for?
Quality, it doesn't matter what the style is. We don't want to recommend one style. We want it to be democratic, but the only consistency has to be the quality of the work.
For this, you need to be completely subjective and put your own personal likes to one side, stylistically. Which is a skill in itself to do that. Then, those that make it through that stage are then invited to bring their work down for a final selection.
I'm also the secretary for the Friends of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters so I run the Friends program. We have Friends who pay an annual subscription and we run events for them all around the country: Painting alongside members, visiting studios, free entry into the exhibitions, talks, that sort of thing. I'm responsible for keeping those records up to date, which actually takes up a lot of my time.
Q: What are your feelings about how art is taught these days?
I'd like to see better quality teaching. Where people are actually taught skills at art school rather than philosophical arguments. Yeah there should be philosophy in art, of course there should be, but there should also be skill in art, in production of art. That's not something they're teaching generally in the BA system, anymore. I think that's a problem.
I think there are sort of two camps. One that says the art of painting and certain figurative painting is not getting represented at art schools, and when I say art schools I mean the BA system of art schools. Then there's the other camp that says painting is dead, it's redundant, craft is not a prerequisite of art. Which I think is a great shame, they say it's old hat, but do you know what's old hat? Them saying that because they were saying that in the 1950's and 60's, so it's nothing new.
Q: And what about you as a teacher? What do you try and pass on?
That there’s no right or wrong, I'm really not fastidious about that at all. People who say this is what you should have to do, this is how to do something, there's so many different ways of doing things. Art should be liberating not restrictive. I teach by trying to provide the building blocks. .. the scaffolding on which everything else sits. I love my teaching, but I don't want to do too much because the balance has to be in favour of painting. I have to be a painter that teaches rather than a teacher who paints.
Q: I have heard there is a resurgence of figurative realism and people are increasingly buying it?
Yeah I think that's true, but it's not being taught. The problem is that it's the people who are the next generation of tutors and art school teachers that are not able to teach that because they don't themselves have the skills that can be taught. Of course there are art schools, like the Hampstead School or Art, Heatherly's and a few others in London who do still teach painting and drawing from the figure.
It doesn't have to be old fashioned, just because you're working from a model doesn't mean it's old fashioned, do people considered Lucian Freud old fashioned? The majority of people don't, but I think they do in a lot of the art schools, that's it’s all redundant just because of the nature of what it is. Some feel that just because you are putting brush to canvas and it's representation of some sort, then it's redundant and there is no room for it. I think that's a real ... I think it's nothing short of what's the word I'm looking for? Negligent really, because you're turning your back on hundreds if not thousands of years of evolution within the art. For us to wilfully destroy that and turn our backs on that within one generation I think is short term and just ignorant really.
'Tell me what you're thinking' Oil on canvas, 122 cm x 152 cm
Q: Talk to me about the painting 'Tell me what you're thinking.' How did that come to be? Are they a couple?
It was mine, a creation of mine. No, there weren't a couple
Q: They look like a couple
Great, fantastic. That was the idea.
Q: Like an unhappily married couple that have been together for years and years. And they have nothing left to say to each other
That was absolutely what I was after. I'm really glad that that came across in my painting. Generally it wasn't well received at all.
No, not at all.
Q: People were uncomfortable with it?
People felt very uncomfortable with it, a lot of people felt so uncomfortable they said it was derivative of Freud, they thought I was ripping Freud off. It's two naked people, as far as I was concerned, that's where the similarity ended. That's fine. That's fine by me, people can think what they want it doesn't bother me in the slightest. But the idea was to create a friction, a tension, and for it to really be quite unsettling.
I didn't want there to be a specific narrative, but I wanted there to be some sort of latent theme for people to decide, and if it in some way sort of conveyed an awkwardness then yeah for me that's a good thing. I had that in my big show in March and a lot of people didn't like it. That's fine. Made no bones about it either. The best comment I had was somebody and her friend, two quite old ladies. I think they had come up to see one of the other exhibitions that was running at the same time as mine. And perhaps their compass was slightly differently calibrated in terms of their expectations. I heard one say, "X thousand pounds? You wouldn't pay me x thousand pounds to have that anywhere near my house." I was like, brilliant, I just laughed, I chuckled because I thought it was hilarious.
Q: Surely that must have stung?
No not really. It used to but you develop a thick skin. Art is subjective. It doesn't serve any good purpose, because people can say what they say and they're going to say what they say, and ultimately it shouldn't really change how you feel about the work you've done.
Q: But no one can look at that painting and say it’s a bad painting
They don't care, they don't care whether it's a good painting or not.
Q: They get stuck on the subject matter?
Absolutely and that's one of the things I've come to realise over the years, however long I've been doing this is that people more often than not are more interested in the subject matter than the way it is executed. This is why very often such ghastly crap gets into big exhibitions because it's the subject matter. Because it ticks the box rather than the they way it's actually done.
Q: Because it’s contentious?
Because it's contentious, and for me that's a problem. That is the art system breaking down, that is the lack of objectivity, that is the lack of appreciation of skill. That's how it's manifesting itself very often, and that bothers me. Now if you can hack something that both emotes but also is well done, then that's a great thing.
Q: Why don't artists want to talk about the fact that they work from photographs? Why is it such a sensitive subject? It’s like this thing that a lot of people are doing but nobody talks about and they get very, very defensive if you raise it. There also seems to be an assumption that you are somehow less skilled or less of an artist if you're working from photographs?
Yeah, because it's the feeling that you're unable to capture a moment, you're not able to capture
transience and movement and the soul. I think the proof's in the final picture. If it's a good picture, it's a good picture. If it's not it's not. It doesn't matter how you get there, you do what you want, we're all different.
Q: I recently interviewed an American artist called Adrienne Stein, she said that provided you get the likeness and spirit of the person, the means is irrelevant
I totally agree with that.
Q: Because my experience of some of the teachers at my art school is they are fundamentally against working from photographs. There's a lot of pressure on you to either work from the model or do self portraits using a mirror. It’s a constant internal fight for me because sometimes I want to paint from a photo because there is something in it that interests me
I wouldn't fight with it. I used to fight with it as well, but I'm a firm believer in the use and validity of photography in painting. I was brought up to not paint from photos, to paint from life.
Q: You’re classically trained, right?
Well, yes and no, I mean, yes I went to art school and yes, emotionally I was classically trained. The reality is the BA system, even when I was doing it fifteen years ago, sixteen, seventeen years ago, they weren't really that interested in painting. Especially figurative painting.
Really. I'm pretty much self taught. Certainly a lot of the people I teach with, are advocates of working from life and not from photos. I think it's up to you what you do with the photo. If you paint from a photo and make it look like a photo, that's a fail.
Q: True, there's no interpretation there
If there's an interpretive quality of what you're doing, it doesn't matter if it's from a photo or from somebody sitting in front of you, as far as I'm concerned. Now, plenty would hang me out to dry for saying this, but I don't really care. I do what I do, and they can do what they do.
Q: True, and it's actually rather difficult to work from a photograph. The whole translation of 2D to 3D for example
It is, I think it's a skill. You need to interpret the information, you need to use your artistic license to elevate the image into something that's convincing. Yes, because obviously the eye is selective when you're looking at somebody, the eye is selective as to what you see, the camera does not select it, it sees everything. You then need to select from the photograph. I firmly believe that if photography had been around, proper photography had been around during Rembrandt's time or people like that, that they would have used it.
Q: A Camera Obscura?
Proper camera, something that really gave the information that we are able to get from a camera these days. I think they would have used it. Anyway, that's ... for me the problem arises when you don't interpret the information and it just looks like it's sort papishly lifted and copied from a photograph. Unfortunately a lot of portraits these days are, and I'm no big fan of that.
Q: Hyper realism?
Yeah, hyper-realism or just bad painting. People who use photos and don't really understand why they're using the photograph. Ideally I like to work from life because of the human interaction. I find that experience translates into the painting.
Tim in his studio with ‘Mohammed, Ebola survivor’, oil on canvas, 60″ X 48″
Q: Referring to this painting of Mohammed, how did you transpose a photo from iPad size to something this large without projection?
Instinct. Looking and instinct. The drawing of that took me five minutes, just marks roughly in the right place. Where's the eye line? Bang. Where's the bottom of this? Bang. Then big, big marks - bang. Then I'll stand back and I'll say, okay that's not right or that's right and so on. That’s something you learn to do when you work on a large scale. You learn to stand back and you just develop a sense of whether the thing's in the right place. Some people can't do that. Some people can. Training yourself to look.
Q: That's the thing about your work - it’s not laboured
It's a fine balance, you don't want to be under worked, it needs to be sufficiently fleshed out if you like and sort of ... It has to be convincing but equally in the moment if you overwork it then you lose the drama, you lose the moment, you lose the person.
Q: This is related to something I ask all of the artists: how do you know when you are finished with a painting?
That's a good question. One that I can't answer properly just a feeling. It's just a feeling. It's again, coming to that, you are the arbiter, you are the barometer of what you do. Also acknowledging that what you consider to be finished isn't necessarily what somebody else considers to be finished, it's what feels right for you.
Like this one (pointing to one of the Ebola portraits in the studio we are sitting in) I don't want to do a background with that, and that's because I want it to be very focused just on the face. I think any sort of background tone or colour would detract. Some might feel differently.
Q: What happens when you hit a, like, a wall. You're frustrated, or you don't feel like working, or you're hating something you're working on?
I get angry and I push myself.
Q: You push through it?
Yeah. It used to be, early on in my career, you get frustrated with a piece of work and you sort of turn your back on it. Now, I'm like, well, nah, that's not good enough. You know you have the tools, you know that it's within you to have a good outcome from those bad periods. You just need to blast through it. It's the same with rejection for whatever, a competition or something. If you get rejected for a competition you have two choices, either you can let it get you down and you can sort of take it personally. Or you can say, "Well, right, it's just going to make me stronger. It's going to make me angry." I get angry deliberately. Then I'm right into the studio, get to work, let's paint, let's produce something that's really meaningful.
You've got to be self-sufficient in that regard and it's a state of mind. It really is. You also learn, sort of, to accept rejection as part of being an artist. Because ultimately art is subjective. There doesn't seem to be, in painting, a good or bad anymore. Which personally I have a bit of an issue with because I think there is well painted work and I think there is poorly painted work.
I think that the boundaries between the two have been somewhat skewed in the last however many years to the point where really bad work is being championed at a high level. A lot of really good work is just not going anywhere, because it seems to be that the filter for determining good work from bad work seems to have shifted. The people making decisions don't necessarily have the experience of craft of producing work to actually know whether something is well done or badly done or everything in between.
Q: Have you ever had difficulty selling a painting? Perhaps there’s a specific emotional connection to something you’ve done and you’re invested in it too much to sell it?
You want to become invested in every piece you do on an emotional level. That's what's going to make them good pieces. Early on in your career each piece is your baby, but you get over that and you then your attitude changes to the next piece you do that that is going to be the best you've ever done. You've got to think like that, so always forward, forward, forward.
Q: What are your thoughts in terms of price tags and how your art is valued?
My pricing was initially determined by the price that I put on my work at my degree shown. That was the first time it was valued and it evolved from there.
Q: So not by the square foot?
Yeah, I don't want that at all. The market is determined by perception and how much people are prepared to pay. People bought every piece at my degree show, big, big paintings. Huge paintings like twice the size of these. Your work should go up in value the longer you're creating (and the more experienced you become) and with the more people that buy your work. The more well thought of you become, the more your work commands. And whether I sell direct from my studio of with a gallery that takes fifty percent, the price is the same.
If I don't sell a piece of work for a year, then I might think,hold on maybe I'm charging too much here. Then you might see an equivalent piece by another artist who's less well known than you that's just sold for double the price. It’s just circumstance, it's luck of the draw.
In terms of increases in the price of your work, people get pay rises as they go through their career, generally, and artists should as well. I think artists get a raw deal, people think there's a sort of sense that we have an easy time of things and are breezing through life. No, we work hard. Business people as well as artists, we are all hard workers.
Q: Do you listen to music when you paint? And if so, what is in your current playlist?
I used to actually, I don't any more. I used to listen to Beethoven - uplifting and energetic, and robust. I don't any more and I think it's something to do with concentration and feeling that I just need to really, really focus.
Q: Which artists living or deceased to you most admire?
Soutine, William Opren and Ilya Repin.
Q: At the end of the day when you put your brush down, what's your favourite way to relax?
Wow, I'm ... After a hard session I'm sort of seeing double and don't talk to me for an hour because I can't speak. I'm just knackered totally knackered. Completely absorbing. I think I burn a lot of calories mentally with the amount of concentration required. Relaxation would be: go home, have a shower, first things first. Sit on the sofa and watch TV, maybe go out for dinner. I barely drink, yeah, I know, I don't really tick the boxes do I? The artistic boxes. I don't wear a beret either. I'm relatively clean living. I just sort of mentally chill as it takes time for me to wind down.
Q: Do you have any other talents hobbies that might surprise people? An instrument, a sport etc?
I love sport, I play a lot of tennis. I used to play the saxophone, not very good. I was an opera singer. Yeah. I was an opera singer, that was the other direction I could have gone in, tennis too potentially. As a kid and as a young teenager, I used to sing and I had singing lessons. Then, I did Covent Garden, you know as a tenor. And I was part of a very successful young barbershop outfit.
Q: What were you called?
I don't even think we had a name you know. That's a really good question. It was such a long time ago, I was fifteen, fourteen or fifteen, so about twenty three years ago, twenty four years ago. Must have had a name... Ah yes, we were called the New London Barbershop. There was a choir called the New London Children's Choir, and we were sort of a spin off of that.
Q: How did you come to be an artist?
I could have done a number of different things, but it's just what I was really good at. Drawing in particular. I did really badly at A level because I didn't toe the company line, I was not doing the projects the way they were meant to be done. That's to say I was producing paintings. I got my A level, got my degree, and again they didn't like what I was doing because I was painting. Then when my degree show sold and when I was picked up by a gallery, I was like hold on, actually I could really do this professionally.
Q: What book is on your bedside table right now?
Journey Without Maps by Graham Greene.
Q: If money was no object and you could buy any piece of art, what would it be?
The Rembrandt self portrait in Kenwood House (North London). I was taken there a lot by my parents, my mom specifically. Some say it's the first sort of recorded painting that had abstraction in it.
Self-Portrait with Two Circles, Rembrandt, 1665. Kenwood House, London, UK.
Q: Do you have any superstitions, magical thinking regarding how you work?
None whatsoever. No.
Q: What have you learned about yourself through painting?
I've learned, through what I do, through portraiture, compassion. Definitely empathy to other people more than I have before. Just through their experiences. As a younger man I felt invincible. You know? Superman. Not very well rounded in dealing with those sorts of emotions. Yeah, just empathy and I think it has taught me humility.
It's not just about me. Do you know what I mean? This (Ebola) project I think embodies that to a different level. That is something I was looking for in the progression of my work - an altruism where it's not just about me swashbuckling, here we go here's this wonderful painting, quote unquote. It was about something more. Something that had a social conscience, something that was going to do some good.
Q: If you weren't working as an artist, you would ...?
Realistically, or what would I like to do? Well, I would probably be an architect. During my art degree, I was so disillusioned with the whole system and lack of encouragement, at the time my sister was living in Hong Kong and she was out there working as an editor of a newspaper. I was very much toying with the idea of going out to Hong Kong and just working in finance just for the lifestyle just because it's an exciting place and different thing to do. Then the degree show sold and that changed everything. That was the critical moment.
Tim Benson, self portrait