Posted by: inshin | July 11, 2010

David Fenton

Born in Scotland to A Scottish father and Geordie mother. Learned a lot at the Sir John Cass School of Art in Whitechapel, London but didn’t take a degree. Travelled through Europe and India, became a lecturer in Information Management and Communication Studies after actually taking a degree, started a dot com business that crashed, before starting again with Webmechanic on a smaller and therefore more controllable scale.

Now live in Ireland with my wife Aoife and have joined the ranks of writers-in-the-making with one book shelved for now and another in first draft. I take commissions in portraiture – either acrylic, charcoal/pencil or pastels – usually from photographs as people are less inclined to sit these days. I also sell many paintings – mostly figurative, representational and objective (i.e., not abstract).

——–  Your Interview  ——–

The Person

When or at what age did you first create images that felt like art?

My first memory of anything artistic was on my first day at school. I really didn’t want to be there and was letting my new teacher know in no uncertain terms. In an attempt to mollify me she gave me a lump of plasticine and asked me to make something with it. I took the plasticine, rolled it in my hands, flattened the edges and stuck it to her desk. When she asked me what it was I told her it was a tree stump.

Of course, that could have been more to do with sheer bloody-mindedness than any artistic temperament. Mind you, they’re often indistinguishable from one another.

Was there any tradition of painting or other forms of art in your family?

No tradition as such. I’m a product of Scottish manual and skilled labourers and Geordie miners, with a bit of Irish public-house ownership and Viking marauding thrown in for good measure. However, my mother is a trained concert pianist and has strings of letters after her name that would put a decorated general to shame. My brother trained in Ballet before he got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and joined the ranks of the self-employed. My sister’s a science graduate with a penchant for design and my dad, who is now retired, was a machine fitter and before that a reel doctor. You just need to look at the amazing design quality of the flies that fly fishermen use to realise that it’s an art form all of its own. We all have something artistic we can point to if we so wish.

When you’re out and about, are there certain types of places or areas you feel drawn to?

I’m a people watcher so I’m always looking at people, watching their mannerisms, their expressions, the way they walk, the way they look around them, how they interact. When I’m travelling I tend to prefer visiting places with a strong cultural history and/or archaeological interest. I’m always looking for imagery that tells a story, whether social, historical or mythological.

How would you feel if someone told you that you need never paint again for the rest of your life and all your material needs would be covered?

Art has very little, if anything, to do with material needs if by that you mean the provision of food, shelter and the usual accoutrements of physical living. It has more to do with psychological, spiritual and intellectual needs. There’s a tendency, especially in the Western world, to reduce all of life to the material. Everything is reduced to cost, to monetary profit and loss. A great deal is ignored by this attitude. A great deal is lost.

Realistically though, I have bills to pay like everyone else and if somebody offered me a deal like that I would probably negotiate. Pay me to paint and we have a deal!

The Craft

When or how do you get the inspiration to paint?

I draw a lot from life, from photographs and from my imagination. So I have loads of images that I can either work up as a painting or use as a component in a composition. I also take commissions, usually portraiture. I stand by Edison’s quote “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”. The one percent is easy the other 99 percent is a warring combination of hard graft and fighting against procrastination.

When you paint, do you feel drawn to any particular types of images?

Any image can be worked up into a painting but, as I mentioned before, I’m interested in people so tend to prefer figurative imagery. A person in conversation, in reflective mood, having an argument, sad, happy, crying, anything of that nature is of interest.

I also have a long-standing interest in mythology, archaeology and anthropology and have often been drawn to imagery arising from those sources but pretty much everything has something to offer.

How often do you feel you should paint, everyday or just when you feel that desire?

The desire to paint or to draw is a constant ameliorated only by my equally strong desire to write (and an equally strong desire to just sit outside with my feet up and a bottle of beer in my hand but we won’t advertise that bit, will we?) Pencil or charcoal drawing can be done almost anywhere but painting needs a bit more time both in planning and execution. I therefore draw constantly but paint only when circumstances allow sufficient time or when I am working to a deadline on a commission.

How do you approach your own painting when it comes to reviewing it?

If you mean review as in appraisal I tend to leave that for others to worry about. If I’m happy with it then it can go for sale, if not it stays with me to be reworked when I can find a way to remedy the flaws I see or, occasionally, it gets painted over.

The Audience

Who do you paint for?

In the first instance I paint what interests me. If I complete it to my own satisfaction then I may put it up for sale, occasionally someone has made an offer on a painting I am unsatisfied with and I have been known to sell on the basis that just because I feel it is no good doesn’t mean it has no merit at all. In reference to your previous question about material needs though, it has to be a pretty good offer.

If it’s portraiture, of course, it’s usually for whoever commissioned it or somebody they know.

Do you try to connect with your audience and if so how?

Yes and no, if I may be allowed to sit on the fence with this one. It’s important to realise that audiences are amorphous and changeable. The audience for one painting may only have a passing acquaintance with the audience for another painting and there can be a danger in identifying too closely with the drives of any given audience. Likewise it can be dangerous for an audience, or a member of an audience, to identify the work and the author of the work too closely. People change and with that our interests, our likes and dislikes, change.

With that in mind, however, I do try and connect with an audience. The methods that exist for connecting with an audience are many and varied but they all come down to dialogue of some kind or another. I try to be open to dialogue but it helps if the people I’m in dialogue with realise that it doesn’t require agreement for it still to be dialogue.

Is it important to you how people react to your painting?

Everyone likes to be liked. However if you don’t want to receive negative reactions or criticism then don’t show your work. I reserve the right to take offence at pointless and overly pejorative criticism though.

Have you received negative criticism and if so how have you managed that?

I sat in the corner with a box over my head and called it an installation. Seriously though, if somebody doesn’t like the work there isn’t really much I can do. I could argue with them and try to convince them of its intrinsic worth but then I’m in danger of ignoring a point of view that may have some valid insights that I can take on board, or not.

Any artist who shows work, like writers who publish or comedians and actors who perform in public, has to have some degree of certainty in their own ability as well as a phlegmatic acceptance that the world is not built in our image. There will always be critics. Accept it and move on.

The Business

Do you see this as a business?

The holy grail of all artists and writers, indeed all people, is to make a decent living doing what we love most so that we can devote more time to it, so yes I see it as a business. It won’t make the Fortune 500 but I’m not listed on the stock exchange either. I’m not sure I could tolerate city traders deciding my daily worth. I would choke on my corn flakes.

History would suggest that the art of painting is a difficult life to create a reasonable full time living from, do you think that has stayed the same or have things changed that allow artists continue to focus purely on their work to survive?

My first instinct is to say that it is just as difficult to create a reasonable full time living as a miner or an unfairly vilified public servant, especially if you had a family to support.

My second instinct is to explore the idea of the struggling artist a little bit. The concept of the fine-artist is relatively recent, in art-historical terms at any rate. The ancient Greeks had Muses for poetry, music and literature but not for the visual arts. It was seen as no more than manual labour. Textiles, commonly viewed as applied art nowadays, were more highly prized. The split occurred during the Renaissance when fine artists started to raise their station above that of artisans to increase their earnings and it got nailed on in the 16th century through some academic definition of aesthetics that you need a degree in to talk about authoritively. Whether by design or not it acts as a barrier to entry and helps maintain the ‘value’ of the art, both aesthetically and monetarily.

The idea of the starving artist is such an emotive idea, that someone would be so focused on their own internal muse to the detriment of their physical and emotional wellbeing. Generally speaking I find it hard to believe many people would willingly follow that path.

My third instinct is to finally answer your question. Yes, it’s true to say that a lot of artists are required to have a second income, the obligatory day job, to make ends meet. If you can win the support either of the art establishment or of the buying public then you may be able to dispense with the day job and concentrate on the art. Otherwise, yes, it can still be a struggle.

Do you feel that there are support mechanisms in place for a new painter?

Not really. IF you come through the art schools you have a chance to come to the notice of established promoters and buyers, if not you’re pretty much on your own. Government help is usually tied to, or directed by, the artistic establishment so again will tend to be channelled down traditional routes.

How do you feel the Internet has impacted on the artistic world of painting?

The Internet changes things considerably. It is easier for an artist to be a self-starter, to gain an audience by displaying electronically rather than through a gallery. Essentially the Internet provides a means to bring artists and art buyers together and that can only be a good thing.

——–  End  ——–

Thanks to Dave for agreeing to take this interview. You can follow David on Twitter. To see  Dave’s work, visit his site. I’ll leave you with some of his wonderful work:



Excluding introduction and art work, ©Denis Vaughan.

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