This week, we took a moment to delve into the creative process of one of our New Blood Art Masters: Stephen Todd. With consistent exhibition history and an international base of loyal collectors, this British painter has built up an impressive body of work over years of expert practice. It’s time to learn a little more about how he does it…
If we spent 5 minutes in your studio on a normal working day, what would we see, hear or experience?
Welcome to my studio! The sound of clattering palettes and perhaps the scratch of nib on paper accompanies the boiling of a kettle. There is hopefully a contemplative silence inside the studio, but outside is the hum of the city centre interjected with the occasional siren of the fire station next door. I often listen to a play or book reading whilst working; there’s something about the spoken word that helps me delve into my work, and my paintings are often infused with words and phrases themselves: marks to represent streams of consciousness.
I am working at an industrial workbench – formerly a tuning fork factory and a small part of Sheffield’s industrial heritage. My studio is in a complex of artists’ spaces where that feeling of industriousness still hangs in the air.
The workbench is littered with palettes, tubes of paint, brushes, dip pens and nibs and I am surrounded by paintings on the walls, leaning up against and sometimes on the floor that will need stepping over. Books on the windowsill include Tennyson and Wilfred Owen poetry, Richard II, The Iliad, Wildlife of Spurn 2016 and the “Colour Mixing Bible”.
I would of course offer you a cup of tea, but don’t have any milk, so green tea or peppermint may have to do!
How do you know when a piece is finished?
That is a good question. Sometimes the end point is hard to see, but often it just appears.
Let me try and explain. I often work on a couple of paintings at the same time and move between the two. They will be on a similar subject, but this process of moving ‘away from’ and then ‘back to’ a painting means I can get out of the head space of the work and come back to it anew. It is a way of trying to keep my work instinctive without overthinking it. It also allows new thoughts and ideas to enter the painting. Then there comes a moment when I suddenly realise the work is coming to an end. The ideas and images have come to some conclusion and further work would add nothing – or indeed begin to take something away. It’s like walking in a dense forest and suddenly coming to a clearing. You can see the work has its own presence; it can feel like a magical moment.
What’s the best advice you’ve received, or the best you’ve offered?
The best advice I’ve received was “Don’t be afraid of destroying something in a painting or drawing.” This was told me by the late John Epstein who inspired me through charcoal life drawing. It was a lesson in mark making, about not trying to preserve and stay with what you know, but to have courage to go on to places you’ve not yet encountered. I would pass on that advice, but explain it as seeing each painting and drawing as an experiment, trying things out. It’s all in the energy of the moment. Consider it a strength to not know where something is going to end up.
Could you pick one of your works and tell us something about it?
Traffickers (Humber Estuary) (pictured) was, as with most of my work, painted in the studio, but it started with walking, sketching and photographing amidst the landscape. The painting starts in the Humber Estuary, but then goes on its own journey as thoughts and ideas are drawn in. There are some initial decisions about place and palette, but other influences come in from things I read, hear and research. Through this process, the title of the work can also become an integral part.
This painting starts at the approach to the Estuary and pier at Spurn Head where there is a lifeboat station. I heard a report on the radio about some asylum seekers being found in Hull docks, a very small part of the massive shift of people across Europe from the Middle East and Africa, often out of sight. But this region was also a conduit for mass migration in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when over 2.2 million people travelled from Scandinavia and the Baltic through the Humber on tickets that included the train journey from Hull to Liverpool for emigration to USA, Canada and beyond. All these thoughts came in during the painting process and gave me the title Traffickers.
Thank you, Stephen! Discover his full body of work here.