Richard Baker was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020 with his work Unit 3. The painting reveals itself quietly, almost slowly, as a measured study of its subject, with every angle and shadow accounted for. Here, Richard gives us some insight into his surface preparation, drawing with masking tape and the ambiguous sensuality of his paintings.
Above image: Sideboard, 2020, Richard Baker, Oil on calico panel, 24 x 31 cm | 9.4 x 12.2 in.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Richard: I came to painting quite late in life. In my teens and my 20s I was a musician, playing guitar in bands in my home town of Hull. However, I always had a great love of images but didn’t really know what to do with that for a long time. I was 28 when I decided to undertake an Art & Design Foundation Course at Hull College and I found that I seemed to have a certain way with painting that appeared to be relatively successful and had potential and so from that point I began a practice. I went on to study Fine Art at Leeds Metropolitan University, graduating in 2003. More recently I completed an MA in Creative Practice at Leeds Arts University in 2018.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Richard: My paintings begin with a found photographic image. I source images from the internet; usually from sales websites. The images are chosen for a combination of reasons; the object, the composition, the colour, the lighting. I manipulate them slightly to correct lens distortion and tweak the composition to suit my needs.
Then surface preparation; Surface preparation is integral. I apply paint in such thin layers that the surface is often still visible in some passages of the painting when it’s concluded and so it has to be right. Areas of the painting are then masked and paint is applied, usually in blocks that are brushed very flat to leave no brush marks and this process is repeated layer upon layer with intermittent periods of taking paint away using sand paper and rags to reveal the layers underneath.
I work wet on dry so at various stages the paintings need to be left to dry before I can move on to the next stage, it’s a very lengthy process and so I work on 15 or 20 paintings at once. Some paintings resolve themselves in a few weeks but most take months and the odd few can take years. Sometimes, I just can’t figure out what needs to be done next and they just need to hang in my studio until I work it out. It is usually working on another painting that helps me finally figure out what needs doing to the previous one to move it on. I have one in my studio at the moment which has been underway for about 5 years, but thankfully that is quite rare.
Clare: Where do you seek out the subject matter for your work? Many of the furniture objects appear to be mid-century design. Is there a significance to this era for you?
Richard: From the internet, almost all of my paintings are depictions of found images. This is a deliberate strategy in order to temper my own emotional input into the work. I am not an artist who wants to bear his soul in his work and so using found images helps remove myself from one step of the process (although not completely). I believe in Berger’s assertion that the artist is a receiver not a creator and it is the artist’s job to find things of interest and then bring them to the attention of a wider audience by the use of a different medium and setting.
There is significance in the use of mid-century design objects in a number of ways. I am not a fan of visual clutter and I enjoy things that are simple and non-decorative so this era of design, beginning with the Bauhaus in the 20s, is very important to me.
The use of mid-century objects also acts to place the paintings within a nonlinear temporality, they are contemporary works made using contemporary images but the objects they depict are old, as is the medium of oil paint itself.
In this way my paintings, like the act of painting itself, behave as a disruption to the notion of linear time, and of course, these objects have become popular again and so this adds another layer of disruption.
Clare: There is a real sensuality in your work, in content and also in form. What can you tell us about how your painting style achieves this?
Richard: I think the sensuality is achieved in a few different ways. Through the depicted object itself which most viewers can relate to in some way or may have a memory of. The objects I depict often have a familiarity to the viewer, they have experienced that object at some point in their lives and it therefore invokes a form of nostalgia and a longing for something that perhaps never even existed or perhaps did exist but is now lost.
The ambiguity of meaning, place and time also helps to create sensuality by leaving the viewer enough room to interpret the works as they wish to, as they see them, not how I may see them. As an artist, obviously, I have my own reasons for making these works but I never want to impose that onto the viewer and so that ambiguity allows the paintings to be internalised more thoroughly and interpreted more freely by the viewer.
Also, the works themselves are sensual objects. They exhibit their depth, scars, marks and bruises as proof of their own making over a prolonged period of time and dedication by the artist and the viewer reads that and it helps them to connect to the work.
Clare: Do you have a practice of drawing on a regular basis? If so, what materials do you use and how often do you draw?
Richard: I do have a drawing practice yes, I use drawing to work out problematic sections of paintings in progress and also to play with compositional ideas but also as an end in its own right. I draw every day in some way shape or form. I have a tendency to write a lot of lists to help clear my head which I view as a form of drawing. I draw in sketchbooks and on various papers. Perhaps unusually for a fine artist my favoured drawing tool is a HB Paper Mate Non Stop pencil more often associated with technical drawing and design work.
Clare: What can you tell us about your colour choices and how do you set up your palette?
Richard: I always want my work to be quiet and understated, modest and in a minor mode. I want them to speak softly to the viewer never shout or cry for attention and therefore I use earth tones and greys with occasional warm, slightly brighter colours to add contrast but never in an overstated way. I will often mix a small amount of Paynes Grey in with every colour I use in order to help harmonise them.
I start with a clean palette at the beginning of every week. It helps me think and to see what is happening and make judgements about colours and then I add colours as and when they are needed. By the end of the week the palette is covered and I can no longer discern what is going on or make colour judgements properly and so I have to clean it and start again.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Richard: Masking tape plays an important role in my process; it is used as a drawing tool, by which I mean its use creates lines and intersections in the work, which are not of my hand and are controllable. In addition, masking helps me to focus on the area I am working on and helps to protect the areas I am not from unwanted additions of paint.
I mainly use flat-headed brushes, which are repeatedly dragged over the surface in order to eradicate brush marks. Sandpaper and rags are also important and are used to work into the paintings to reveal earlier layers of paint or the surface of the support.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Richard: It has slowed me down. The urgency of upcoming exhibitions has been removed which has proved to be problematic. I’m a painter who is motivated by deadlines and a lot of them (but not all) have simply not been there. I also had a solo exhibition scheduled in London during July which had to be cancelled which was very disappointing. It has highlighted the importance of the physicality of painting and the need for paintings to be viewed in real life. While the internet is a wonderful tool, it cannot ever fully convey the subtle nuances of a painting.
On a more positive note, lockdown has seen the birth of the Artist Support Pledge which has proved to be a game changer in the way artists sell their work and has been a genuine life saver for many artists.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Richard: I have to start with Edward Hopper; most people mention his name when they see my work. He is the first painter I was ever exposed to. Cheap reproductions of his work hung in the restaurant that my parents always took me to on my birthday when I was a child. It obviously had a lasting effect. His use of light, the economy of means and the stillness in his work enthral me to this day and influence my work.
Gerhard Richter is a big influence for his skill and the breadth and scope of both his painting practice and his writing.
Sean Scully was also a huge influence when I was an undergraduate. I appreciate and enjoy his paintings but what affected me most was listening to him speak intelligently and profoundly about painting in a working class accent, he made me realise that I could achieve the things I wanted to despite my Hull accent.
More recently, Francis Alys has become a favourite. Better known as a performance artist, but he also makes tiny documentary paintings of his travels around the world which are exquisite.
Paul Winstanley has also been an influential figure in my practice for a long time now. His use of repetition and meta painting and the mundane have all had a significant impact on my work.
The writings and philosophy of Annette Messager have also recently come into play in my work and research even though her installation work is obviously far removed from my own output, her thinking and reasoning have had a profound and lasting effect on my work.
Lastly, I find myself, more and more being drawn back time and again to Morandi. The simplicity, the obsessiveness, the subtle palette and his compositions are becoming increasingly important to my thinking.
Clare: I love the way this photo of your studio bears a slight compositional resemblance to your paintings. What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Richard: I can see the echo of my paintings in the composition of the photograph, I curate my studio and the rest of my house in the same way as I do my paintings. I have a very definite idea of what I enjoy seeing around me and so I view the rooms in my house as my biggest and most ambitious paintings.
I don’t really work in that “day in the studio” kind of way. My studio is in my house and I have a very short attention span so I tend to work for 20 minutes and then do something else for a bit and drop in and out of the studio at intervals throughout the day and night with no discernible schedule to speak of. I approach painting in a very pragmatic, non-emotive way so I don’t need to be in the mood or the zone. To me painting is just work that needs to be done and so I do it. But I guess that any day when I don’t ruin something good I did the day before is a good day.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Richard: I’m currently renovating and decorating the hallway, staircase and landing of my home to turn it into a gallery space which will be called Foyer and will open in January if all goes well. I’m also on the lookout for a venue in London to host the solo exhibition that was cancelled in July. Saul Hay Gallery in Manchester is currently showing a number of my works and my work is always viewable online on my website richardbakerpainting.com and my Instagram @richardbakerpainting