Lionel’s exhibition – Revering Ancient Woodland is on at Hartlepool Art Gallery until 3rd June. Find out more about the inspiration behind his work here…
Did you always aspire to be an artist?
I always assumed I was an artist from as far back as I can remember despite becoming at different times a shipbuilder and a cultural geographer. Artists became my heroes and the more I discovered what they made, painters in particular, the more intrigued, baffled and amazed I was. There seemed to be no limit to their imagination which is both exciting and daunting especially when as an adult you begin to realise your own limitations. I’m still aspiring to be an artist.
How has your practice changed over time?
Enormously, but the answer depends on how far back you want to go. At the core is a curiosity about images and how they relate to the world around me. I think I became aware of pictures of nature at the same time as nature itself so making pictures, either copying other’s work, working directly from things or re-imagining the world in memory and imagination has been a journey of awareness and understanding: a way of being but also of becoming.
I’ve explored many different subjects from portraits and the figure to still life to surreal landscapes but my practice has always searched for a definite expression, one picture at a time. When you start thinking of yourself as an artist you aspire to make work like certain other artists you admire and you learn a lot from copying or mimicking their style, but later you reject them when you discover artists who open new doors of expression. So I suppose change happens in fits and starts as you discover things for yourself and try out other artists’ ideas, but eventually you begin to notice your own style or ways of thinking about how to make a work of art that speaks to you.
Sometimes you surprise yourself either by accident or out of a reaction to the everyday frustration of producing weak work and then something new creeps in. You can’t go back to the way you worked before so you try to get into a way of working that seems to flow and draw you in like an exploratory walk into an unexplored landscape or city. The temptation for many artists is to make what other people seem to like and then stick to that for as long as it sells, but I think that’s a waste of a creative life, although it’s a reasonable business model if the main purpose of painting is to make money. I like to look at artists who constantly challenge themselves even when they have become famous like David Hockney or Frank Auerbach. There are artists whose work I don’t necessarily like but they challenge me in my own work so I suppose ‘developing your creative practice’, to misquote an Arts Council phrase, is about assessing what seems to work for yourself after the event and then finding ways for that to happen more easily and more powerfully. I dream of using larger canvases and lashings of amazing oil paint to make images of sea ice which I’ve never seen or curtains of sunbeams over the Vale of Eden which I see often.
What does a day in the life of Lionel Playford look like?
No two days are the same, but on an ideal day it starts with drawing as a way to warm up and think about ideas afresh. The moment I pick up a mark maker to apply to a surface there is this realisation of the here and now, this unique moment where everything could go right or wrong or neither. It’s the throw of the dice rather than the turn of the handle. The unpredictability of what could happen is both exciting and daunting but you have to pitch-in anyway, otherwise you’ll never know what could have been. On a safe day I’m too cautious and the results are weak, but on a more audacious day exciting things can happen, or it might all end in disaster, like my attempt to paint a portrait in four hours during the insane Portrait Artist of the Year competition.
In an ideal world I would delegate all the boring, time consuming stuff to a well paid assistant. I’ve noticed that’s what a number of very successful painters do. You need time to make, draw, explore ideas, experiment, move difficult pieces on to a better place, walk in nature and draw what you find there. But you also need time to read and look at images especially paintings and drawings, go to exhibitions, watch documentaries about nature and art.
If you’d asked me the question a few years ago my days would have been dominated by sitting in front of a computer screen writing and reading for a PhD in art-science but eventually I realised, although interesting, even fascinating, it was not where my talents lay nor what I should be doing with my life, although the experience has broadened my knowledge and understanding of the perception, philosophy, climate change science and, to a lesser extent, nature. It took me on special journeys with scientists to a Lake District peat bog, to Finland, Germany and the Atlantic Ocean which were memorable adventures, but in the end I have to be making art and these travels don’t necessarily help me to make better art.
Is there one artist from the past that has had an influence on you?
No, far more than one! John Piper strongly influenced my techniques of outdoor drawing and I still lean on him to this day. Corot had a strong impact on my early outdoor painting as did Cezanne. Turner’s atmospheric skies and water continue to work on me. Edward Hopper’s tension in stillness, especially in his nocturnes, had a powerful effect for a while. Dod Proctor taught me portrait realism. Different artists keep you thinking and challenge what you’re doing. I’d like to be influenced more by Paul Nash but I’m also pulled in a different direction by Ivon Hitchens. Auerbach baffles but intrigues me.
You seem to be most inspired by the natural environment. What is it about being in nature that makes you want to create art?
It’s very beautiful despite the challenges of the weather. It’s all around, even where I grew up in suburbia or down in the shipyard by the sea. We live in nature despite our seemingly powerful desire to separate ourselves from it in the built environment. I grew up in a time when we were encouraged to play outdoors and explore the world around and I’ve just never stopped. I learnt over decades that humans have changed the natural world in vast and profoundly troubling ways by foolishly assuming that nature was there for us to endlessly plunder in the name of economic growth. We all have a right to survive but if we trash our home then we’re in for trouble. I remember some local authority woodland near where I lived in Leeds which became my/our place of wild adventure and freedom. One day the bulldozers started knocking the trees down and it hurt. I felt for the trees and the birds and everything else that lived there and I painted some pictures about it as an act of witnessing but also of mourning. Now the area has become neat and tidy suburbia like everywhere else. I prefer wilderness I suppose and unmanaged native woodland, is one of the best places to spend time in for nourishing the soul, surrounded by birdsong, the wind in the tree tops, dappled sunlight. These things stay with you.
I’m inspired by nature and by art in equal measures so artists who took/take nature seriously have always been important to me. We identify with the Other, the non-human world that makes up life which includes everything from trees to plankton even mountains, clouds and the sea. They all seem alive to me and they’re all connected at some level. Imagining icebergs, which I’ve never seen except in photos and nature documentaries, is an amazing adventure. Equally, sitting in an ancient woodland, drawing, watching and listening is completely absorbing. In the studio I want to re-enter that space with its rhythms, sounds and smells, but in my imagination. I suppose painting/drawing keeps me in touch with external reality, otherwise I might go mad.
Do you work en plein air?
As a youngster the outdoors was an adventure and representing it directly in paint was a very exciting and challenging way of exploration of it, which is why I still paint en plein air. I get mentally and creatively refreshed from working outdoors in nature, or in a motorway service station car park for that matter. I draw wherever and whenever I can: it keeps me in touch with reality and I would recommend it to anyone for developing good mental health! As a teacher I encourage the practice in others.
If you could choose just one work of art to save from Armageddon (from any artist, painting/sculpture/architecture/literature) what would it be?
Impossible question, but if the world as we know it was destroyed when I was visiting the Courtauld Institute in London I would have to grab a Cezanne still life painting. They are endlessly fascinating and I don’t know why, so one of those would stimulate renewed interest in whatever world remained.
What would be your dream location if you could choose to work anywhere in the world?
Hartlepool- no end of stimulating subject matter. But if that couldn’t be arranged then maybe the Llyn Peninsular in north Wales, but I’d have to learn to converse in Welsh and read more Dylan Thomas. To be honest I could find subject matter for art almost anywhere but I couldn’t manage somewhere too hot and sticky, so the Tropics are out.
What would be your top tip to anyone thinking of pursuing an artistic career?
I’ve taught many people who took up painting when they were older. The main thing is to stick at it, to keep making and questioning the results. Beyond that, take risks, explore different materials and subject matter and look closely at other artists from whom you will learn what art could be. Do it for the love of art not for money or fame, otherwise you’ll end up like Damien Hirst.