An Interview with Will Stevens

Will was one of three Drawing Year Alumni who exhibited recently at the School’s ‘Pretty Gritty City‘ show.

Westminster

How long ago did you complete The Drawing Year, and how has it influenced your work?

I completed The Drawing Year in 2008. This was a key part of my education; despite having gone to art school with aspirations of becoming a painter, in the end I barely lifted a paint brush during the three year course. I also completed a BA in Fine Art at good university and left unable to differentiate between Rembrandt, Rubens and Renoir! The Prince’s Drawing School solved this problem, fostering a sense of artistic lineage in us and a connection with forbears. I found huge solace in being connected with ancestors I never knew I had. The Prince’s Drawing School also served as a haven in which to start the difficult business of painting figuratively, without feeling self conscious. In hindsight, I’d describe it as a life raft: essential for survival in increasingly choppy seas!

Are there any particular classes that shaped how you work?

I selected classes four days a week, choosing a range of different disciplines. This provided a balanced diet. Big revelations came while drawing at The National Gallery and British Museum, while long hours spent in the life room on Charlotte Road were more of a struggle (although a nourishing aspect of the all-round training). Drawing in the streets of London, particularly at night, set me up for much of the work I am doing at the moment. Overall, it was the sense of utter commitment from every tutor I came across, that was most valuable. No one was interested in the possibility of “quick fixes”. I don’t think you’d find this kind of ethos and integrity in many other art institutions.

 What are the biggest challenges, and how do you prepare for them, of drawing on site in London?

Wandering around the streets is the easy part! For me, the greatest challenge is the solitary nature of painting. Even after two consecutive days working alone in my studio, I lose perspective. The loneliness, coupled with the confusion of trying to forge an identity in the midst of this busy city, is hard. Moving through London can be a sensory overload at the best of times, but that only gets really difficult once back in the studio. It is then that I feel saturated with motifs, unsure about my work and paralysed with indecision. This freeze is the greatest obstacle to productivity.

Where do your narratives and characters come from? And do they make re-visits in later work?

My narratives and characters present themselves in bursts, after periods of sustained trial & error. They also creep in unexpectedly. I’ve conditioned myself not to be overly conscious in seeking out subject matter. I prefer to take mental notes as I cycle through familiar corners of the city, or explore new areas while waiting for ideas to come bubbling up. Painting is not a rational process; for me the most interesting images materialise when one is least expecting them. Of course it’s difficult to articulate this process in words – which I suppose is a reason for painting.

pgcwill2800

How does drawing in London compare with your drawing/travelling in other cities?

Drawing in London can seem more difficult than in other cities, because it is a more familiar environment; I find it harder to get excited by the humdrum of the everyday. In recent years, this city has got cleaner and perhaps more sterile than some of the chaotic places I’ve visited in Central Asia. At a superficial glance there is less to stimulate the creative imagination in a landscape of post modernist architecture. By contrast, my attention is immediately grabbed by things on the streets of exotic places overseas. And yet I can spend hours transcribing the bustle of foreign market places, only to find there is less of an identification with the subject matter than there would be here on my doorstep. So perhaps in the end, London is a better place to dig deep.

 

Your studio is based in a rather unusual location, do you take any particular inspiration from working in a church crypt?

Yes, my studio is beneath a Victorian church in Paddington. The room has vaulted ceilings, and a heavy oak door with gothic iron work. Not a day passes when I don’t feel hugely lucky to have such an evocative space to myself. The priest has also given me access to the church, and cavernous crypt beyond, (which includes an ornate gilded chapel by Sir Ninian Comper -one of London’s hidden treasures).This current studio is below ground, and feels like a bunker for contemplation, or a cubby hole, a hermit’s refuge in the midst of London. When I lived in Aberystwyth, my studio was in the garrett of a rickety Georgian house. I looked out over an 800 year old ruined castle and the sea, which made it an opposite space in some ways, full of wind and light and sea spray. These inspirational places of work definitely find their way into paintings. I also swim in the Serpentine every morning, which is only a 5 minute cycle from the church; this is as significant a part of my working routine as the church itself.
You left London for Wales for two years to escape ‘contagious fashions’, now you’re back how do you hold your own individuality?

I fled London to escape the contagious fashions of the East End. Now that I’m back in my native brown brick city, I suppose I ignore a huge amount of what’s going on. One has to. At the risk of sounding like a spoilt brat, the vast choice of cultural opportunities we’re exposed to here can often feel suffocating, particularly when everyone is jostling about to get their own piece of daylight. The city is so cosmopolitan, and yet the outlook of many Londoners can be inward looking and even blasé, perhaps because of the cultural bombardment I have just described. We have so much at our disposal. Despite being surrounded by thousands of people all the time, the fragmentary experience of living here can feel surprisingly isolating, at times more so than in small town Wales! So in that sense, I don’t always find London a particularly helpful and wholesome landscape in which to work. But to hold onto one’s individuality, I think learning to stick to one’s guns amid all the beeps and squeaks and bumps and flashes of the urban environment is the secret to fulfilment….and probably to success.

pgcwill1800

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