I live in Mid-Wales, and make my living as a portrait painter.
Raised in Cheshire, I painted and drew all the time, enjoyed primary school education, but disengaged at grammar school and dropped out of art college shortly after. I carried on drawing and painting – small illustrations, drawings of houses – whilst working as a gardener, gravedigger, forklift driver and cellarman.
By 1977 I was in London. Punk was opening doors for untrained enthusiasts in all the arts. My old schoolfriend, Malcolm Garett, was working as a designer in the music industry. I will always be grateful to Malcolm for helping me onto the rails by teaching me the basics of design for print and giving me work. I worked with him at assorted iMaGes, producing record sleeves and posters. Another member of my old school art class, Peter Saville, was at Dindisc Records and I did some work for him too. In 1984 I set up my own studio: DKB, and joined by Peter Curzon and Martin Jenkins, did work for ABC, Bryan Ferry, The Cult, FYC, Gang of Four, The Mission, Alison Moyet, Scritti Politti, and many others. In 1985 our sleeves placed first in both album & singles categories in the Music Week awards.
During this time, inspired and encouraged by working with Storm Thorgerson (RIP: God bless you, you wonderful old ******) and Green Gartside (another perfectionist – it’s surprising we ever got anything to the printers…), I had started to do paintings, illustrations, collages and sculptures to use on sleeves. For the first time, I considered the possibility of being an “artist” myself – painting and sculpting for a living.
DKB had been good and I had worked with some great people, but the recession of the late ’80s coincided with my increasing disinterest in working in the music business and living in London. In 1988 my girlfriend and I bought a cottage in Mid-Wales with a view to leaving. Our first daughter was born and in 1992 I closed the business and we moved to Wales.
I spent 2 years (and all our savings) renovating the cottage. Then, I came to paint: It was more difficult than I had expected… working in an old caravan in the garden, for 6 months I tried to “be a painter”, rejecting idea after idea as being too pretentious, dull or unoriginal. By late 1994 we had no money, I was without any real direction and the caravan, a dismal place, was leaking badly.
A friend kindly offered a room to use as a studio in a village nearby: With a decent space & light, things picked up. In an interview with the printmaker Terry Frost I read; “looking for something to inspire you to work is an escape from taking action. The decision to take action is the only way of seeing”. This showed me a way forward – forget the thinking – work! I would paint the things around me, the things figurative painters had always painted; still lives, landscapes and portraits.
Although I had little knowledge or understanding of technique or materials, I tried a still life and then two self-portraits. It seemed to go well. A friend, asked me to do portraits of his children. I entered an oil portrait of our friend and neighbour, Jack Richards, in the annual open exhibition at MOMA Cymru & won first prize! Then, I spent 6 months painting and repainting “Jack a Morley Richards, Ty Nant”, a portrait of Jack and his brother Morley, in our landscape. Encouraged by friends and family, I entered it for the BP Portrait Awards (NPG, London). Visitors to the exhibition voted it their favourite painting. I received letters from people who had seen and been moved by my painting. This was great encouragement and a kind of validation. Then, Maj. Geoffrey Crook, for the Royal Pioneer Corps Association, asked me if I would paint a portrait of Maj. Gen. Field, then Governor of the Tower of London: my first major commission! Since then portrait commissions have built slowly and I have worked steadily, learning always, establishing myself as a portrait painter. In 2000 I was elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
In 2002 I built a studio in the grounds of our home. I have come to be a “portrait painter” unintentionally, but in many ways it suits me perfectly: I enjoy being in people’s company. People are the most important thing. A portrait is a collaboration between sitter and artist. The artist records his experience of the sitter. Some of the portraits are in the gallery here.
We live in a small, rural, Welsh-speaking community in an area of quiet, natural beauty. Our children have been educated here through the medium of Welsh. We have been made to feel very welcome here and in an environment that respects craft, honesty and hard work, I have found the space and encouragement to become myself and fulfil my ambition of painting for a living.
I am a perfectionist, which drives me on but also inhibits me. Having no training in painting has been a hindrance but at the same time perhaps, a release. I have been told that I was lucky not to have received an art education, as it meant I had not been told what was right and wrong, what was good and bad, but could decide those things for myself. But it is difficult to maintain confidence when most of my judgements are self-reliant and I have no bedrock of received knowledge to support them. The fact that I continue to receive commissions must be a validation, but I find it hard to make the connection. Still, I don’t believe you need an artschool education to understand or practice art. Good art speaks to everyone, educated or not: a work must speak for itself and if any artwork relies on an explanation outside of itself to be appreciated, then it is the lesser work for that.
INFORMATION, TECHNIQUES & MATERIALS
I have learned to paint by doing it, & by looking at the work of others. I work in a traditional manner, I guess, but I draw inspiration from artists of all periods. I have aims and manners of style that often conflict – I want to paint in different ways – I love the fluid virtuosity of Sargent but at the same time the analytical intensity and truthfulness of Cezanne. It is hard to see my work objectively and it is often difficult to see a way ahead, but I want to establish my own language of marks and not copy others.
I paint mostly in oils. At first I found it difficult to come by reliable information regarding basic techniques and materials. “The Technique of Oil Painting” by Colin Hayes (Batsford, 1965) is a useful, unpretentious, practical guide which was very helpful when I started. Oil paint is a wonderfully rich and flexible medium, but an extremely difficult and complex one to understand. Answers to some problems can be very elusive. I have asked many people about a way to even up the levels of gloss across the whole painting and have yet to come across a satisfactory answer …if there is one. I keep looking. When I started I had a second hand box of very old student quality oil paints, but I quickly found that buying premium brands artist-quality was the well worth the investment: their colours seem so much purer and richer, and all claim to be lightfast.
My brother gave me a small book which he found in a second-hand bookshop: Janet Robertson: “Practical Problems of the Portrait painter” (Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1962). It covers exactly what it says in the title!
“Secret Knowledge” by David Hockney (Thames & Hudson) has answered some questions for me … and posed many more.
I spent 15 years working as a graphic designer, mostly in the music industry – sleeves, posters, advertising, t-shirts etc. I enjoyed the work, but as with painting, was never satisfied. Looking back now, I think we did some good stuff. At DKB, we always tried to come up with a graphic that would reflect the artist that we were working with, and their music, rather than ourselves. Hence the work seems very varied. Computers only arrived towards the end of my time doing this work – most of which was achieved using paste-up and cameras. I often wonder what we might have managed if we had had computers in the studio. Some of my favourite work from this time was in the posters, press ads, T-Shirts etc that followed on from the packaging and developed the ideas. Some of the sleeves are in the galleries on this site here.
Keith Breeden, Llanfihangel.