The vibrant work of gallery artist John Farrington brings the contending worlds of man, birds, and beasts together, bright landscapes full of symoblism inhabited by humans and animals alike.
In this intimate interview, Farrington sheds some light on the creative processes behind his work, from personal influences to the trials and tribulations of completing each canvas:
Are there aspects of your work that you especially enjoy?
I enjoy the whole process of painting. I like the idea of new ideas, forming ideas, seeing them develop on a surface and hoping that the idea goes away from its original vision or stimulus into something that I’ve created. I doubt if people would recognise how the original idea began from the finished piece of work.
Tell us a little about the process behind your paintings, how you approach a canvas.
I often play around with paint and have a sort of feeling when the effect of what I want is getting near. Then the secret is to leave it alone.
I’ve had phases. The painting I’m doing now is much more illustrative than a lot of the work I’ve done in the past. But I’ve always loved the use of colour, whether it’s sombre or bright. I’ll paint on anything, too. I’ve made paintings on bits of wood and old doors chucked out by builders shop-fitting in Bridgenorth.
If I can, I put things down on paper quite soon after thinking or seeing something. I’ve got sketchbooks full of undeveloped work that has never been taken any further. I start with a pencil drawing for the initial idea once it starts forming in my mind, and usually do a few more based on the same theme. I churn the ideas over in my head. I don’t always know where they come from, they just evolve, and there’s a painting.
I often refer back to things. I can refer back quite a number of years. That’s what I like about keeping the sketches. You forget if you don’t record in some way. I know a lot of people use a camera, but lots of these things you can’t record on a camera, because they’re thoughts, visual thoughts, really.
When I first lost the eye, I had to sort of hold onto the brush with my other hand to actually touch the canvas because I couldn’t judge the distance between the canvas and the brush. I think the work has gone flatter, more decorative, and probably more illustrative going back to its roots.
I’ve been in this studio since 1982. I’m a bit selfish: I paint for myself. I should communicate with people but it’s not an essential part of what I do.
What goes through your head as you begin a new painting?
You try to be fresh each time, and not laboured, and I think if you have one particular technique, and one way of doing things, that it can become a sort of laboured thing. I hope I never get to that stage.
I think you go with the flow of the piece of work you’re doing at the present time. But, underlying that, the stamp of your personality on each piece of work always shows through, which I suppose makes it recognisable. You can’t avoid that, I don’t think, unless you do something completely different, and in a different medium, or consciously try and develop a different style of working, or a different way of working.
Are you particularly inspired by certain artists or places?
One of my first influences was Hieronymous Bosch, oh and Breughel. Here were two men who did things and very often there was no accounting for why. There was no logic – well, seemingly no logic – to what they did, but they produced the most fantastic pieces of work.
When I left school I went to work on a farm as a trainee dairyman up in Wales, and I think it comes out in my work. I use those recollections a great deal, whether it’s cows or pigs in a field. But they’re not painted like pigs really are. Some people paint pigs beautifully, realistically. For me, it’s the shapes on this rough churned up ground.
In the early days, I used to paint a lot of industrial landscape. Where I lived, in the Black Country, was a source of most of my paintings, so there was very little in the sense of rural landscape. It was just chimney-stacks and rooftops. The only painting I’ve done recently that has that sort of feel to it is a canvas of the woman with the frogs. When I was a kid, there was a lady who used to breed frogs, down the bottom of our garden. Looking through the fence I could see these big drums she used to keep them in. She talked to them, as though she were trying to make them into men like the fairytale prince.
Mythical characters and fairytales often appear in your work – are you always aware of the story you want to tell in a painting?
I don’t think I’m very conscious of it but as I work I develop different ideas. Walking through some woods recently I saw two or three horse riders. I’m sure they were very innocent; then, suddenly, they’ve developed into these strange pictures of invaders on horses in ancient armour with figures looking through the trees, and heads of all these mythical woodland creatures on stakes.
I like telling stories with paint, particularly those that have been around for generations: I like the idea of the woman biting the apple, the serpent in the garden.
Your career as a full-time artist began relatively late in your life. Has that changed the way you look at or think about your work?
I think it’s nice to be able to look back on the work and to see that you have evolved over a period of time.
I’d certainly never give up painting now, at this stage. I suppose the other thing is if you didn’t do this, what the hell would you do anyway? You’d have to do something, wouldn’t you?