Words: Annie French
Images: John King (Photography by Defeye Creative)
For anyone who has visited West Studios in Chesterfield, you will have noticed the large portrait in the entrance, you really cannot miss it. It’s a portrait of John King, painted by his son the artist John King in the 2014.
I first met John in 2009, when as a mature student I enrolled onto the Foundation Art and Design course at Chesterfield College. John taught painting and life drawing classes, so it is a great pleasure for me to have this opportunity to interview John and talk about his artwork, how artists have to juggle to make a living and the importance of life drawing classes for all artists.
AF: John, did you always want to do a portrait of your Dad?
JK: The painting of my Dad was going to be one of a set of six, the title for them was going to be Big Heads. They were going to be paintings of people who had figured as important and somehow, they found a switch that had changed something in our lives or theirs. My Dad was an obvious one because he was such a selfless, deeply loving parent, I thought it was appropriate for him to be the first one. He was becoming much older because of his pneumoconiosis, ‘Pit Disease’. He was becoming very frail, I had to start painting.
AF: Did your Dad sit for that?
JK: He sat for some photographs, I worked from one primary photo and the others gave me suggestions for how the light would be needed to shift around and get the shape of his face. I produced a small A1 sketch first, before attempting the final painting.
AF: Sadly, your Dad passed away, did he get to see the finished painting?
JK: He was around when West Studios first opened and saw the photograph of Toby Perkins MP standing in front of it. It wasn’t finished, but my Dad died shortly after that, and then I had this period where I couldn’t concentrate on that painting, it was too difficult.
AF: You said it was going to be a set of six, who are the other people you are planning on painting?
JK: They will still be of people that flicked that switch and made a difference to me. One of them will be my old art teacher, who spent most of his time living in France. I also have the need for their faces to be interesting.
AF: The portraiture of your Dad is larger than life - why is the scale so large?
JK: The larger surface gives me a chance to explore clumsier, cruder brush strokes. It gives me a chance to be less fussy with the painting.
Anyone who knows John or has attended his life drawing classes knows that he ordinarily paints people, from the large-scale paintings of Alison the life model to the larger-than-life painting of his Dad. So, when John and I shared a studio in 2016, I was amazed to see large-scale paintings of flower meadows. I asked John what brought about this change in direction.
JK: It was a moment of madness, I thought I should be doing something that is commercial and try to sell them in galleries.
A flaw in the plan was that John would have to go and tell people about them and show them. This is a normal dilemma for many artists, - they enjoy the process of making and painting, but not being the centre of attention when it comes to exhibitions. One of the key skills that artists have to learn is how to price their work and to be realistic with their time.
JK: I limited myself to spend eight hours on each painting over a period of a month. When galleries take 50% commission and then you have to buy materials, that doesn’t leave much at the end. As an artist, you have to juggle between earning a living, and fulfilling your passion and the need to draw and paint.
AF: Did you always want to be an artist?
JK: My Dad didn’t want me to work in the mines. I studied A’ level Art then went on to do the Art Foundation at West Mansfield College. I started a BA in Fine Art at Newcastle Poly, but dropped out in the first year. With a new family to support I had to find work, so I ended up working in the pit for three years. I then went on to become the world’s worst salesman for a furniture store.
Eventually John started to draw again and achieved his BA in an odd mix of Illustration and Fine Art at Bradford College. John currently works for a non-profit organisation working with groups of adults with learning disabilities. Alongside this he runs regular life drawing and painting classes at West Studios.
AF: John I can remember how nervous I was on my first life drawing class at the college, can you talk a little about why life drawing is an important skill to have?
JK: When learning a set of drawing skills, you have to genuinely look. When you are not an artist, it could be argued by a lot of people as inappropriate gaze because somebody you don’t know is unclothed in front of you. What you are doing is striving to produce that surface and shape as accurately as you can, so there is a long stare and a return to the drawing, and the process repeats itself again and again. While looking, we are seeing more, and we are adjusting and changing shapes and moving the drawing on the paper. As marks and lines become more successful, the drawing say more about the person doing the drawing rather than the model.
The Dark Flower paintings can be seen at the Leabrooks Arts Complex in Somercoats, Derbyshire.
Drawing and Painting classes take place at West Studios on Wednesday evenings, twice a month.
West Studios, Sheffield Road, Chesterfield.
M: 07795 804793