Titus Agbara Wins Heat Four of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2016

by Cass Art

We’re half way through the second series of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2016. Talented painters continue to impress the judges each week as they capture breath taking Natural Trust landscapes for a place in the final.

Titus Agbara took his place in the semi-final, impressing the judges on their return to Scotney Castle with his gradual layering of oils with the painting knife.

Born in Nigeria, Africa, Titus where he studied at the Auchi Art School, a Federal Polytechnic in Edo State, before pursuing a career as a full time studio artist. Since moving to the UK in 2007, he has continued his painting as a hobby alongside his job in the city, depicting his emotional connection with life in London and his life back in Nigeria. A familiar face to some of you, Titus has participated on heats in both the Portrait and Landscape series of Sky Arts, and returns this year for another shot at the title. 

We caught up with Titus to discuss his approach to layering paint with a palette knife and how his paintings have changed since leaving Nigeria… 

Hi Titus! Congratulations on winning your heat! This isn’t your first experience in a Sky Arts challenge, what is it like painting under pressure for the competition?

This is my third consecutive time participating in the Sky Arts challenge, first in 2014 in the Portrait Artist of the Year and then twice in Landscape Artist of the Year, in 2015 and this year. I’m just fortunate that whatever painting I have submitted takes me forward to the heat. 

When I applied for the first series of Landscape Artist of the Year, it was how I am used to painting and felt this is where my strengths lay. Sometimes I have painted with friends, and would spend a few hours to capture the environment, but this is very different to the experience on the show. I was a little bit nervous, trying to work out the scene in just four hours in front of all the cameras, with lots of people watching you. 
Sometimes whenever I am painting, I like to have a time out, to have a moment of silence. But within that space of four hours, there is so much stuff going on, and you may feel like having that moment of silence – but this is not your usual practice – so you have to just keep going and really feel the moment with each paint application.

With my nature, if I want to sit down and paint confidently, I will take far longer and to add to my process gradually to truly finish what I had in mind.

Your work explores communities both in the UK and abroad, can you tell me a little more about the locations of your paintings?

My paintings are to do with my relationship with the environment that I have visited, which capture my view or a particular feeling with in that place. It’s a very nice thing to paint and explore through photography. Nigeria is my home country, and has themed many of my subjects and paintings. When I moved to the UK, my immediate environment changed, but capturing a landscape that relates to me emotionally still remained key to my work.  

In my recent submission for Landscape Artist of the Year, it had a lot to do with the London scene and my moments of reflection, of how I used to live back home and the life I am living now in the UK. In Nigeria, I was a full time studio artist my whole life, and this new change of environment has meant I have to get back to work and balance my studio life as more of a part time hobby.
When I wake up in the morning now to go to work, I ride the bus and get trapped in the stand still traffic. That stage in time gives me an opportunity to relax and reflect on my life here and at home, and when I am enclosed in that London bus I ask myself, ‘What am I going to do to reflect this mood?’ It’s these thoughts that are flowing through me when I paint, and these African motifs can’t help but flow through.

You combine both landscapes and portraiture in your work. Do you approach this subject differently?

My natural style is landscapes, predominantly with figures which are to do with everyday activities. These figures are incorporated in the landscape. 

If I am painting the figure, it’s not really my everyday practice. Making up a composition of someone in front of you in the studio, the feeling is very different. I just want to capture those everyday happenstance and activities, that come to you in a split moment and then goes. Those are more the figures I like to see in my landscapes.

Is there a difference in how you capture each landscape?

My painting technique remains the same. For landscape I paint from the top to the bottom just like a computer screen refresh while in portraiture or figurative I start from a middle spot and develop it till it spread all through the surface and this is achieved with the use of a palette knife from beginning of the painting to the end. Sketching the initial outline drawings before applying paint is done with a brush. 

As the application of paint is done with the palette knife, how detailed the piece is depends on the level of paint applied. The use of thick layers of paint, not just flat colour; it gives a texture to the painting that you cannot achieve with a brush. 

Why do you prefer to paint in oils and are there any products that you just cannot live without?

I have used Winsor and Newton products ever since I started painting. I was used to the student quality, however when I came down to the UK, I met an artist called Barney Littman, owner of an automobile company in Dagenham when I first arrived to the UK in 2007. I noticed a painting and an easel through the store window as I walked by, so I went in and he welcomed me with such a positive and open minded nature, which I have never experienced. 

We talked about the classes I ran in my studio back home, and he generously gave me most of the materials that I am using now for me to continue my work. He gave me so many brushes and tubes of the Winsor and Newton Artist Quality range, as well as an outdoor easel, which has really inspired me to keep up with my passion. I am so grateful and will never forget his kindness. I have noticed such a difference in the artist quality. The pigments are far richer and not as hard as the Student Quality, which helps me in the way that I use to apply my paint. 

I tend to paint like a computer would print, starting at the top of the canvas and working down. You see how the painting grows gradually as it takes over the surface.

With three heats under your belt, what advice would you give to someone applying to the Sky Arts competitions?

Whatever the judges say is final, and whatever they are looking for is hard to say, it is up to them. I’ve noticed that paintings selected are not often after the traditional landscape picture or just copying the landscape slavishly however, its often to do with people’s emotions and their subjective rendition of the space, not just copying what is directly in front of you.

Those that were selected in the heats this year were more refined, but they still had that feeling and relationship with the landscape. What I’ve been saying to young artists, just try to paint whatever you feel, whatever you see. Be it abstract, be it what you feel. You want the true nature of yourself to be reflected in your work, just keep doing what you are doing in your own way.

When it was all over, were you pleased with the outcome of your painting at Scotney Castle?

Yes, I was very, very pleased with the outcome. I was very relaxed that day, as it was my third time on the show. I woke up that morning, and started selecting my colours, painting in my mind on the bus ride. When it comes to landscape painting, it’s just a matter of how the climate has an effect on the land itself. As it is in Nigeria, there are synonymous nature in trees, clouds, rivers and land topography all over the world however, it’s just the climatic condition that affect every region 

When I was painting at Scotney Castle, it felt just the same as when I paint back at home. Sometimes I leave patches of canvas blank to reflect how I feel at the time. It was different to my submission, where I covered the whole canvas as it has to do with the convergence of two different thought and feelings. This time, it was about being true to myself and what I experience each time and season.

Feeling Inspired?
Read our exclusive interviews with Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2016 heat winners every week on the Cass Art Blog.

Heat winners Gregor Henderson and Philip Edwards are now live.

Follow Titus’s lead and experiment with applying oil paint with palette knives or stock up on your own painting supplies with our range of materials.

Catch the fourth episode of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2016 on Tuesday 8th November on Sky Arts from 8pm.
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