Tim Wright: The Artist Who Taught Timothy Spall How To Paint

by Cass Art

Tim Wright is an artist who has recently been on a rather unsual journey. Known for his intimate, telling portraiture, his painting of actor Timothy Spall was featured in this year's BP Portrait Award, and his solo exhibition was unveiled in London last week.

As well as an artist in his own right, Tim was also the Painting Consultant for the new Mr. Turner film, directed by Mike Leigh. His job was to tutor Timothy Spall for two years, to teach him how to paint and draw as well as tutor the many other acting artists in the film. After two years of work, Spall then sat for Wright, to have his own portrait painted.

Shine Artists London is showcasing several of Wright's half-length portraits, including two paintings of Timothy Spall, until 25th October.

He will also be hosting an art talk at our Islington Flagship on Monday 20th October, so book your place here to hear his insight and meet the artist himself.

We caught up with Tim to ask him about his painting, and find out what it was like working on the much anticipated film, Mr. Turner.

Tim Wright's A Public Exhibition, portraits

Congratulations on your exhibition, A Public Exhibition, at Shine Artists London. Can you tell us a little about the body of work?

Well, after my painting of Timothy Spall was selected for the BP Portrait Award Exhibition, I decided I wanted a show about portraiture, focused in on the figure. Instead of full-length, I wanted to paint them half-length, because it focuses down on the model and makes it a little more intense. I'd been looking at the Kit-Cat club portraits by Godfrey Kneller, and there was something about those paintings in a group that was really interesting. I wanted to look at a group of people with some kind of relationship, and I shook it down to a strict sequence. I like repetitive structures. It was really important to have them all the same size. When they're that size, it looks like you're seeing a real person. They have a presence, an intensity; they're a person, just like you. 

Tim Wright portrait of man

A really memorable piece is the one of the man staring up out of the canvas, as though he's staring a long way off. How do you decide on the poses of your sitters?  

We just play around with things. I make a full-length drawing, which takes a day, and take lots of photographs, and then I really start to get an idea of what the person is like. Some people like posing, others are more static. And it's the little things that tell you about a person. What's revealing is how they hold themselves; you can recognise their walk, their posture, before you even see their face. I'm interested in that physicality.   

How long does it take you, on average, to paint each portrait?

Recently I've been working very busily, painting two portraits a week for the last three months. Working quickly is annoying, but it forces you to get to the point and make decisions. It's a good drive, getting that deadline. I've had paintings that linger in the studio for six months, and they never get resolved. But having an exhibition means I can't spend hours and hours on each painting.

Which art materials couldn't you live without?

Michael Harding oil paint is fantastic. It's very exclusively Michael Harding, in that the texture is incredibly unusual; it behaves in an amazingly sensitive way. It uses no fillers so the colours are brilliant. It just makes painting a real pleasure. I want to make paintings made of paint, you know? I don't want to make paintings that are an illusion - they're an expression of something. 

I also Michael Harding oil and turps medium, and Balsam Resin, which is a little old fashioned, but you put it on and the paint just flows right in. I also use a wooden palette, not a white one, because it has a similar tone to the ground I'm working on. It helps when I'm mixing paint.

Timothy Spall by Tim Wright, in BP Portrait Award

And let's talk a little about your work for the film Mr. Turner. What was it like working with Timothy Spall?

It was great! When we first met, neither of us really knew how it was going to work; we were just looking across the room at each other, unsure of where to start...but we had a really good time! He really wanted to do it, he wanted to learn how to paint and draw. He'd been a very successful actor from so early on that he'd never really had the chance to pursue his interest in art until the film. But he's inquisitive, and he was really up for doing it. Learning art is tough, and you don't get results right away - you have to keep going, and he was very good at that. I worked with him for two years in the lead up to filming, in what we called the research period. So then when it came to filming his scenes, he was up to speed - he looked natural with the art materials, and looked convincing as an artist.

Red head model in Tim Wright's painting

What sorts of things did you work on with him?

Eventually we were copying Turner paintings, but we didn't get to that first. That came after working off a life model, some still life, casts of classical statues. And we went around the city a lot, to find places to draw - people would look over and wonder why this famous actor was sitting with me, sketching! So we discovered parts of the city where we were relatively undisturbed, and we worked in sketchbooks for hours.

And then after the film was made, Timothy Spall sat for one of your paintings?

Yes, he was very happy to sit for me. Then obviously it was chosen from the BP Portrait Award this year, and it's just set off a chain of events. There's going to be a show at Petworth House in January, with bits from the film, my paintings, Timothy's work - and it really is his work, you know. It's not just an actor making Turner copies. He had an exhibition recently at Maison Bertaux in Soho, of symbolist drawings and watercolours, which he made independent of my teaching. 

Timothy Spall in Tim Wright's paintings

Have you seen the film?

I have, and it's fantastic. I guess I would say that, but the acting is brilliant, and the art direction is stunning. Tim really owns the part, and it wasn't an easy part to do. He's on screen almost all the way through. And when you see him painting, he's completely believable. Other artists are in it too, and I taught them as well, I think there were twenty actors on my list, and I'd do life-drawing sessions with them in my studio. 

I'm quite interested in this idea of performance. There's a lot of theatre in painting the figure, because people have more than one identity - they deploy different roles, and I like to look at that in my paintings. So then the idea of the role, when painting an actor, is quite important - and I was very aware of that.

I've painted Tim more than once, and you can see in some he's still very in character as Mr. Turner, because it was painted shortly after filming. But then a few months down the line he sat for me again, and he's much more relaxed. And I like the concept there. I'm not simply painting likenesses; I'm looking at the person's consistencies and inconsistencies with every portrait.

Mr. Turner with a paintbrush

How did you get involved with Mr. Turner?

I was teaching Fine Art one day a week at the Motley Theatre Design Course, which is sadly closed now. And Mike Leigh, the director of the film, was a patron of the course; he used to do the occasional lecture, so I knew him, and then he just asked me to do the tuition for Mr. Turner. It was a really unusual job, but I really enjoyed it. And you know, if Hollywood calls, I'd be happy to teach Johnny Depp how to paint with watercolours!

Can you describe what painting is, to you, personally? 

It's a very important part of my life, part of my identity, and if I didn't do it, I'd be a different person. I don't know what I'd do without it. I'm very lucky. If you want to be an artist, you have to be an artist - you have to keep painting, somehow. 

Tim Wright's drawings, canvases and studio

Feeling inspired?

Book your place here to listen to Tim speak at our Islington Flagship on Monday 20th October.

Tim Wright's Exhibition, A Public Exhibition, is showing at Shine Artists London until 25th October 2014.

You can visit Tim Wright's website here

You can read more about the film and watch the trailer of Mr. Turner here
Cass Art has partnered with Mr. Turner to bring you Paint Light Colour, a celebration of painting during October 2014. 

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