“humans as animals, aloneness, the joy of nature”. Studio Visit with Greg Harris

'Portrait of my granddad'

Born in Chelmsford in 1984, Greg Harris spent his childhood growing up in Essex, Suffolk and West Sussex before going to Leicester to complete a BA in Fine Art degree at De Montfort University in 2009. After taking a break from art and travelling to the Far East, Greg threw himself back into painting by joining a Leicester-based artist studio in 2012: since then, he’s never looked back. Greg has recently moved his studio to Bristol.

In his paintings, Greg wants you to reconnect with the familiar by bringing together both a literal and non-literal interpretation of the people and environment around you. Greg achieves this through carefully considered colour combinations and a painterly style that doesn’t condemn what’s being depicted.  Rather, through their execution and minimised mark-making, the paintings are brought to life with a clean and freshly finished feel.

Greg Harris concentrates on his creative practice as well as private commissions from individuals and organisations alike. He also teaches workshops and welcomes invitations to exhibit and talk about his work.

 

AMM: Could you start off by introducing yourself, touching on anything you feel relevant to the story of ‘Greg Harris’ the artist?

GH: I’m a painter. Predominantly oils but I’ve recently been adding watercolours to my repertoire. I’ve been working professionally for roughly the last four years.  I’ve always been recognised for my ability in art since before I can remember.

My dad told me a story of when I was very young and the teacher scolded me for using up lots of paper with random scribbles. I think I had ankyloglossia (‘tongue-tie’) when I was younger which affected my speech, so when the teacher was telling me off I couldn’t explain myself. So I took the sheets of paper from her and laid them out on the floor: together they made a large, cohesive abstract piece. My teacher felt so guilty she told my parents about it. I don’t remember this but I’m pleased I have knowledge of it.

Otherwise, I’ve always been doodling throughout my years. I remember my mum telling me off for colouring in the wallpaper. I loved to draw Halloween characters with my sister. I’d enjoy any opportunity to visually create to the point that I’d do other pupils’ art work at primary school just to have more time doing it!

I chose art throughout my education all the way to University, but afterwards all the theory and emphasis on conceptual ideas had winded my passion for art. For a couple of years I didn’t really care for it. I started working for Local Government – seriously trying to have a crack at it – and I thought to myself ‘Is this it for the rest of my life?’ That thought shook me up. Then an opportunity arose.

My dad (who’s always been a staunch believer in me) asked if I could paint a portrait of my granddad – who’d passed away – as a gift for my nan’s 80th birthday. I agreed and attempted a near enough photo-realistic finish (something I hadn’t really tried before). When I presented the painting to my nan, it was a very touching and powerful moment: her reaction was a combination of tears and happiness. In all honesty, I think the result took several family members by surprise. This was where art put life in me again.

It just so happened that one of my team members in Local Government was the wife of the international artist Paul Wright, who had a studio space available. After doing a stint of travelling in the Far East, I came back and rented a space. He was a generous and talented man, and I learnt all the foundation of what I have now from him.

AMM: That’s a very touching story about your granddad’s portrait and how you returned back to artistic life. You also mentioned you spent time travelling in the Far East – how much have you found that this has impacted your work or outlook, if at all?

GH: Truth be told, I’d only been out of England once before I met my wife (and that was only due to winning a competition!). Since then, I’ve developed a taste for seeing different places. I love discovering new art, landscapes, foods, culture etc. but also gaining new perspectives on people.

I’m not sure the Far East journey affected my art as such but it did educate me when looking at individuals’ cultural backgrounds. Typically we learn our priorities whilst growing up and we take them for granted as the norm. However, travelling allowed me to see how there are several ‘norms’ and none of them have priority over the other. This is important to me as it helps make more sense of humanity as a whole. Also, I found that a little bit of trust can go a long way, tempered with common sense, of course.

AMM: You’ve relocated to Bristol which is a really lively and ‘independent’ city that definitely has its own identity with famous artists such as Banksy using it as their canvas. Do you feel that it has helped shape your artistic voice?

GH: There are a number of attractive elements in Bristol: the art, its food scene, its friendly nature, its ‘can-do’ attitude, the hills, the nature, the water etc. The list goes on! However, I don’t think the city but the move had an impact on my art. I’ve had several different studios in my lifetime and each time I transfer to a new one, it seems to shake up my practice.

Coming from Leicester – where I shared a studio space with several talented artists – it offered a great arena for conversations about our practice, materials, and the work of other artists. It was a community of likeminded individuals.

However, in Bristol I don’t share my space with anyone. So in that way I’ve been quite isolated. This has led me to really engage with my medium and be more fluid with what influences my work. After two years in Bristol, it’s only now that I’m seeing my paintings make a significant evolution.

Still, I do miss the dialogue with other artists who share my passion and I’ve started to slowly build a network within the city.

One event that has made an impact on my career since being here is The Other Art Fair. They came to the city for the first time in 2015 and since then I’ve shown with them three times in London and once more in Bristol. They have helped grow my clientele, reach new audiences, and improve my profile in the art landscape. Unsurprisingly, they have a great team and I’ll be interested to see what happens next with the fair, especially as Saatchi Art have now joined forces with them.

AMM: And that’s where we first noticed your brilliant works – at The Other Art Fair! You mentioned you had spent two years working in Damien Hirst’s ‘lab’. Could you please share with us your experience and what was is it like to work with Damien?

GH: I feel fortunate to have witnessed such an international artist business in action and to work with some of the best materials in the business. Here’s a quote of what their HR said I could put on my CV:

“The role encompassed various degrees of painting skills and techniques, which required a keen eye for detail, accuracy and good colour matching abilities. Within the role I also gained experience in canvas preparation, painting installation, art handling, condition checking and packing of works.”

What more can I say?

AMM: Indeed. Recently you have become a full time artist. How did you find the transition? What are the main challenges and advantages of your new life chapter?

GH: The transition was made with trepidation. There’s a level of constant uncertainty within the art profession and you have to roll with it. I’ve always taken a careful approach and built my business steadily over the years. I never had the opportunity to pack it all in and do it full-time from the outset.

The main challenge is doing all I can to improve the chances of sales and commissions whilst keeping my integrity as an artist. There are certainly methods for ‘cashing in’ within the art world but I think that can entail a repetition in the creative process which I’m not willing to do. Saying all this, looking at the year gone by, I feel confident I should be fine.

The advantages are plentiful. Ultimately, I have more time to explore and develop ideas, and plan more ambitious projects with my paintings. I’m now also my own boss and there’s a joyous liberty in that which I find hard to express. On a personal level, I now have more time to spend with my wife as well as having weekends and evenings again for leisure which I’ve not had for nearly four years.

Before going full-time, it’s really tough. Immeasurably stressful, frustrating, with a ton of pressure. However, if you stay patient and persevere, it’s definitely worth it.

AMM: Totally agree with you! Let’s talk a little bit about your main focus in painting, which is currently figurative painting or portraiture and rarely landscapes. How would you describe the subject matter of your work to the viewer and do you feel your work evolving in any way, if so – how?

GH: I used to find landscapes very useful for loosening up my brush marks and palette knife skills, however, they have fallen by the wayside as the importance of the figure has risen in my eyes. Typically, I’d describe my work as striking and impasto, with unconventional but cohesive palettes depicting mostly close-up faces.

Technically, I feel quite confident. With regards to the content, I feel it has been a little pedestrian and I can do more with it. And I am. My recent foray into watercolours has allowed me to shift my practice onto a new and exciting path. I’ve been sitting on several concepts for well over a year and it’s only now that these are becoming realities.

There’s an exciting dialogue between the two mediums I’m working in – oils and watercolours – where each one influences the other and I’m not completely sure where it’s heading. It’s an odd feeling but I find my best work happens when I can’t foresee the outcome.

Despite this new development being in the early stages, I can say there are overarching themes I’m interested in exploring: humans as animals, aloneness, the joy of nature. In time, I’m sure working through the paintings will lead me to what feels like the right expressions.

AMM: You have some interesting ideas developing – thanks for sharing it with us. Whether it is watercolour or oils, we absolutely love your painting style! The way you use a palette knife or a brush to put all the colours together is fascinating. How did you develop this style and what is your painting process like?

GH: Thank you! I was privileged that after university I joined the studio of Paul Wright and several other artists. Paul was very giving with his knowledge about painting and being a sole trader, and this is probably because he never had a mentor and had to struggle by himself to become the great artist he is today. I saw how he operated as well as how he prepped and painted work. It was an atelier sort of training that I’m forever grateful for.

As for my focus on colour, I recall that soon after university my wife and I attended a workshop taught by Paul (long before my Government job and when I joined his studio). My wife did a fabulous job of nailing an exciting colour range on her canvas – best in class, I’d say – whereas I struggled. I made a really murky piece. I’m not sure if it sprung from witnessing how I had failed on that day or from a later love of Van Gogh, but colour management has become an obsession of mine.

Even to this day, I take every painting as an opportunity to explore a new variety of colour combinations. I love challenging myself to make any palette ‘work’ without giving an uncomfortably jarring experience to the viewer. However, I’ve made a lot of dud paintings that have only left the studio in a black bin bag!

Ever since sharing a studio space with Paul, I’ve always been quite liberal with my use of oil paints and I’ve accepted this level of consumption from the outset. I know some artists might see me as quite carefree with the quantity of oil paint I go through but the variety of mark has become integral to my work.

My painting process is quite straightforward. I might do a small oil study or watercolour, or I might just go straight to the final piece. It begins with a drawing and a planned colour scheme. From there, I paint from background to foreground until the painting is complete whilst the paint is still wet. I don’t build layers on top of each other. Each mark you see is every mark that it took to make the piece.

There’s a continuous reassessment of the palette whilst the painting grows. Things change in reality to how you may anticipate them in your mind, and I have to adapt. This way of working can throw up some interesting obstacles but this is part of the joy of painting – you’re always learning.

AMM: Well said! How would you say your day in the studio look like? Do you have a strict schedule/plan for your work?

GH: In the Summer, I get up earlier and do longer days, and in the Winter I do the opposite. I’m disciplined with my work. I have to be. A typical day in the studio is nothing special. I start with emails and social media. As an artist early in his career, communication, marketing and an online presence all falls down to me and I have to keep on top of it.

Then it’s in the studio painting the morning away, followed by lunch where I’ll do more emails and social media, then back in the studio for the rest of the day. Again, evenings might include more emails, social media, and research into other artists or upcoming events.

Pretty standard, pretty constant.

AMM: You also teach painting classes and provide master-classes. How do you balance your time between studio work, teaching and personal life?

GH: I’m not sure I’d describe being an artist as balanced at all! I enjoy teaching but I keep workshops few and far between as they eat into my own time in the studio. My personal life basically became obsolete when I did my practice and a salaried job. It’s only now that I am able to have more time with my wife, family and friends.

It may sound twee but being an artist isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s constantly with you, regardless of the fact you have to manage the financial success of it. Art filters into all perceptions and experiences of life, without exception.

AMM: That’s true. Which living or non-living artists are you currently inspired by?

GH: What artists I look at depends on what’s going on with my practice and what I find exciting. I believe one of the most common reasons artists look to the work of others is when they don’t completely understand it’s essence or execution, or when they see a way of overcoming an issue they face in their own practice.

Living artists that are currently inspiring me are Andrew Salgado, Benjamin Björklund, Adam Lee, Maja Ruznic, Denis Sarazhin, Pascal Vilcollet, Alex Kanevsky, and Steve Kim. Non-living are Ivon Hitchens, William Blake, and Andrew Wyeth.

Aside from visual artists, I listen to a vast amount of music, a privilege my profession permits. Musically, I love the sense of yearning I experience when I listen to terrific musicians. Lyric-wise, I love evocative, offbeat and poetically honest words. One musician I’ve been heavily into recently is Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy). How he communicates life, nature and humanity is so spot on for me that I’d love to paint a piece that gives a similar experience. Same for Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina.

AMM: If you were to try a totally different art medium to painting, what would it be and what would you create?

GH: Sculpture. I always enjoyed the naturalness of clay in my college years and I felt my hands were adept at it. Speculating, I think I’d love to go into large scale casting with statement pieces that occupied outdoor spaces. Roughly nine to twelve feet tall. Who knows, perhaps I’ll do it one day?

AMM: That would be fantastic! We would love to see it if it happens!
What are your plans for art and life? Is there anything exciting coming your way?

GH: We are going to India for a prolonged journey, the longest one since our trip to the Far East. My wife’s parents have a house over there and we’ll be on the road a lot. I’ve even taught myself to read, write and speak some basic Hindi over the last six months. I’m very excited – I hear it’s intense over there and unlike anywhere in the West.

I’ll be bringing my watercolours and I’m hoping to find time to fill a few pages. There’s a temptation to fill it with very ‘Indiany’ things – which is fine – but I want to ensure that I’m still capturing humanity and not just the culture.

As I said earlier, my paintings are sidestepping into a new avenue and I believe the work of 2017 is truly going to have some exhilarating pieces. That’s my hope and ambition, anyway.

Find out more about the artist: www.greg-artist.com