In the first Spotlight interview of the year, Ed interviews the academically rebellious painter, sculptor, etcher, clothing designer and friend, Nick Bethell
Ed Lines: How would you describe your style?
Nick Bethell: I think that to have one style is limiting for many artists; to explore routes with only one vision just isn’t enough for me. I’ve experimented with many styles, from photorealism to abstract expressionism and almost everything in between, and after so much exploration I struggle to stick to one way of working. Each piece takes form in its own way. Perhaps eclectic is the best summary. At this moment in time though I’d say it’s figurative expressionism, flirting with abstraction.
I work mainly in oils on canvas, but I like to draw into paintings with charcoal as I’d say I’m more of a draughtsman with a paintbrush than a painter, I find that charcoal adds a unique texture and bold structure to images. I’ve also recently started working in different media; etching, which is a fascinating medium, and clay as I’ve always wanted to have my sculpture work cast in bronze.
My main subject matter is the female figure, it’s just something that’s fascinated me since life drawing lessons at the age of fifteen! Although over the last few weeks I’ve been trying out landscape and seascape painting inspired by my figurative work. In merging these subjects together I have found a fresh direction to pursue. I now want to encourage viewers to look at my work, to use their imagination, to see things from a unique and more personal perspective.
EL: How would you explain your academic history?
NB: Well I’d say that doing history of art at school played the largest part in developing my understanding of art, with Margaret Craig, the teacher that you also had the pleasure of studying under.
I however went down the practical route due to a lack of patience with essay writing, so I went up to Edinburgh to do an art foundation course at Leith School of Art. I had several disagreements with the head of the school:
He said Manet was an Impressionist during the first lecture, which I quickly pulled him up on… He instantly took a disliking to me.
I was only the second person to have failed the course in its 22 year history. Not a proud moment to be honest.
After that I managed to get a place at Leeds College of Art where there was an abundance of idiocy from the tutors, having little knowledge of art history and no enthusiasm for my work. I studied art and design with a view of doing a mix of both those subjects, giving me the freedom of playing with graphic design, architecture, and fine art. However they never seemed to like any of the work that I produced.
I felt frustrated that we had to ‘tick the boxes’ to please the tutors and get a good grade, so thought maybe education just wasn’t for me and dropped out after half a year. I never had a tutor that I respected artistically or one that inspired me.
Since then I have been re-teaching myself how to draw and paint, but from memory. Although I create from my head, observation is still the key. I think that by not having a subject to look at, the canvas itself becomes the subject and therefore I am 100% focussed on the canvas rather than mainly on a subject. This gives me a chance to make mistakes, and it’s within this process that I learn new things. Many of my favourite paintings and drawings have been the result of several mistakes that just work.
I didn’t paint a thing for about two years so I could concentrate on drawing (this is how the Old Masters such as Titian were trained, the only differences being that they painted from life and probably had a slightly more structured approach!). I then progressed onto painting in monochrome to really get an understanding of form in two dimensions. Recently I have just started to use colour again which is refreshing. I’m always learning new things.
EL: If you could meet any artist, dead or alive who would it be?
NB: Can I meet a few more? I’ve got a list of nine here:
1. The cave painters in Spain around 40,000 years ago, so I could understand their mark making and to see the pioneers of art itself. I’d also like to ask them why they produced art. The language barrier could be an issue.
2. Brunelleschi, so I could ask him about the dome on Florence Cathedral (Duomo) which he crowned two centuries after the rest of it had been completed. I’d also like him to design me a gallery/studio with a similar dome.
3. Gauguin, to see his palette and to compare his experience in Tahiti to mine in St Kitts.
4. Picasso, at my age (22), pre-cubism, to ask him where he could see himself going in life.
5. Modigliani, so I could watch his figures as they’re harmoniously translated onto canvas.
6. Giacometti, to analyse him sculpt his intricate structures.
7. Miroslav Tichy, who in my eyes was the greatest photographer. I’d like him to make me a camera.
8. Hockney, to pick his incredibly knowledgeable brain on art history.
9. Hirst, to tell him to be truer to art. To try to be an artist rather than an architect before it’s too late as he has some great ideas but lacks the skill of the craftsman.
I could go on all night here.
EL: Aside from your artwork you also run a clothing brand. How did that come about?
NB: I went on an extended holiday to St Kitts a few years ago where I found some real characters in the relatively remote village of St Pauls. It took a bit of time for them to warm to a white tourist but eventually I made a few friends out there. I drew and painted them regularly and thought they’d look great on t-shirts and sweatshirts. As people usually wear clothes with famous people on them I thought it would be amusing to create iconic images of these unknown individuals. It makes me chuckle when people try to guess who they are. My website/online shop is almost ready to go.
EL: What can we expect from Nick Bethell in the next year?
NB: Well I’m going to progress with my new techniques and continue developing my understanding of the female form, the main focus of my work for the last two years, so if anyone would like to try something new and sit for me, no matter what size or shape, I’m always looking for new models.
EL: Did you just say that?
NB: Worth a shout.
EL: Fair enough. How can we see your work?
NB: I’m entering paintings into competitions and galleries such as the RA summer exhibition, the BP portrait award and many others. I’m also in the early stages of planning my first solo exhibition so watch this space if you need to fill a new flat/house with contemporary paintings. To see my work feel free to go to http://www.facebook.com/nickbethellartanddesign. All work is for sale, ranging from £50 to £1,500. Clothing from £12. Prices and sizes available on request.