I think my strength is drawing – but painting in oils is my preferred drug – it’s a beautiful, sensual medium to work in. The feel of it, the smell of it… it feels like some kind of alchemical process sometimes.
Guy Denning is often described as one of the most important painters on the urban art scene. That description actually does him as disservice, as it implies a limitation to his appeal – His work has an appeal beyond that scene and he’s increasingly being seen as part of the mainstream of the contemporary art world.
He’s shown extensively across the UK, with several solo shows in London and has also had solo shows in France, Italy, New York and Los Angeles.
Here he talks us through his artistic development.
“I was always drawing and painting as a kid. In the small village where I grew up I was frequently subjected to bullying by other kids so it was just safer to stay in home. There were only three TV channels, kids TV ran from the end of school-time until the news at about 6pm, there was no video or home computers – let alone computer games… so I read, drew and painted – continually.
At primary school, when I was about six or seven, I painted a picture of a pirate ship that garnered positive attention rather than the usual bullies’ taunts. I think that set the course of where I was going. Bizarrely, now that I think about it, the fact that the positive response was so unexpected probably explains why I then immediately destroyed the painting. There was another kid, a year or so younger than me and very popular with the other pupils; he also showed an aptitude for art. In primary school terms he wasn’t as good as me but I was shit-scared he’d get better than me at it – art became a competition from that point. I just continued. I was obsessively copying from books and magazines, drawing from life, learning to look and learning to make accurate marks.
When I was about ten my father gave me a small painter’s easel and a box of old oil paints that he’d gotten bored with (he used to make small oil paintings of 1960s sports cars). That’s when I started oil-painting and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. By the time I was in my early teens a family friend who worked in one of Bristol’s art colleges was bringing me old canvases that students had abandoned and I was making paintings that were bigger than me.
When I was eleven or twelve my parents bought me a Time Life book on Michelangelo. It was part of a series that I hassled them to keep getting every month and from that time I started reading and collecting art monographs and other books on art movements and theory. I was a teenage art-nerd.At school and home art was the centre of my life. It was my own sense of personal validation. I made artwork and it gained a very positive response so I just continued.
I worked weekends and holidays to pay for evening classes in print-making and life-drawing at the Bath Academy of Art. Eventually I applied to take a degree course in painting. I was refused – repeatedly by various local colleges. No explanation was given and you didn’t ask because you wouldn’t be told. It just made me more determined to continue.
I developed an obsessive interest in the work of the American painter Franz Kline after seeing his painting ‘Meryon’ at the Tate; that led to a personal journey through Modernist theory and abstract painting until the early 90s.
At that time I was supporting my painting with a job in a photocopy shop and this led to a return to figurative work using the photocopiers as an art medium. The subject matter revolved heavily around agendas of sexual objectification and gender dysphoria. This subject matter eventually broadened into other political and personal issues and I returned to oil painting again completely as I felt the digital copier route too predictable.
In the mid 90s I was discovering other artists online that seemed to have sympathies with some of the ideas I’d developed personally. I wrote the neomodernist manifesto in 1998.
Coincidence, luck and fate…
In 2007 I was a union rep in a local hospital and I was one of the branch’s representatives at the annual conference in Brighton. While I was there I met up with a painter friend Antony Micallef for a social drink in a pub…
Days after this meeting there was a show of Antony’s work in an Exeter gallery. At the opening Antony mentioned my name to the owners of Red Propeller gallery. They contacted me and asked me if I had any work available to look at. They visited, went away with a dozen or so pieces and sold them within days before they even had a chance to hang them in a show. My new, and enthusiastic, market were the buyers of ‘urban’ art.
In October of 2007 my partner and I moved to Finisterre in France where I am now able to paint full-time. Since there I have had solo shows in the UK, USA, Italy and France.
“All canvases start with a dark ground, usually brown (or recently grey) thinned paint. I draw the piece onto the canvas with compressed charcoal or conté pastel and then generally work in sessions, dark to light. The key colours I use are black, naples yellow, cadmium red, burnt sienna, cobalt blue, yellow ochre, lemon yellow and white. I add further drawing, inscribe text and add collage elements as I paint. Don’t ask how I make the flesh tones (and I don’t understand people’s fixation with constructing skin tones), it’s not measured or remembered! When this basic painting is done and it has dried I will add other layers of glaze (oil paint mixed with linseed oil, varnish or turpentine, depending on the effect I’m after – the oil takes longer to dry and holds the pigment more rigidly). Eventually I will get to a point when I can do no more with the piece, I’ll leave it for some time and keep visiting it (occasionally something needed will jump out). The last paint to go on is usually a very near pure white highlight. I rarely use pure white through the main of the painting – once you’ve used it,
you’ve used it; and it’s usually your last chance of applying an accent highlight to a painting. Once dry I seal and varnish.””