Lance Fennell is an artist whose work explores the landscape around him and more recently has a focus on his growing concerns with the way the world is going with regards to technology.
Lance has a studio here at Westbury and runs regular oil painting workshops. I caught up with Lance to chat about his work, his journey into art as well as his inspirations.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR ARTISTIC BACKGROUND AND HOW YOU BECAME AN ARTIST?
Like most people it started at school. In my earlier years I hadn't really shown much of an interest in art, it was only at the age of 13 or 14 when my art teacher pointed out that I was producing work that other people weren't doing. That comment really made me sit up and listen, it was at this point that my interest in art was really fired up!
I went on to do an art foundation followed by a degree at Bath Academy. My studio was situated in the gatehouses of, a big stately home, Corsham Court, because the lord of the manor a few generations before had been really into his art and he had offered parts of his home for use by the academy, he was very supportive of artists.
"It was the most extraordinary place, I'd literally walk out of my door of the studio and there would be a Peacock meandering across the pathway"
I remember my first day, I was shown my studio space and left to it. It was the first time that I had not been told what to do, I didn't quite know what to do at the time! I found it both liberating and daunting. No real direction was given, you would work on a piece of art and the tutors would come round, take a look and chat to you about what you were doing. Over time I got used to this way of working. During this period I really enjoyed landscapes, most mornings I would venture out with my box of paints and easel and set up in a field. I had this system where I would pick up a stick, throw it in the air and paint whatever scene it pointed to! I found this to be more of a challenge than choosing a scene myself.
I feel that I have been amazingly lucky with the art tutors that I've had over the years. During my latter years of studying I remember having my eyes opened to the different types of art that was being produced at that time. It wasn't just about trying to be the next Rembrandt, I was introduced to new contemporary artists and the different ways in which art could be made.
DO YOU THINK THAT IT WAS THAT PERIOD IN YOUR LIFE THAT YOU STARTED TO DEVELOP YOUR ARTISTIC STYLE?
Yes perhaps, I don’t really think of myself as having a style. In fact one of the criticisms I had at art college was that I was all over the place with the work that I was producing. I had to really discipline myself to start producing work with some sort of cohesive connection rather than work which didn't have any connection at all.
I didn't particularly like this way of working but I took the view that I had a course to complete, so I went with the flow and thought that I could do my own thing afterwards.
YOU HAVE A DAY JOB, IS IT HARD AT TIMES FITTING IN YOUR ART ?
I took a conscious decision. When I finished art school that I would get a regular paid job. I had a £200 overdraft, (which seemed like a mountain at the time) and I didn’t like the fact that I was always out of money!
My mother was a freelance bookkeeper and so she taught me bookkeeping and got me a job at a nearby electrical wholesaler. This was in the days when it was still manual so I learnt the technicalities of double entry book keeping. Not long after that computers came along, and this worked really well, in fact I loved it! I enjoyed using Excel, and I still do, I really love the creativity of writing a really good formula, it's almost like painting a really good picture. It's hard to explain this to most people who perhaps don't have the same love of Excel as I do!
I soon moved on to do the bookkeeping for the Bank-side Gallery in London, which is next to what became the Tate modern. I was back in the art world albeit as a bookkeeper but I soon built up a bookkeeping business and would continue producing art in my spare time.
It was all about working and running my business and basically drawing and painting when I could.
Imaginary town (1989), Floppy Windmill & Shenfield Station by Lance Fennell
I was working an 80 hour week sometimes, it was ridiculous. I decided at that point I was going to take a few months off and concentrate on painting. I went back to work afterwards but I did feel that the time off had allowed me to have a different perspective, it wasn’t about the money so much but it had become more about working in order to support me as an artist.
Fast forward a few years and I'm still working full time but the difference is that I now have my own studio here at Westbury. A place designated just for producing art the way I want to. When people say to me “I don’t know how you have time” the answer is “You have to make time”. You can’t just make it happen, you have to be disciplined and say that this time on a Tuesday is my painting time, I can get quite stroppy with people if that gets interrupted.
I’ve more or less kept to that ever since, I could go back to working long hours but I’m not getting any younger and I want to get paintings done so that’s the trade-off.
"You have to concentrate on what’s gives you joy".
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR WORK AND YOUR ARTISTIC STYLE.
From a visual point of view my work is mostly landscapes, and by landscape I mean the outside world; townscapes, seascapes, landscapes. Anything outdoors really.
The configuration of shapes and colours is endlessly interesting and as I mentioned earlier about throwing a stick and painting the scene it pointed at, you can do that anywhere and as soon as you get going the whole world opens up in front of you. The shapes and colours and their relationship to each other. You can never run out of ideas, its not possible.
In the last couple of years I've had a growing concern with how the way the world is going. I think there is a combination of things going on politically in relation to technology that we as a society are being incredibly complacent about. The signs are there and we're not reading them, it concerns me a lot.
We're now immersed in this digital dimension that has become massively important in our world and yet it’s happened so fast. The change, the speed of change and where that’s going in terms of Artificial Intelligence.
So without being too literal I'm trying to find a way of expressing that within my art, I want to touch on some of my hopes and fears with the way I think the world is going. I have an ongoing curiosity about what the world would look like if I made a painting of it.
YOU’VE RECENTLY PAINTED A SERIES OF BOXES; THE BOX STUDY, THE RAINBOW BOX AND SHENLEY BOXES. ARE THESE IMAGES TELLING A STORY OF THE WORLD WE’RE LIVING IN?
It’s partly to do with computer technology. The boxes are landscape in nature and work well in relationship to that slight sense of threat and what they stand for and that sense of bunkering in. I like these references.
I’m interested in my art going down a different route, it’s hard to describe as I’m feeling my way with it at the moment. I don’t know what I’m trying to create, I know what I’m trying to get across, but whether or not what I’m doing is working or not I don't know, I guess it's a work in progress.
"Two Boxes" and "Shenley Boxes" by Lance Fennell
WHERE DOES A PAINTING BEGIN FOR YOU? TALK US THROUGH YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?
I use a sketchbook, I particularly like the ones which are spiral bound so I can rip pages out without feeling guilty!
Otherwise I find that what happens is that the sketchbook becomes a thing, it becomes a bit precious. Books are a bit sacred. Whereas one with a spiral bound can have the pages ripped out and you'd never know!
I tend to work out the original image first in an A3 sketchbook and I take it from there. My current painting I'm working on is of the Shenley Oak just up the road from Westbury.
It starts off with me taking photos, working up a drawing from them, then I’ve added things to it such as sandbags to the bottom and stars. I then move on to do a version in acrylic, the original drawing and the acrylic painting will be on the studio wall next to the easel when I do the final version of the painting. I’m incredibly traditional in a way.
"Shenley Oak with Bags" by Lance Fennell
IS THERE A PARTICULAR PIECE OF ARTWORK THAT YOU’RE MOST PROUD OF?
It’s usually the last one, which would currently be "The Carousel".
Interestingly the two paintings that came after that, one of the boxes and one called “Checkpoint”, I kind of knocked them out fairly quickly, I do consider Checkpoint in particular to be one of my best paintings in terms of the way I measure my work.
But it does tend to be the recent stuff. I do find myself looking at my older work and think what was I trying to do there?
"The Carousel" and "Checkpoint" by Lance Fennell
WHAT INSPIRES YOU, TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAVOURITE ARTISTS?
More often than not I'm inspired by things that I see everyday. The Shenley Oak for example, I ride past it on my bike everyday on the way to Westbury.
I have a great love of art history, particularly the renaissance period. The path from that type of art to the present day I find fascinating.
I do often wonder why we aren’t making paintings like that anymore. There seems to be far more depth in their work than there is now.
One of the amazing things that I find that visual art can do is to tell a story in a way that you can't do with books or music. You can walk into a room and see a painting on a wall, you "see" it straight away. You could stand in front it if for 10 minutes and really get into it and see all of the various elements, but in a few seconds you’ve got it. You can see what it’s of, you can see how the shapes and colours relate to each other. Visual art has a way of telling a story that no other creative media can do
You take one of Boticelli's paintings, "The Birth of Venus", it’s up to you how you want to read that picture, but you see it all at once, I like the sense of that story being all yours rather than story tellers telling you what the story is. It’s just up to you as to what order to put it in, and how you want to interpret things.
When people ask me what my work means I won’t tell them because if I produce a picture of a pill box, how do you want to interpret that? I am unlikely to be there when people would view the picture, so I leave it up to the viewer to interpret.
In terms of non famous artists I'm inspired by two of my tutors who taught me at Bath Academy, Peter Kinley and Michael Simpson. Michael Simpson had a huge impact on me, he won the John Moores painting prize a few years back. He’s not particularly well known but he’s still in my head right now when I’m painting.
He’s the one that came into the studio at Bath and he says to me;
“ You know Lance, I can’t see any difference between your painting and your palette, but at least your palette's got a reason for its existence”
He didn’t pull any punches, but those tutors that came in and only said nice things you kind of forget what they say.
In terms of contemporary paintings, Howard Hodgkin, I think he’s a superb painter and I’m slightly unlucky in that he taught at Bath Academy before I got there so I missed out on him.
Howard Hodgkin, After Visiting David Hockney (first version), 1991 - 1992, oil on wood © The Estate of Howard Hodgkin
Howard Hodgkin, Through a Glass Darkly, 2015 - 2016, oil on wood © The Estate of Howard Hodgkin, courtesy Gagosian
I also enjoy Botticelli, Raphael, Caspar David Friedrich the German painter - I have an enormous love of his work. Rembrandt, particularly Rembrandts painting of Hendrickje Stoffels which is in the National Gallery, it's got to be one of the best in the world ever made! It is Rembrandt at his best. And then there's Caravaggio and The Supper at Emmaus, what a painting!
For me going to the National Gallery and seeing paintings like that is like going to see old friends, I’ve been going to see them for many years.
YOU HAVE A STUDIO AT WESTBURY WHICH YOU’VE HAD FOR 7 YEARS, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO HAVE A STUDIO AT WESTBURY?
I always remember taking the children to Milton Keynes and driving past the cars at Westbury, the ones that were on top of each other, over the years it became a thing. Whenever we came to MK we got to go past the cars. The kids loved it!
The cars at Westbury also known as "Flat Mate" were a famous landmark in Milton Keynes until they were removed a few years ago. They were created by artist Jessica Rost who at the time had a studio at Westbury.
The great thing about having a studio is having the choice of going somewhere else and being able to shut the door. However wonderful working from home is it’s not the same as being able to go somewhere specific to a room that’s dedicated to what you do.
Being in a house full of artists is a big positive. Artists often sit around the table in the kitchen (pre covid) and talk about art and artists in a way that others would perhaps not understand. Plus talking about materials and techniques and that sense of being part of something, I think that’s very special.
There’s a wonderful book called Art and Fear which I read just before Christmas which I would recommend to anyone. One of the things it touches on is about how the vast majority of people give up art at school if not before. What we have at Westbury are the people that didn’t give up and we’re all special because of that.
HOW HAVE YOU FOUND LOCK DOWN AND CREATING?
For me I don’t think it’s affected my practice at all, I’ve had some very frustrating days where I'm fed up, like most people. I particularly miss getting together with family and friends.
WHERE CAN WE SEE MORE OF YOUR WORK?
You can view the last couple of years worth of work on my website www.lancefennell.co.uk
You can also follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/LanceFennell and Instagram @lancekfennell
If you would like to know more about Lances' oil painting workshops he can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org