Chatham artist Billy Childish
PUBLISHED: 15:07 25 May 2012 | UPDATED: 21:25 20 February 2013
One of Britain's best-known painters and artists, Billy Childish is one of the most prolific artists and writers of his generation
Vim and vigour
One of Britains best-known painters and artists is Chathams Billy Childish, one of the most prolific artists and writers of his generation
Revered from America to Japan as a cult figure, you will always recognise a Billy Childish painting. With its hints of Edvard Munch or Van Gogh, two of Billys artistic heroes, the style is nonetheless unmistakably, distinctively his own.
Billy, 53, who was born, lives and works in Chatham, started painting at a very young age, certainly before he could write and create the music and poetry he is also famed for. His elder brother painted and his father painted, but he couldnt read till he was 14, dubbed dyslexic.
After a brief period at St Martins School of Art he became known as a founder of the Stuckists, but left the group after about a year, having penned manifestos for them. Not keen to be called a neo-Expressionist, it is nonetheless a label which has stuck in academic textbooks, which cite him as one of Britains brightest painters.
Not that the label for his art is that important; better to know that Billys artistic skills and craft lie in painting and the striking woodcuts he makes. As he points out: The trouble with trying to nail things is its handy journalistically, but not easy for information, and it can ignore the complexity.
People are usually trying to define the world around them, often to make things safe, to make things less threatening, but this can lead to inaccuracies.
So how does Billy choose what to paint? Thats almost the hardest thing, what it is that interests you, he says. If you can work that out, technique can follow.
The easiest way is to decide what you want to do, so follow instinct and what interests you when you are young, otherwise people try to work out strategies and that can confine.
When you have an agenda, what you want to get to, then that becomes tied to the work, as thats how you arrange things in the world. If you pick up four pebbles off a beach, one will be your favourite. I paint what interests me, a postcard, a story that draws me in, he adds.
I mention a striking painting of an owl Billy did for an invitation to the charity show, Ghosts of Gone Birds, to raise awareness of birds going extinct. In this show, some took a jokey approach, but Billys owl is highly distinctive.
For Billy inspiration comes from the need to do something and the thing I can do is paint, so inspiration is what it is like to look at things, he explains. The inspiration may be things in nature or things made by man.
Things with vim and vigour inspire me, or there may be an existential view, although I dont believe in the existential viewpoint - alone in the universe - even if the existential can be very spiritual.
Mainly Billy chooses to paint figures, perhaps also figures in a landscape, and he has done some beautiful still lifes. He works in oils because these are the best medium, although he will also work in charcoal.
Painting is a very high art form, if not the highest, the foundation. Even a sculpture can be fantastic, but mark-making is where it begins, he says. My two-year-old daughter is a keen painter and thinks its fantastic. Shes right. The mark at least comes in with speech.
There are no rituals as a prelude to new projects for Billy. I have an eye open and Im on the lookout for things I want to paint and draw. When the Dockyard show came about I did a painting of ships frozen in the dockyard (this occurred in 1947 and 1963) - paintings taken from photographs.
For the last four or five years Billy has been painting on clear primed linen and his works can be anything from 12 inches to 10 feet, the maximum which will go in his studio. The high-quality, Flemish linen is a grey colour, you can see the weave.
Its not white, not smooth, it gives life to the painting. Its not insipid and in some way its not clean: galleries tend to be clean and white and insipid: I dont want to encourage that, says Billy. The painting is a big playground, its like mud pies. I dont want it to be like an office.
Billy Childish has two big exhibitions coming up in Korea (May) and Berlin (July), but in Kent we will all have a chance to see his work in a large solo show at the Chatham Historical Dockyard this month.
Billy Childish: Frozen Estuary and Other Paintings of the Divine Ordinary, runs from 1 June to 30 September in the award-winning No. 1 Smithery: The Gallery at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, 01634 823800
The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, is open seven days a week from 10am to
6pm, last entry 5pm
Billy Childishs work is also on view at the Lilford Gallery, 3 Palace Street, Canterbury, Kent CT1 2DY, 01227 639086 or firstname.lastname@example.org