Our exclusive Q&A with printmaker Paul Thirkell…
“…. Images and image fragments begin to make themselves known to me, and through placing them in opposition to one another the journey of each work begins……”
Dr Paul Thirkell RE RWA is an artist and art educator, recognised internationally for his innovative approaches to printmaking and for his intricate, dreamlike images. Currently based at studios in Cotham, Bristol, Paul relocated to the UK from Australia in the mid-1990s. In 2000 he was awarded a doctorate from the University of the West of England for his research into integrating digital imaging techniques with rare 19th-century printing processes – and he is one of only a very few practising printmakers to use the collatype process.
In 2008 Paul was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers and an honorary member of the Lichtdruck (collotype) Association, Leipzig. He became an Academician of the RWA in 2016.
Paul’s solo exhibition of original prints, Shadow of a Dream, runs from 21 May to 23 June 2019 in the Academician’s Gallery.
Here’s our Q&A…
When did you realise you were an artist?
When I was seven and recently arrived in Australia, we lived across the road from the Montsalvat artists’ colony in Eltham, an outer suburb of Melbourne. It was an extremely evocative place and the activities of its bohemian artists seemed very alluring to me, and perhaps set me off on the road I’ve taken.
My interest in art and knack for drawing pictures, became a saving grace at school, overshadowing my otherwise average ability in other subjects. I think I only truly realised I was an artist much later when I agreed – on a wing and a prayer – to a solo show in a Sydney gallery. To my surprise just about everything sold.
Why do you make art?
To see a thought take form in a way that captures – for me (and hopefully others) – the essence of the tiny electrical impulse that initiated the journey in the first place.
What is your usual process for making an artwork?
Capturing that electrical impulse, formulating it into a notion, the recognising the insistence of that notion, and the process of trying to realise it – using a hopefully sympathetic medium – to carry the message. Identifying a point where the balance between what’s being said and what’s being done feels just right.
What other artists, works or art traditions have most influenced you?
As a child I was entranced by the colourful printed illustrations in books, encyclopaedias and comics of the 60’s. I also came to understand that there were controversies and challenges in the art of the time that seemed to divide young and old, square and hip. Aspects of this seemed to filter into the realm of popular music and when the names of visual artists seen on the covers of records I liked started to turn up in Art History lessons at school, e.g. Peter Blake, Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton, my interest was piqued.
Despite feeling like I lived in the back of nowhere in an outer suburb of Sydney, I was lucky enough to have an art teacher who had her finger firmly on the pulse of what was going down in the contemporary art scenes of the time in London and New York. Her blow-by-blow descriptions of the happenings, performances and bold Pop Art images of the time inspired me greatly and set me off on a quest of discovery.
Strangely though when I finally got to art school my lecturers seemed more interested in what felt to me to be less contemporary movements such as abstract expressionism and hard edge painting. Undeterred, on graduating I gave up painting for the life of Pop and joined a band.
You have said that you are interested in ‘the way knowledge is presented, mediated, and often shaped by media-based technologies’. How does that interest inform your work?
Throughout the industrial age the printed word and image has played a significant part in disseminating all kinds of knowledge to the world’s population. I’m especially interested in the way, for example, printed scientific illustrations have frequently been given a factual status, but at the same time the information they convey is mediated and often distorted to suit the parameters of the particular printing technique used.
Through my use of print and digital-imaging I weave together disparate print-related styles to create often dream-like images that I set free to lurk within the shadows of our media-saturated psyche.
How has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point?
My earlier work was largely abstract and autographically executed, however a growing fascination with photomechanical print led to the adoption and appropriation of various graphic art’s techniques for generating images and creating printed artworks. This approach originally pioneered by Dada artists of the 1920’s and taken up by the Pop artists of the 60’s, began to take on new meaning for me with the growing availability of graphic and photographic-based digital software.
Through my research as a PhD student at UWE in the late 90’s, I began to combine the flexibility of digital imaging with the amazing scope of forgotten and largely discarded 19th-century printing techniques, such as photogravure and collotype. Insights gained into colour, surface, and richness of tone from this research have largely guided the evolution of my work ever since.
What did becoming an Academician of the RWA mean to you?
I feel it’s given me a formal base as an artist in the region where I practise. It feels very reassuring to be a member of an organisation where there are artists from different generations, spanning a range of fine art disciplines and holding a wealth of experience and talent. It’s fascinating to find where interests, knowledge and experience overlap and new insights can be gained.
It’s also great to be able to participate in all kinds of exhibitions and projects generated through the Academy.
You have an imminent exhibition in the Academicians’ Gallery, The Shadow of a Dream. What can visitors expect from the show?
A colourful journey into a poetic reflection of an inner and outer world. The work made over an approximately eight-year time span uses as its base my ever-growing collection of printed ephemera consisting of illustrated encyclopaedias of the 1800’s along with picture books and scientific magazines from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
Through sifting through such material, I often feel as though I am scouring a sometimes personal and sometimes collective subconscious of our knowledge base. Images and image fragments unearthed from this begin to make themselves known to me and through placing them in opposition to one another, the journey of each work begins.
Although my images are appropriated and digitally collaged from a multitude of sources, my use of composition and colour comes directly from the imagination to mediate the mood, narrative and feel of each work. Along with recent political turmoil and the looming ecological jeopardy evident in our world, the work has taken on an increasingly sinister feel depicting a paradise that is perhaps on the brink of being lost.
“…I weave together disparate print-related styles to create dream-like images that I set free to lurk within the shadows of our media-saturated psyche…”
What are you working on now?
I teach Fine Art at Weston College (UCW) and often get inspired by the creative challenges faced by my students. My interest in drawing and painting through the needs of the curriculum has once again inspired me to revisit my earlier approaches to artmaking. I’m currently working on some colourful mixed media pieces as an offset to the printed work that has encompassed my practice for so long.
A fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?
I would be very tempted to own a work by Richard Hamilton, or perhaps his forebear Marcel Duchamp, but I think they would both thoroughly approve of my choice of Cupid Complaining to Venus c1525 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
You can see more examples of Paul’s work on his website.
Shadow of a Dream, runs from 21 May to 23 June 2019 in the Academician’s Gallery. Admission is free. More info here.