An interview with Paul Bell winner of BBC1's Big Painting Challenge
By windsorevents, Oct 28 2015 12:23PM
Paul Bell has taken 40 years to become an overnight sensation as a national artist. He is showing at the first art fair in his career, and will be at the Windsor Contemporary Art Fair on the 14th-15th of November 2015.
Leaving school at 17, Paul started out getting a job in an interior design practice in his hometown of Glasgow; a firm that sent its trainees to art school one day a week and life-drawing one evening. He became one of the youngest ever designers to be given diploma membership of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers.
From interior designer to architectural illustrator, to finalist of the prestigious BP Portrait Award, to winning the BBC1 series “The Big Painting Challenge” 2015, Paul has also now had two pieces of work from that TV series hang in Tate Britain.
We have taken the opportunity to find out a bit more about Paul.
All the focus now is on you becoming “Britain’s Best Amateur Painter”, as a schoolboy did you ever go to the Tate and think “one day I’ll show here?”
I have to say that the term ‘Britain's Best Amateur Painter’ doesn’t sit very comfortably with me, you have to remember that ultimately it was a TV show not purely an Art show; and my feeling is that the BBC’s criteria for selection was based on much more than artistic ability.
I think that all 10 of the contestants would admit that there are much better ‘amateurs’ out there than us. In saying that it was a great platform for all of us, to work under pressure and with mediums and subject matter not necessarily of our choosing.
I did, and do, have reservation about the format of the competition, but winning the title and having two works hang in Tate Britain is something I am very proud of.
After a lifetime of working successfully with your talents, how did you find the experience of six weeks of different art challenges, some of them outside your comfort zone?
As most people know, my background is quite technical therefore certain challenges should have been more comfortable than others; but it didn't work out like that.
I have always painted as a hobby and have used basically all mediums and tackled most subject matter, so there wasn't any particular challenge where I thought I would flop.
Practice was the key and that’s what I did in the lead up to each challenge; for example I produced something like six studies of my still life composition.
You have mentioned that your priority since the TV show is to develop work with integrity and purpose, why is that?
I think with Art you have to follow your heart, your gut instinct and immediate reaction to the world around you, and disregard how others might judge you and your work. Otherwise it’s all a diluted compromise, which will ultimately show in your painting.
You produced a still life for the show, what are the stories behind your choices: a human skull, an Arabian dagger, a sketchbook, a beetroot, a bracelet and some coins?
The brief for this particular challenge was to assemble a group of objects that were of personal significance. The basis of my still life was Family, Mortality and Conflict.
I think explaining any more than that devalues the experience of looking at it.
Which was the best experience on the show; meeting and painting your crush, Pam St Clement, the new friendships you made, or the life-changing experience?
Painting Pam was great, although I wish we had more time to talk prior to, and during, the brief sitting.
The friendships with the other artists obviously varied as some were around longer than others, but we are all still in touch; and of course we held a joint exhibition in London not long after the program finished.
To be part of and experience, how a TV program is made, was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole experience.
How has life changed for you and your family since winning the show?
Initially there was a lot of media interest, invitations to Art events etc., but then life gets back to normal. I still get recognised now and then but, what winning the program really does is open doors; and that’s useful when trying to promote and exhibit your work.
I continue to paint, as well as juggle daily life with my young and demanding family.
What was the most difficult aspect of becoming an artist, did you put yourself in challenging situations to produce work?
It’s finding the time that’s the biggest challenge, and wanting to paint when you can’t. I very often paint long into the night because it’s the only time available, but that can adversely affect your role as a parent the following day.
I would like to get out and paint “en plein air” more, but it’s very time consuming.
What was the best part of life up until the show?
Getting the opportunity to paint was always very satisfying, but as a family we have had the opportunity to move abroad a few times and they have been great life experiences for all of us.
You’ve spent a year in Amsterdam, where you were able to paint almost every day. There is a great art scene there, was it valuable to experience or were the other influences surrounding you distracting?
The year in Amsterdam was fantastic, as you rightly say there is a fantastic art scene and people of all backgrounds really engage with it. They try to make Art as accessible as possible to everyone; for instance the local library rents original art to the general public at extremely reasonable prices. It amazed me the number of houses I visited that boasted great original art collections.
It was a great place to paint with a lot of local interest and encouragement, and other artist would freely exhibit from open houses on a regular basis.
However, uprooting your family is both rewarding and at the same time it’s difficult. I’d lived in Glasgow up to the age of 40 before deciding to move to France, where we had 4 very interesting years, but I miss the very close friends and of course family. You value these things more as you get older.
Where do you work now, and do you have a studio still?
I still have use of the studio in Beaconsfield, although that won’t last forever; but I have a room in the house where I use to work, and I will go back there eventually.
Who inspired you to be an artist?
My father painted when I was young, and collected really good art, so I guess it comes from him. I also had a very inspirational art teacher at High School, who encouraged me to paint outdoors at quite a young age.
The people we look up to reflect on who we are, who do you most admire and why?
People who are genuinely kind and unselfish, they are great qualities! My wife, mother, and father are amongst quite a few.
What compliment would make you feel the happiest at this point in your life?
On a personal level, that I was a good father, husband, and friend. Artistically? That people find my work worthwhile and desirable.
A big broad question; what is Art worth in society, to our culture?
I think Art is incredibly important to any society or culture, and should be recognised as that. It should be given the same level of importance as any core subject at school.
Art is the basis for everything we see around us, and society will always benefit from creative thinkers; and that extends well beyond art as we know it.
What is your art worth to you?
I can’t imagine life without it, so in that respect it is invaluable. For me Art, and creating Art is instinctive, I never question why I do it, I just do it!
Are you lucky?
I’m extremely lucky, I have a fantastic family who are all healthy. I don't need to visit Food Banks or worry about putting a roof over my head, and I get the opportunity to paint almost daily.
Why have you chosen to show at the Windsor Contemporary Art Fair?
I’d heard good things about it and its relatively local, it’s my first time doing an Art fair so I’m intrigued to see how it all works; and, of course, having a look at what all the other artists are doing. It would be nice to sell some work as well.
Thank you and we look forward to seeing you in November.