Charles Inge was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with his work Yukka Flat. Each painting records an exploration into colour, layer, harmony, and texture–the destination may be unknown, but the joy of the journey is evident. Here, Charles tells us about learning to see by drawing, the phases of a painting, and studio life on the Isle of Wight.
Above image: Deluge, 2020, Charles Inge, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 120 x 200 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Charles: From an early age I wanted to be a painter. I went to the Ruskin School of Art in the 1980s and then was offered a place at the Royal College. Sadly I couldn’t see how to make the finances work, so I never went.
Instead I fell into advertising. On my 50th birthday I quit to paint full-time. In order to re-engage with other artists and the London art scene in general, I enrolled on the brilliant Turps Banana Studio Programme.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Charles: My paintings always begin with some spark of an idea. That usually is a really tiny idea like a colour combination ie. Rose Pink and Naples Yellow. Or, it might be a structural idea like a four-part series, or it might be something simple and obvious like ‘night’.
However, whilst these ideas might act as a starting point, they never control the process. My paintings are like unruly children, I pour all my hopes and dreams into them, but then they rebel and become their own thing. So the paintings start telling me what to do and, like a weary, doting father, I just obey.
Over the years, though, I have found that each painting goes through three distinct phases. Firstly there’s the architectural phase where I work out the basic structure. The second phase is like being a musician, where I layer up all the big chords and twiddly notes, all the textures, colours and harmonies, until it is a cacophony of profusion. The final phase is like being a poet, where I edit back everything except the essentials. This is done in a slower, more contemplative way.
I hope that the final painting retains some of this history, but more importantly I want it to surprise me and to have ended up somewhere I could never have predicted, usually far away from that initial idea.
Clare: Can you tell us more about your two different studios; on the Isle of Wight and in Soho. Is there a difference in your practice working from each one?
Charles: Sadly, during lockdown, the Soho studio I was renting was demolished to become a posh hotel.
But, yes, I used to spend half the year in each.
Where I work makes a huge difference to my painting. Soho is (was?) a buzzing, vibrant mash-up of colour, lights and noise. It is also full of galleries and people competing to be seen and heard. Best of all I was five minutes walk from the National Gallery. Every lunchtime I would spend half an hour seeing what I could steal. One day it might be the colouring of a Piero Della Francesca nativity, another, the soft edges of a Vermeer, or a dead fly in a Dutch flower painting.
The Isle of Wight couldn’t be more different. Here I walk for 2 to 3 hours a day. Seasons change, orchids come and go, sea-mists roll in, goldfinches flock on the thistles. Here there is no feeling of competition, I just try and immerse myself into the days and months.
I try and retain a bit of Soho when I’m on the island, and a bit of the island when I’m in London. It seems a good combination.
Clare: I read that you often “paint to the same album, musician or song again and again, until (you) begin the next series.” I’m interested to know if there was something specific you were listening to when you painted Yukka Flat? What are you listening to with your present series?
Charles: I do. I use music as a short-hand to get ‘in the zone’. When I put it on in the morning I’m back where I left off yesterday; so it’s back to work. Also it encapsulate the mood of a painting or series, so it keeps me on track. I think that being an artist involves finding lots of these personal tricks that work for the individual.
For Yukka Flat I was plugged into Big Thief’s album, Capacity. There’s one song, Mary, and I must have listened to a thousand times. Mind you I still don’t know what its about.
Currently I’m plugged into Bach and working out a positioning around ‘New Baroque’; exuberance coupled with control. I have been trying to paint a fugue with a motif that I state, develop and restate. High Baroque was full of tricks and effects, and rather than be ashamed of them, I’m trying to embrace them.
Clare: What can you tell us about your colour palette? What kind of paint do you use and is there any specific way you arrange your palette?
Charles: I usually paint in acrylic or oils. When I was at school I remember a teacher saying that everyone uses the red/green spectrum and so I have always thought that was for beginners! I remember Hockney talking about Van Gogh and how unusual his yellow/blue bias was and how few great yellow paintings there are in the world. These throwaway remarks have really stuck with me. For example at school we were forbidden to use black, so until recently I never used it; which is of course ridiculous as Matisse and Manet used it all the time. I love mixing greys, but I’ll still do it with viridian, Indian yellow and mars violet rather than get the black out.
Clare: Do you have a practice of drawing? If so, what tools do you use? What environments compel you to draw?
Charles: Over the years I have done so much drawing. I was at art school when drawing was still taught; we had life drawing every day. It’s a cliché but drawing really does teach you to look.
I always have sketchbooks to hand to jot down ideas, as well as drawing from life.
That said, these days I’m just as likely to reach from my iPhone to capture an idea. I have hundreds of files of ‘to do’ projects on my computer.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Charles: I am always reaching for charcoal to draw into my paintings. Especially the acrylics, where I can wash it off, redraw and keep trying things out.
My worktops though are covered in everything under the sun. There must be over 100 brushes of all sorts from calligraphy brushed, basic decorator brushes, to scrublyhard old favourites. Then there’s wood-graining tools, wire wool, sandpaper, squeegees, nasal dropper bottles, acrylic sprays, inks, stencils, rollers… you name it, anything that makes a mark or removes one. I’ve even got a sort of hand–cranked splatter gun that I keep meaning to try.
However, I think my most useful artist tool is a cheap notebook. Each morning I begin by looking at my work with fresh eyes and make a list of all the things I don’t like. Then I decide an order in which I’ll tackle them and get to work.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Charles: The biggest change has been losing my Soho studio. So for the time being I’m full-time on the Isle of Wight which is a wonderful place to be. However I really miss the community of artists in the old London studio.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Charles: They are a bit of fun: me and my heroes. Partly I am in awe of these artists, but also I like to remind myself that they were just ordinary people going into a studio each day, filled with doubts, like the rest of us. And then all sorts of thoughts come into my head. For example when I’m painting on the floor I can’t help wondering if Jackson Pollock’s knees hurt as much as mine? And how about Agnes Martin self-isolating for 30 years, whilst the government asks us to do it for just a few weeks?
As to my influences? I seem to be constantly working through different artists, even ones that I have never even faintly admired.
In Yukka Flat for example, I was initially inspired by some tiny Leonardo da Vinci drawings of mortars and cluster bombs. However I can see references to Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Pop Art and cartoon artists like Yoshitomo Nara and Joyce Pensato. It’s one weird mash-up.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Charles: When I was young I’d be very up and down depending how things had gone in the studio. However I have since come to realise that bad days are never as bad as you thought, or good days never as good as you thought. So now just being in the studio at all is a good day for me. I’m so lucky to be able to do this.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Charles: I was supposed to be part of a group show in Los Angeles which has been cancelled due to COVID. It is now pencilled in for next year.
So please come and visit me in my studio on the Isle of Wight.