To look at a Still Life painting by Dennis Spicer is to bathe one’s eyes in an orchestration of colour harmonies and rhythmic shapes. Far from being still, the paintings have a sense of movement like a breath of fresh air. Dennis’ sensitive mapping of colour and tone in interpreting selected objects produce paintings that are not merely observational studies, but visual poems that subtly allude to dreams, memories and personal connections. In this interview Dennis shares his thoughts about the importance of natural light, what the paintings mean to him, and why it’s important to treat background and foreground equally with painting.
Lisa: First of all, what is it that you love so much about painting still life?
Dennis: Still life subjects enable me to paint about ideas I have about memory and loss but also about formal aspects of painting and composing a picture made of objects on a flat surface.
Lisa: How do you go about setting up a still life arrangement?
Dennis: I sometimes feel I am really a lazy landscape painter who likes the comfort of the studio too much, so the still lives are really surrogate landscapes. I like landscape paintings, especially British artists who bring a feel of “the other” to their work, something mystical in the English landscape like Paul Nash and Eric Ravillious. I have accumulated a lot of objects, some manufactured and some natural that I think are imbued with the same feeling, these can be bones or objects picked up along the coast where I walk the dog in the morning or weeds and plants or an interesting looking rock that are all taken back to the studio.
Sometimes these will come together as if by accident and will get painted as they are, but at other times I will put two objects together and that will suggest a third and then I carry on adding and subtracting well into the commencement of the painting when things will be painted out and other objects substituted. I don’t want to just paint still life because of its associations with domesticity or tradition, the objects have to look as though they have been taken in from the outside world and set inside the studio deliberately to be painted, such as feathers or pieces of flint or a pebble from holidays in the past that might contain a memory. I am also drawn to painting dead flowers and plants, they are just as interesting to paint for me and don’t have the effect of being cosy and domestic, but wild in their habitat. They also have an element of vanitas painting about them. Other manufactured objects tend to come from charity shops and have had a previous life being used and loved until relegated to being thrown out or donated. I have, for instance, a hand-carved wooden bird, a curlew, that seems to find its way into lots of my still lives, it often just seems the right object for the space.
Lisa: Can you say something about light – how important is the lighting of your still life, do you ever use artificial light sources, and can an arrangement be equally inspiring at differing times of day, when the light is different?
Dennis: My studio is north north west facing, at the top of a three storey house, so I look over the rooftops of the houses opposite towards the Dee Estuary and Irish Sea a few hundred yards away so the light is clear and constant. I have two main places for still life set ups, a set of adjustable shelves where the light comes from the right and a table directly under the window so I am looking down on the objects which are thrown into contre-jour with the light behind them throwing the shadows toward me on the table. In the shelf paintings the objects are arranged along the shelf, often overlapping whereas the table still lives the objects are more separate from each other and the view is looking downward. In these pictures I try to give a feeling of the changing perspective as one shifts one’s gaze. They tend to be more imaginative where I don’t feel I have to stick to the facts as much. I have a mental image when painting of light splashing over and around the objects, as if someone had a bucket of liquid light and threw it over the table, so the light flows round and over everything and eddies around the objects, then I paint it where it settles and comes to rest. I only paint by natural light, I never use artificial sources, if there isn’t enough light, I don’t paint, simple as that.
Lisa: Can you tell us about your palette – what colours do you like to use, do you always use the same colours, and if not, how do you decide which to squeeze out?
Dennis: For years I used the two of each primary, each biased toward a secondary colour palette as explained in Michael Wilcox’s book Blue And Yellow Don’t Make Green, plus earth colours, but lately I’ve been using a lot more earth colours like Venetian Reds and Brown Earths and Ochres along with vibrant Blues and Turquoises. One colour I find indispensable is Michael Harding’s Kings Blue Light for some reason, it’s such a gorgeous colour and gets in everywhere. I am a big fan of grey as a colour and find mixing and intermixing all these earth colours with the blues and purples gives some beautiful subtle greys with the addition of white, these will often be used to create coloured darks, for instance in the shadows.
Lisa: Would you say your approach to painting still life is any different to painting a figure painting?
Dennis: I don’t do much figure painting and when I do it is usually when I feel I have exhausted the possibilities of still lives, so it’s more of a change and a way to overcome painter’s block really. I don’t like painting from photos as most of the work has already been done for you so occasionally I work with a model in the studio. Of course the main difference is that a model is a living breathing human being so the painting has to convey that, whereas a still life by its very nature is immutable. Although I enjoy the company of another human being and all the chat that goes with it, I must admit it is nice to have the studio to myself again when I am ready for another still life painting.
Lisa: How do you start a painting?
Dennis: Once an arrangement has presented itself either through accident or design, I usually start somewhere in the middle and work outwards. It’s important to me to consider and paint the spaces between and around the objects with as much scrutiny and consideration as I would the objects themselves. I often see still life paintings where the background has just been blocked in as an afterthought but I like to think of the spaces as being just as active as the objects, they are the atmosphere in which the objects exist.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Dennis: I’m currently working toward a show at Editions Gallery in Liverpool in September, although with the present situation it is unsure what form this will take, if it happens at all. My website is www.dennisspicer.co.uk and I post regular updates on Instagram as Dennis.Spicer