Essays by James Hyman

John Lessore

John Lessore


An Interview by James Hyman
Peckham, London
April 1990

James Hyman
Nigel Greenwood Gallery


JH I'd like to begin with some questions about your working
procedure and the roles played by drawing and by colour,
before going on to your subjects and the way you present
them. In the past you've talked about the importance of
drawing as a means of training the painter and as a teacher at
Norwich School of Art and at The Royal Academy you taught
life drawing

JL Drawing is absolutely necessary for me. I am grateful that
this tradition of teaching survived long enough for me to
experience it.

JH To take your own working procedure there appears to be a
process of drawing from the subject, making oil studies and
then producing the final picture. The procedure appears to be
fairly elaborate. Are paintings ever made without going
through a process of drawing?

JL It's unusual.

JH Do your paintings depend on working drawings for pose or
setting or is there a large amount of creativity in these

JL Both. Sometimes I stick closely to studies but on other
occasions, not. The studies are always working drawings, done
with a view to painting, not `things' in themselves. There are
information, a way of noting down what you would like to
remember when memory just isn't enough.

JH How freely do you make changes in compositions or the
placing of figures?

JL At the beginning, drawings and paintings are quite close
but I might move away later. You can get so far with a
painting, and realise that, for example, the person on the left
ought to be on the right.

J H Another part of your procedure is to make oil studies for
aspects of a picture. Examples include a nude study for Artist
and Model I and a portrait head that goes with the Garden
paintings. Is making oil studies a common practice?

JL The nude study was made because the picture was a
composite. I had systematically chosen bits of it from works of
art by other people and invented a figure. I did try to get
someone to pose but it was an impossible position that you
couldn't humanly get into so I couldn't have a model. Because
of the experimental nature of that figure I did do, from
imagination, some drawings and a little painting. I didn `t
want the big painting to get covered up with my

With the Garden paintings, it was different. I wanted to
do a large painting of Paule in the garden but I hadn `t made
up my mind where she'd be or how much of the house to
have in the background. It gets clearer sometimes in a small
study. The two big paintings do in fact relate very closely to
small ones. There are minor alterations, I was having problems
with the afternoon one so I made a head study. I made a
drawing of Paule and then painted the study from the drawing
and then used that. This head was done for that painting and
for no other reason.

J H When you paint groups of figures, are these based on
drawings of observed scenes or are they imagined? For
example, are the Sunday paintings based on observed scenes or
are they a chance to bring people together in a single

JL For Sunday I made several oil sketches. Some figures came
from those sketches but others came out of my head. I didn't
use initial drawings for the large Sunday paintings but I did do
a lot of small paintings, two of which were done in the room.
The first was for a viewpoint and looked across the room
diagonally. Then there was a small picture with two children.
They were not actually there when I painted it but they had
been earlier in the day so I put them in afterwards from
memory. I also had drawings of the wall without figures. But
in a way the painting is about that wall and the figures came
in later. . . It's made of mud and straw between bits of ash
wood. I'd been thinking of painting it for several years.

J H In your work how important are places, buildings or
interiors? Are they simply locations to place people?

JL I do care very much about buildings, but I don't think I'd
ever want to paint architecture without any human interest.
There are a few interiors without figures, but they are studies.

J H In outdoor scenes people are often shown in relationship to
buildings. An example is The Garth. Are the people shown
particular people you associate with specific places?

JL I was very interested in that building. which is ancient and
had undergone much alteration. The figures owe more to
compositional necessity than to any associations, though they
are supposed to look like students.

JL Are you particularly interested in buildings and their sense
of history?

JL Yes, but I don't think I've ever painted a building without
putting in people. Buildings without any people seem

JH In The Garth or in The Cottage on Fire, you seem
interested in the effects of time and the process of change

JL . . . There is always an element of time in a painting.
Things change a great deal. All you can tiy to do zlc create a
sort of moment

JH Moving on to the role played by colour, in large paintings
such as the series Artist and Model each picture has a
predominant range of colour. In the first large one there are
quite strong blues with some pink. Are the colours chosen the
result of aesthetic concerns with the effects of particular ranges
or are you trying to convey particular moods?

J L To me mood is a question of colour. I choose the colour
carefully. Preferably I limit it. That Artists and Model
paintings has no yellow in it. I like to work with an unbalanced
palette in order to achieve an apparently balanced effect.

J H So concern for mood is reflected by the use of an
incomplete colour range

JL Yes, I think that veiy often the beauty of colour is
enhanced by the lack of part of the available spectrum. I often
see things where the colours are very limited and think that I
would really like to paint a picture in those colours. These
memories stay with me. It may be years before I get round to
using them and by then the picture I am painting may be
unconnected with the effect that I first saw but I just feel that
it is the right subject for those colours or vice versa.

J H The Garden paintings have a strong emphasis on

JL The Garden pictures were to do with the marvellous
weather in the early part of last summer. The red of the bricks.
the earth, the branches, what most people would consider a
sad range, are what really excited me much more than the
brighter colours. Jts very rare that my colour is not tempered.
Most is mixed, little comes straight from the tube. In the
Garden paintings I was trying, deliberately, to use a more
conventional range.

I look on the summer paintings as excursions, like
holidays. In my war-torn London childhood there were few
bright colours of any sort. I love greys and browns. To me
sombre colours and subtle changes, not great contrasts, are the
real world.

J H How important is it to reflect the actual weather? Are your
ranges of colour tied to particular weathers?

JL , . . tied to a sort of time. a sort of weather. It's not
necessarily specific. Many pictures of subjects in thd country
would naturally be grey day pictures. I like overcast skies and
clouds. I like all weather.

J H If your use of colour is not necessarily dependent on the
subject is it perhaps a means of reflecting your own moods or
simply to do with pictorial concerns?

JL It's do do with the pictures. not with my mood. I see my
work as gentle and contemplative.

JH So, you've explained that you are not tied rigidly to
drawings and that your use of colour is also free. To what
extent, then, are you interested in `recording' what's around
you or is your work really more about `idealising' particular

JL I don't really 'record'. Most of my paintings are done away
from the object, in the studio. There I feel complete freedom
to reconstruct the world on my own terms

I shy away from the word `idealise'. The real problem is
to paint things so that the painting appears as inspiring as the
original inspiration. It mi~ght seem like idealising. But I find
life so beautiful that it is really an attempt to recreate some of
the emotion that I feel when I see things. I get quite
emotional. Even looking over there at the light on the trees. It
seems marvellous, magical. The way light comes through the
branches, weaving strange shadows across the lawn. I find a/l
that breathtakingly beautiful. Some of the beauty is in the
colour and a lot in the tone. I suppose that the overall
comp ositional feel must be the most important thing. But
one `s reaction is instinctive . . . A painting may combine a
number of magic moments just as a single moment may give
rise to several paintings.

JH What makes you select one subject rather than another?

JL Subject matter tends to become important either because
it's habitual so it enters your life, or, occasionally, one sees
extraordinary things, which are spectacular on a general level.
But that's less frequent. When I saw The Tall Ships I regretted
not having brought paper to draw. When I got home I found I
couldn't stop thinking about it and so after two or three days I
painted the picture from memory.

J H Moving indoors you often show people engaged in
particular activities such as knitting, sewing, reading or
painting. You are also specific about settings and it is rare that
you depict someone without showing where they are. How
important are these activities and settings?

JL There is always a slight difficulty in painting someone doing
nothing. It's an unnatural activity. I always do things in their
settings and could not stop at the `edges' of a person. I can't
exclude the background. It's a level on which I am true to life.
They are scenes I see, live in or come into contact with as are
the activities.

JH Is family or domestic activity your real interest?

JL Subject matter is tembly important to an artist but I don't
think it should be to anyone else. I paint out of my life so it is
natural to care about it. But my life becomes subject matter
because it is to hand. To the spectator how' must be more
important than `what' one paints.

JH If, then, it is not the subject, as such, that is most
significant but rather how it is shown, are you interested in
presenting to the viewer a particular attitude or in idealising,
for example, by suggesting the beauty in daily life, the
importance of the family etc.?

JL I've been told that my work does idealise. But it had never
occurred to me. John Wannacott once said to me `You don't
paint things as they are. You paint them as you want them to
be'. I suppose there is something in that. There is probably a
great difference between the initial sight and the final
painting. I am trying to render the feeling that I experienced
but I never see it as idealised because I always feel that life is
more beautiful than anything that I could ever paint. It would
never occur to me that my paintings might look better than
life. But perhaps, if they were any good, they might be.

JH Finally, on this question of `naturalism' or idealising'.
your pictures seem, on some occasions, to echo nineteenth
century French realism and on others a more idyllic Matisse-like
luxuriance. How do you ally yourself to these responses to
similar subjects?

JL I do like idyllic subject matter but I prefer the opposite. I
am more frequently drawn to the abstract excitement of
awkward or bizarre subjects which probably suit the quirks of
my vision. However, there is a greater difficulty, and a more
subject challenge. in making something with a universal
appeal, personal.

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