Saturday, March 01, 2008

Art Space Talk: John Luce Lockett

John Luce Lockett studied at The Northampton School of Art and The Byam Shaw Kensington, following this with extensive study in life drawing and human anatomy. Although he has worked in a variety of media, including watercolour, etching and sculpture, he has always considered himself to be an oil painter. John's primary interest is painting people in situations, whether it be a beautiful woman or old men in a bar, and although John does take the occasional commission (and once exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters), he prefers to choose his own models ,locations and compositions and weave his own narrative both real and imagined around the characters in his pictures.

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Brian Sherwin: John, you studied at The Northampton School of Art and The Byam Shaw Kensington. Can you recall your academic years? Who were your mentors? Tell us about those experiences...

John Luce Lockett: As far as I remember I was an unintentional rebel at both colleges. It was a time when figurative work of any kind was fairly taboo in art schools and although I enjoyed the learning process of all the different disciplines during my Pre-Dip at Northampton, most of the tutors really didn't like me. I spent a lot of time on the Racecourse, a park opposite the college. My problem was that I believed that by learning how to paint and draw formally would somehow damage the essential individuality of my work which I considered to be "precious".

In the seventies colleges were very much geared to a throw away impersonal attitude to ones work, and being "precious" was a fault left to amateurs and failures. We were both wrong because as in all things especially the creative arts, it's necessary to strike a balance. On the one hand an artist needs to realise that without learning how other people do/did it they are missing out on an invaluable resource which will speed up their development and enhance their work, but on the other there is no great art without a certain amount of "self indulgence", "navel gazing" and putting value on the finished creation. The other problem was that almost by definition artists don't flourish in art institutions.

Byam Shaw was a very strange private College in those days, there were 98 of us in the whole college, and I was one of two on a state grant, the other was in her third year when I arrived. All the other students were fee paying and loaded, the sons and daughters of celebrities, film directors and big business. The college was impoverished, no common room, no cafe, just one coffee machine, I struggled to buy a sandwich while my fellow students sent out to Harrods or popped down to the Ritz for lunch.

There were tutors who were kind and helpful like Chris Penny who ran the etching studio (I was put into etching because I could'nt draw ) and Tamsin de Mobray who felt that I would one day be a portrait painter and introduced me to a society portrait painter in Chelsea who was painting Peter Ustinov at the time. Diana Armfield gave me tips on painting and Jane de Sousmarez who bought me food when I was hungry and talked me through some difficult patches.

I really didn't learn a lot apart from how to survive on the streets and the age old cliche that it's who you know not what you know that moves mountains in the art world, and because I was a hippy I turned my back on all that. I also learnt that to be middle-class, white, male and have an ordinary name is really not good if you want an artistic career, it still applies today but to a lesser degree due to the immense size of the art business.

Most of what I know and teach now comes from many hours of work and private study over a life-time and I consider that my real tutors were Chris Fiddes, Robert Beverley Hale, Stephen Rogers Peck, Sheppard, Jeno Barcsay, Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer and that dear old abstract colourist Rembrandt, who's paints I still use to this day.

BS: John, you have worked with watercolor, etching, and sculpture... however, you always considered yourself to be an oil painter. What do you enjoy about working with oil paint? Also, how have your experiences with other mediums improved your practice as an oil painter?

JLL: The great thing about oil paint is that if it's good paint and you know how to use it, it does what you want it to. Half the joy of watercolour is the happy accident and that even when you know how to use it, it still often does what " it" wants to, this can sometimes give you a masterpiece that you weren't expecting or a disaster that had great promise. I like to know where I'm going, and as a professional I can't really afford not to. I think professional watercolourists are very brave people.

Nothing handles quite like oil paint or has the pigment loading that satisfies, I love the subtleties of colour heat in juxtaposition, the freedom of movement in the paint and the wonderful possibilities offered by a mixture of translucent and opaque colours. From a tiny little 10"x8" canvas to a 40"x 48" monster (for me that is!) it does the job and although I wash my hands all the time, I do like the mess, the smell and the physical nature of the paint itself.

Etching teaches you things about line, positive, negative and reverse images which would be hard to learn any other way, it's also dangerous, dirty and bad for your lungs, it really makes you feel like you're at the coal face, grafting for a living. I miss it, and will one day return to it, my press which my father built, sits in the corner of my studio and gives me dirty looks and makes me feel guilty.

As for sculpture, I've known real sculptors, and I'm not one of them, I admire them enormously, I have a friend who carves hard stone into angels or anything with a chisel, he loves it but it scares the pants off me. I produced a series of nude sculptures some years ago in order to get a better understanding of the anatomy that I had been studying for years, to give me a view in the round. They were small, only maquettes really but I learnt to mould the clay to something near the form and then carve with dentist's tools once it became cheese hard. I don't think that I produced any masterpieces but learnt things about form and depth which are a great help when painting. The models had a great time but didn't appreciate going home with muddy handprints all over them.

BS: Tell us about your process... do you use traditional methods or do sometimes utilize unconventional materials within the context of your work?

JLL: Don't laugh, but I still use a big round wooden pallette like Vermeer,(no floppy hat!). I used to paint with sables but I now find that good acrylic brushes work just as well and last longer. I use a very strange (or at least other artists think so) easel which is a coffee table that my sister built at evening classes many years ago, with two cantilevered easels joined to opposite sides, it's on castors and is fitted with Dutch marlsticks which drop down and slide along, in order to rest my hand when I need accuracy in a wet area.

For the first 25 years of my career I worked exclusively from life, and then I met the commercial publishers who wanted the work yesterday and with the models arm in a different place, even though she'd gone home and I had changed the studio. Nowadays I work using everything that's going in order to get the results that I want. I do drawings before I paint in order to get the feel of the thing, and now that I'm doing commissions again in order to get the approval of the patron, but I've always been wary of giving too much love to the drawings and then getting bored with the finished piece, luckily I draw quickly, and again it's finding a balance.

BS: Can you tell us about some of your influences? Tell us about the artists you admire...

JLL: Learning from other artists both directly and through study is like learning from someone with an infectious disease, you want to be close enough to get the info, but not so close that you catch the disease. I think it's true that artists often admire other artists who's work is very different from their own and that they would find very difficult to do themselves, but in the early years especially,one is looking for ways to improve the work. As a result it's necessary to learn from artists who have something to teach you.

My earliest influences were probably Van Gogh and Dali, Van Gogh for his struggle to draw well, his use of colour which sticks in the mind like a catchy song, and Dali for his drama and devotion to the peculiar. For me Dali faded a bit because I felt that the subject matter took priority over the aesthetics and that wasn't what I wanted.

I was lucky that in my mid-twenties I met an artist called Chris Fiddes who went on to be a renowned international mural painter. He was a lot older than me and knew a lot of art history that I didn't, a lot about the masters , the colours that they used and how they thought about their work. He acted as a mentor here and there over a couple of years leading up to my first London Show and taught me a lot in a short time.

I painted a self portrait with Velasquez's pallette as a challenge by Chris, using only vine black, yellow ochre, venetian red and tit white, agony but great for getting the greens in flesh tones. I still use it occasionally today with the odd extra colour.

Later I got really hooked on Lucien Freud and eventually had to draw back and go in my own direction, especially as my "Freuds" turned out to be very hard to sell, they would probably be more popular now, but much as I enjoyed them they were only mock "Freuds" not genuine "Luce Locketts".

Through the years I've flirted with Gustav Klimpt and Egon Schiele, studied Rothko at the same time as Rembrandt, surprisingly they have a lot in common, and I've always wished that I could have the courage and vision of Stanley Spencer, but in the final analysis although I will continue to look closely at artists around me both living and dead, when I am painting I have to tell myself that I am the only artist in the world.

BS: I understand that you once exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Are you still involved with them?

JLL: Years ago The Royal Society of Portrait Painters had much more of an open door policy which changed the year after I exhibited. I don't know why for sure, but I vaguely remember being told that the members decided that they wanted their exhibitions to be much more of a showcase for their own work, and to be fair, when I was there some of them did look as if they could do with the extra money.

For me the whole business was quite surreal as I was in the process of running off with one of my models, who I eventually married and arranged amazingly amicably to take each of them to one of the two receptions that the RP held that year.

My painting was a picture of a West Indian girl sitting on the window ledge of an attic window, and the RP hung it directly above a painting by David Shepherd who at the time was one of the most famous artists in the world, elephants, wildlife and trains, but this one was a portrait of two elderly gentlemen. I had planned to stand under my painting and talk to the visitors, but I soon gave up. David was a big man in a tweed jacket with leather elbows and looked a bit like a science teacher, his presence and professionalism was consummate and once he got into position in front of his painting that was it, nobody else stood a chance. I took whichever one I was with for a drink and left him to it.

Funnily enough as a result of hanging the piece, I was contacted in the following February by someone who liked it at the RP and wondered if it was still for sale. The Coutts and Co cheque paid the deposit on my first house

BS: I understand that you have some concerns about the art world at this time. Would you like to express your opinions?

JLL: This is true, but it's hard to know where to start and how to keep my arguments unemotional and succinct. Nevertheless I will try.

There are many artworlds these days apart from those which have existed as part of human culture probably since time began, just about any kind of activity which doesn't fit into any other box is classed as "art". I have only applied to the British Arts Council once in my life for a few hundred pounds to buy some framing for an exhibition, this was about thirty years ago, they were offering this money as a prize and it was won by three guys who planned to tour the pubs of East Anglia wearing three hats which were nailed to a long white plank. This story is very funny if you think about the difficulties that they must have encountered especially after a few pints, and I don't deny that slapstick comedy is an art, but it has precious little to do with what I do for a living. I never bothered them again but the sad thing is that whereas this was occasional then, the monkeys thanks to people like Charles Saatchi have now taken over the zoo.

If I were to open a restaurant in London or New York and I served nuts and bolts in sump oil sauce, all washed down with the finest kerosene, I wouldn't last long as a restaurateur. I could however do exactly the same thing and call it "art" and I would probably have a sell out as long as I attracted the interest of the right people.

All true artists are eccentric, eclectic, and often a bit "off the wall" but history has forgiven most of them because of the wonderful work that they have created, stuff that is sometimes timeless and enriches the soul in perpetuity. Our culture appears to worship the idiosyncratic nature of the supposed "artist"as art, rather than the work itself, a bit like being "famous for being famous" rather than anything actually achieved.

To me a curator is someone who runs a museum and is not necessarily an artist. I once asked Damien Hirst if he used complementary colours in his "spin paintings" while we were watching someone producing one for him, he replied "No, we just bung it all in and see what comes out".

The trouble for artists like me, and I really do believe that I didn't have any other real choice in life, is that I find myself under the same umbrella as these "loonies" and much as I want them to have all the freedom to do as they choose, I don't want to be classed along with them.

Although all this has the makings of a good tragicomedy it does have a serious side to it, as many of the people who have degrees in art don't have even the basics of the learning that applies to drawing, painting, sculpture etc. I have come across drawing students with first class honours degrees in fine art who haven't even been taught or grasped an understanding of simple perspective!

My other major complaint about "the artworld" is much more about the "commercial" side which affects me directly and I have to be very careful how I put this as I know that the press in the UK will not touch it with a barge-pole, or even reply to e-mails on the subject. I presume that this is out of fear of libel suits, but as nobody will even give me an answer let alone a definitive one, I can only speculate.

Lots of people like pictures on the their walls, this goes right back to cave-paintings, sometimes they provide a window, sometimes they come out and bite you, sometimes they are purely decorative and occasionally they have a magic which transcends all of it. Some people like to become collectors of pictures, by a particular artist or of a particular subject or art movement, these people often refer to "their dealer" who's knowledge they respect, just as you would if you wanted to buy a car or a lawn-mower. The difference is of course that most cars and lawn-mowers end up at the tip when they have out-lived their useful life, but a picture (which doesn't actually do anything physical other than mellow or deteriorate) can be worth much more than you paid for it when you bought it, or as with the lawn-mower nothing at all in terms of cash.

Most collectors are quite unaware that the "art-market" and consequently many of the dealers are actually controlled by the major fine art publishing companies of the world. These fine art publishers along with certain galleries have such a stranglehold on what is offered to the public as art, that they can make or break anyone that they choose to. The profits from fine art reproductions can be huge, so huge in fact that there is no real need for a major fine art publisher to treat it's artists badly, even those who don't quite make the grade. Unfortunately however they do.

Although there are a number of small publishers and dealers who work fairly and honestly with their artists, they still live in a world which is controlled by the big publishing companies who call the tune across the market. I remember a dealer who was making a lot of money off the value created by a large publishing company but didnt seem to realise it. He proudly announced to me that for some years he and his fellow dealers had been "talking down" the value of "Vettriano's" and had succeeded in at least halving their value over a period of years.

If an artist is approached by a large publisher and accepts the deal, usually a three-six year contract where the publisher has first refusal on all their work at 25% of retail and a percentage usually about 10% on any reproductions, less mis-sales, bad debts etc.

As long as the publishers sell large amounts of both prints and originals, everybody is happy and as one artist told me recently that even though it annoys him that the publishers escalate the price of his originals far beyond the original retail price, this is the closest he's ever been to having a salary. If however the publishers do not reach their target, the artist is then left in the lurch, they do not visit or reply to invitations to take advantage of "first refusal" and the artist cannot sell to anyone else without being in breach of contract.

Because the big fine art publishers control most of the High Street/Main Street galleries certainly in the UK and probably in the USA as well an artist can be "talked down" on a big scale and can be ruined within a few years. If they complain or attempt to sue they are usually forced to settle out of court by the blunt instrument of immediate financial hardship. If an artist refuses a major publisher especially if they've been "head-hunted" they are "blacked" immediately and that along with not having the publisher's publicity and distribution machine, they usually end up in obscurity after a year or so, regardless of the quality of their work.

A publishers agent once told me that "I could take their 25% of something or they would make sure that I got 100% of nothing" Most art-dealers know that all this is true but will not talk about it, just like the press. The development of new techniques like "giclee" French for squirt ( a computerised print which can be produced as a one off) avoiding the need for large print runs which end up being recycled if not sold, is starting to change the power structure because artists can produce their own if they can afford the outlay for the equipment and find ways to sell their work, internet and e-bay are just two methods.

Nevertheless the big publishing companies are already in on the act with "artist enhanced" or "embellished" prints. This is where large numbers of students or anyone who can do the job, is taught how to put some blobs of real paint onto a giclee so that it looks more like an original and the publisher can sell it for an outrageous price. This method pioneered by a large publisher in the UK for use on serigraphs for the US market is now employed by many publishing companies across the UK with their "embellishers" working in factory conditions. I guess the artist still signs the work him/herself?

BS: John, you also have experience in managing a gallery. You ran a successful gallery for nine years. Why did you decide to open a gallery? Do you plan to open one again?

JLL: I'm already open again and have been since last year, although I am still happy to hang originals or prints with galleries both here, in the US and anywhere else in the world. Bentley in California who are an honest and honourable set-up but don't pay very well, still sell my prints all over the world, (though I could do with another small publisher or distributor for short run Limited Editions) I am still keen to make the most of the fact that I have a gallery at home, and it does sell pictures.

Originally my wife Amanda and I opened the gallery as a means of selling my work direct to customer, the feedback is wonderful though sometimes eye-watering when someone doesn't like a piece or finds a "howler". The main reason was and is the feeling of complete autonomy, sometimes I can hang a piece just because I like it, not because it's commercially viable. It has it's drawbacks in as much that it's very hard work, sometimes inconvenient and there can be embarrassing moments. I remember when we first opened "the gallery at home" a man said to me, "I'm having an interesting week, I went to a "real gallery" in London on Tuesday and now I'm here!"

It is also sometimes quite frightening as I am not a particularly good businessman and my wife who is an accountant left many years ago, neverthess I have learned how to haggle and to stick to my guns when I really don't want to sell a particular piece, I offer them a giclee, unembellished and make it clear that it's only a reproduction, but if they really want the image, it's a good compromise

I have found that understandably many potential customers are wary of spending large amounts of money on a painting which they have only seen as a jpeg on my web-site, it could after all be rubbish in the "flesh". As a result I tend to only get internet sales from previous customers who know that my work is on the level, but this is changing slowly as our acceptance of the technology increases.

The gallery at home has also given me the opportunity to paint landscapes again which is great fun, though at the moment I'm not getting the time as there is a demand both here and in the US for my "showgirls" like "Class Act" and "Finale" for restaurants and clubs, so I'm painting some on commission. I have been planning for sometime to paint some romantic pieces of couples in townscapes, but despite global warming I can't really do this until the weather gets better.

BS: What do you think of some of the groups that have strong opinions of what art can and should be-- for example, the Stuckists... or the Art Renewal Center?

JLL: Because much of my time is taken up painting to earn a living and I've been a single parent for the last eight years, I don't get a lot of time to see what is going on in the art-world, I knew about the Stuckists and I had been to the Art Renewal Center site before but the good thing about an interview like this is that I was able to go and have another look at both of them before replying, you can't do that on radio or TV.

The Stuckists strike me as a good crowd who sadly demonstrate what I said earlier about the un-taught. Many of them do seem to be very proud of being unemployed and as an ageing hippy myself, I can see where this is coming from, but the most obvious thing about them seems to be anger and resentment that wallies who pickle sharks take all the glory and all the money, while painters, printmakers and sculptors following 2000 years of tradition get ignored. I think that they do have a right to be angry, Doctors would be very angry if "Homeopathy" was made the only kind of medecine that was taught or allowed to be practiced or paid for, and after a short while the public wouldn't like it much either.

The reason why we weren't taught was probably a direct result of the nature of the 20th Century, two World Wars and countless other wars where the establishment sent millions to often meaningless deaths meant that not only is a lot of 20th Century art ugly (and rightly so, it was an ugly century) but that it was inevitable that the establishment had to be replaced, sadly I guess they threw the baby out with the bath-water.

As a result some of what the "Art Renewal Center" has to say about the art establishment trashing the history of art and the skills that go with it during the 20th Century is true, and artists like the Stuckists realise that they are the victims of that trashing, they ain't pleased about it but they don't always have the knowledge or the old skills to fight it easily, and worse they are a movement with a negative title. Calling a movement the "Stuckists" is like naming a racing team the "Statics".

What they need to realise is that artists like them were there first and will be there last, the world will always be full of con-men/women who have a great time taking the piss out of the gullibility of their fellow human beings and laughing all the way to the bank, but history with it's 20/20 vision will see right through BritArt and all that it stands for, I promise. As I have already said knowing what to do about it now is harder because being told that you were right all along is not much use if you're dead and had a rotten time getting there. Maybe I'll get in touch with them,that's if they'll talk to an old fogey like me, unfortunately just like football much of the problem stems from big money and the aquisition of it.

The problem with extremes in anything, especially religion, art and politics is that they breed extremes to counter them. I have never found that fundamentalism is ever a good thing as it tends to be the working area of bigots who see everything in black and white and as any artist knows life consists of millions of shades and hues and always will. Although I can see that many of the aims of "The Art Renewal Center" are laudable and that "the emporers suit of clothes"brigade are the new establishment, I think perhaps though, that we can't write off the 20th Century but need to pick and choose and maybe use a bit of common sense whilst doing so, in order to achieve some kind of balance.

BS: What advice do you have for young artists?

JLL: What makes an artist is volition and imagination, having working eyes and hands is helpful but not essential and all the rest is learnable, Van Gogh has to be the best example of this, though I am sure that there are countless unknown others. My advice to any young would-be artist is to ask themselves these questions;

Do I want to be an artist because it's a soft option, trendy, all my mates will think that I'm cool, art school is more fun than University? Remember that for most real artists there is no "job" at the end of all the study and only the wage-packet that you create yourself. Your real mates, not those who are jealous of you will already have told you that you are or will be an artist, for once you don't have to be one to know one.

Can I live without it? If you can Great! an office job may be boring but many artists dream of having a salary, the art-world is full of sharks and you may go hungry or worse lose the woman or man that you love as a result of your dedication to your work.

Do I know what I want to create and if not, am I prepared to do the work involved in finding out? This doesn't mean that you have to have some burning desire to deliver some message that will change the world, leave that to the power-junkies, just find a direction to get your teeth into and go with it for a while.

Can I get up in the morning? Can I avoid getting smashed because I need to work tonight or tomorrow, and still have a good time? Many artists find that the fickle unpredictability of the nature of their work can easily lead to the abuse of substances which in small quantities can be quite beneficial. If you go to my site at you will find a link to Different Journeys which may be helpful on this point.

There are no right answers to these questions, but if you've answered them honestly and realise that you really have no choice in following a vocation to be an artist, then God Bless You and also God Help You! My son Billy Lockett is a pianist/guitarist and a fledgeling singer/songwriter, you can find him on Myspace or look up Acuity which is his band, he plays all the time, even when he should be doing chores or studying, good or bad, I think that he can see the writing on the wall.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

JLL: You Brian have given me a rare opportunity to get on my soap-box and for that I'm grateful, but if you notice, at no time have I gone into trying to explain "the intrinsic meaning" of my work or other such bullshit. I really don't like STATEMENTS, I think that they first came about in the seventies and since then many graduates have produced theses ( uncomfortable similarity to faeces don't you think) instead of the art that should have exhibited their skill and knowlege, love and passion.

THE WORK IS THE STATEMENT otherwise there was no need to create it, and sometimes it can say more than Shakespeare, be funnier than Oscar Wilde, deeper than Proust or Joyce and need no translation for anyone in the world, not even the illiterate. Thanks again for the interview, and if anyone has any comments to make about it please feel free to contact me at and click on Contact Us.

You can learn more about John Luce Lockett by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

It's great to see John Luce Lockett on your blog. I did enjoy the read. He is a real character who has so much passion in his work. I know, I've met him and had the honour of showing my own work alongside his at The Great Art Fair a few years ago. Indeed a great artist and a gentlemen who says it as it is. Wise words and humour, which I think you have to have in this business at times. Young artists are recommended to read this blog. He tells the truth about the art business, how it really is.

Alan Montgomery said...

Interesting interview. The discussions around facility and the un-trained in the art world is a good point of discussion. My generation was short changed in that sense by the after effects of pop and drawing without a course in anatomy for example...I teach anatomy via Beverley Hale's lectures and students today find this stuff illuminating as it should be. Thanks John for the incites/insights! Alan Montgomery

Alan Montgomery said...

Hello John:

I agree with a lot of your comments especially because I am part of the generation (punk rock era),who was short changed by teachers who really dismissed traditional knowledge, and could not be bothered to teach things like artistic anatomy. Although, I do believe that careful observation and hard work will pay off. I enjoyed your thoughts and especially the stuff about Saatchi.