These lovely paintings by Bermondsey-based painter Barley Beal are a slight departure from what I typically share on this site, and perhaps that's one little reason why I love them! Beal captures wonderful emotion in his figurative paintings, surrounded by abstract fields of color and form. We chat about his education, nuggets of wisdom, and Harry Potter. More at the links below!
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First, I'd love to know a little bit about you. Can you introduce yourself?
I'm Bartholomew Beal (stupid name - call me Barley), I'm a 27-year old Londoner living in Lewisham and working in Bermondsey.
You earned your BA from Wimbledon College of Art a few years ago -- what was that experience like as far as developing your practice?
Wimbledon was a brilliant place - partly because it was a Fine Art (Painting) course, so every one of our tutors was a painter. This meant we had the professional opinion/advice of artists from so many points along the spectrum from figurative work to complete abstraction. I turned up as a very boring portrait-painter, and because of the influence of these tutors and my fellow students/friends, I challenged myself with spending most of 2nd year painting colourful canvasses of light upon surfaces. 3rd year became a fusion of the two, using what I had learnt about colour and new painting techniques combined with the figure paintings which had sent me to art college in the first place.
Your work combines realistic, representative figures, often dressed like clowns or harlequins, which are then paired with abstracted and colorful backgrounds and patterns. Can you elaborate on this?
I decided in 2nd year that leaving a canvas with empty spaces or hints was much more interesting than a fully completed painting. I realised that I loved standing in front of work by painters who had left a lot of the stories in that painting unfinished, but had left just enough to captivate me- to try and finish them myself.
The clown has been a feature of my paintings, and has popped up several times in the last 4/5 years. I have pulled the clown/jester/fool from The Wasteland and from King Lear - the starting points for my recent exhibitions. I have tried to use those melancholy clowns to translate the literature into paintings- and clowns were the perfect figure for me to use the conflict of comedy and despondency/sadness running through both.
What is your favorite thing about your medium? What challenges you the most about it?
It means I can put the tiniest drop of a hot red on a painting and the whole thing comes alive! I also love the history that comes with it, as this medium has been used for roughly 600 years now, and my favourite paintings in galleries around the world from every point through this 600 years were pretty much all painted in oils.
I quite often make my colours by putting washes of translucent tube paints across a dry colour, several times over- so if they are not what I was looking for I can just wipe that layer off and start again. The good quality/more expensive paints mean I can use so much less because their powerful colours/high pigment count can cover so much more canvas than the cheap ones, so I think they are roughly the same value for my paintings.
It also means I can talk tactics with some of my closest friends- taking advice on new approaches and trying out some new things.
What is your process like? Do you plan in advance, or do you experiment as you go?
I have a pretty erratic approach, depending on how excitable I am feeling. It is quite often the work of other painters that makes that decision when I head into the studio. If I have been to a brilliantly expressive show recently, I am going to be trying to loosen up, get out my bigger brushes and work across my set of canvasses to make a bit of a mess and then slowly organise it all again. If I have come straight from the National Gallery, its more likely to be the specifics of my paintings that need working on. If I am feeling a bit bored/boring, I will get out some of my books to look through the work of my favourite painters which generally does the trick! I always have a sketchbook to hand to scribble out some new ideas before I forget them, or come up with several options for the next move on canvas.
What kind of research or preparation do you do before, or in the process of, making your work?
My last few sets of paintings have all started from literature, as they seem to conjure up paintings in my head as I read through them. It is really useful to then look back into them if the larger paintings are not coming out well, or are not carrying enough hints/suggestions. I also find this the best way for me to keep a running theme through 20/25 paintings. My last 3 exhibitions have been from Derby Folk Stories, The Wasteland (T.S Eliot) and King Lear. I am now working from a few poems by Seamus Heaney, as my Irish girlfriend has introduced me to many of the beauties of the Emerald Isle. I have been spending some of my studio time looking into the history which inspires some of his work, and heading to the Seamus Heaney Museum out in rural Ireland.
How would you describe your studio or workspace?
I like to have a lot of paintings going at once, so if there is a tactic or a colour that's working that day, I can pull it across several others. I have everything from 20x25cm to 240x180cm currently in progress, and I try to only spend a couple of hours on each one every time, so I am not over-working it, and then make the next move when that one is dry in a few days. That first look when I open the studio door in the morning makes most of my decisions for me.
Do you have any routines or rituals in the studio, to get you into the mode to create?
I have developed a habit of having Harry Potter's audiobook playing on loop in the background when I pick up my brush - for some reason it blocks out the outside world so I can just concentrate on my painting - undistracted by anything else. I am also a champion procrastinator, so HP seems to get me to the canvas instead of constructing rickety shelves.
Now that you've been out of the university setting for a few years, is there anything you wish you would have been taught or directed to during your studies, that would have helped get your practice off on the right foot, once you graduated?
I think it would have perhaps been quite useful to have a couple more lessons/ lectures on self-promotion/business economy (but equally, I might have just missed those ones...). I was very lucky to have been given a 9-month residency in Derby after my graduation (Jonathan Vickers Residency- I would highly recommend it!), so I was offered a very simple route, but there are hundreds of websites full of advice, and getting onto a blog like this is great news, so many thanks!
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally?
For me, the most challenging thing is being my own boss. Whilst the gallery that represents me (The Fine Art Society) makes regular check ups on my progress and gives me important deadlines, I am still the one in charge of my working hours, and being a 9-to-5 painter is a struggle, as it still feels like a slightly rebellious act! My working hours are a little more erratic, but I try to work through the weekends too, because as soon as I have slipped back into the 'HP zone.' I am having a brilliant time doing what I love.
What is the best piece of advice you've received?
I wish I had noted down the advice from some brilliant tutors I had through college. Mick Maslen and Nelson Diplexcito were really important and helped me change the direction of my work, but in terms of definite quotes that I keep looking back to, as a useful kick, were from the 2 experienced artists I was discussing painting and poetry with a few years ago, and then featured in my dissertation -
"The space that is present is where the meaning lies." - Simon Burton
"Poetry is allusive enough to defy capture." - Matthew Burrows
Since these conversations roughly 5 years ago, I have tried to keep that running through my work - an attempt to keep the empty space as an important feature consistent with poetry, and to keep the actual meaning/intent of each painting 'allusive' - trying not to just illustrate the poetry, but to reference it in a painting which is still primarily a painting!
What are you working on right now?
I have a solo show in September at The Fine Art Society in London - and I currently have around 20 paintings on the go. It's getting very exciting as momentum builds up and each brush stroke just becomes a bit more successful/deliberate/expressive.
Anything else you would like to add?
So many thanks to you for this excuse to waffle on/ remind myself of why I paint, and thanks to anyone who has read this far!
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