| Art

Portraits of the World: Bruce Atherton

Painter Bruce Atherton on style, presence and portraiture.

Foteini by Bruce Atherton 2017, 90 x 130cm, Oil on Canvas

Painter Bruce Atherton’s career has taken him a journey throughout Europe on the back of his technical skill, flamboyant use of colour and arch execution of wry composition. 

Specialised in oil painting, with experience in both digital art and photography, Bruce swings between experimental figurative painting and traditional portrait commissions. In both formats the mixture of classical and photographic intensity lends his work a vibrant presence recognised during his ten years in Italy with collaborations with Studio d’Arte Cannaviello, and the Vatican as an official portrait artist, painting neo canonised saints for the postulation, and many other high level portrait commissions. In 2001 Bruce won the ‘Targa D’Argento’ Sulmona Prize and speaking to Trebuchet he explains how the style he’s developed as taken him on surprising inward journeys.  

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I started drawing and painting before I could walk and I have literally never stopped. And yet even now every time I approach a new work I feel like I’m right at the beginning! It was always a vocational calling for me rather than a career oriented one.

Nathan Mann by Bruce Atherton 2016, 30x40 cm, Oil on Canvas_2
Nathan Mann by Bruce Atherton 2016, 30×40 cm, Oil on Canvas_2

My inspirations spring from so many different fonts. I’ve doggedly refused to compromise on my life’s journey which has lead me to experience many levels of life, from absolute wealth to abject poverty, and a myriad of things in between. So those that have most inspired me are often those souls who have had the courage to devote themselves to some form of positive inner ideal. When I was 17, I read the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and this totally resonated with me at that time, not for the political ideas that I now understand, but for the blind faith and drive of the protagonist to realise his vision of his work in his own uncompromised way. Even if it was just a fictional character, the idea was what I needed to justify and inspire the decisions I would then go on to make! For many years I was also inspired by Gaugin who felt the calling to his work so strongly that he abandoned everything to follow it. and by so many others of my brothers and sisters of the soul who have heard the calling to whatever ideal in whatever field and had the courage to follow it. I am also greatly inspired by artists who have been called to a unique vision and inspite of all external resistance have managed to bring that vision into the world.

The art that most inspired me when I was younger were the works where great skill and virtuosity of technique were apparent. I spent years intensely pursuing skill based techniques, but never in a mechanical way. I really wanted to know how the works I loved had been made. However, I was often dissuaded from learning how to paint figuratively, especially when I was at St.Martins in the late eighties, under the theory that technique blocks expression, so more often than not I had to teach myself what I wanted to know. I always thought that mastering technique was simply the beginning of my art path. first reach a point of mastery which will then allow me to jump into the unknown of true creativity knowing that if I ever got truly lost I would have methods of returning to more familiar ground . I always believed that technique is the language, but art is pure poetry. I feel that you can’t write good poetry if you haven’t gone deeply into the language. If however, by technique you mean what methods do I use to make my work, then this naturally draws on from what I just said. The aim is to jump into the unknown having the faith that all those years of self training and discipline will guide me back if I suddenly find myself in disturbing new states of creative consciousness in my practice. I never try to recreate the same work twice. I probably couldn’t if I tried as I’m constantly looking for different and exciting new ways of doing things, and often follow both instinct and intuition! I’ve spent years exploring so many different forms of creative techniques and as a result my work has become very eclectic. I have worked with oils, which is my first love, acrylics, airbrushes, sculpture, photography and even digital works, I hold a Master Degree in fact in Digital Arts, simply because I wanted to explore new ways of expressing myself. 

If it is a commission then I like to jump in with as much clarity about what I am trying to achieve and what the expectations of the client may be. I can be ridiculously professional in these cases. If it is a piece done purely for my own creative advancement then I can sometimes spend far too long on the preparatory phase. I feel that every time I paint I am standing face to face with my very soul. I am putting myself on trial. and yes there is fear. Sometimes I just have to jump into the unknown and overcome my egotistical vision of what the work is supposed to be. Only through the do, and the repeated do, can the true work manifest. I have to let go of many of my first ideas and let the work happen. many times I have a vision, as clear as can be, but only for a split second in my mind’s eye. I can become haunted by the memory of that vision and I hunt it. Sometimes working a painting many times in many ways until it manifests almost of its own accord. 

I learnt quite profoundly that only through the MAKING of the art can I advance as an artist. Only when I am painting can I open new doorways to the next step of my work. It’s not external, but internal. If I catch myself procrastinating or avoiding the time in the studio then I am obviously overthinking it all. At this point I know that I have to get to the studio and just jump in. Then and only then will the work materialise.

I always attempt to begin a new work or series of works in a rational way, but when I finally engage into communication with the work through making it manifest I enter into a phase of almost pure emotional engagement. This is most true when it comes to my more expressive experimental paintings, it becomes like walking into an uncertain universe where each colour is like a note in a symphony, each brush stroke is a statement, and emotional response is how I navigate the work. Once I enter into the work I’m committed and sometimes it feels like I’m at war with myself, my expectations, my fears and the voices of a million unseen critics. The only way forward is just to drive on until I have it or completely lose it and must start again!

There have been different works that best represent the different phases of my journey, but I don’t really perceive my works as individual. each painting contributes to the greater whole of the body of work. some greatly advance the body, others come to throw a spanner in the machine. the success perhaps is that I am still called as strongly as ever to create. each work that I sign I consider to be a finished piece, and therefore a successful piece to a greater or lesser extent.

There have been so many crazy reactions to my work, usually very positive, but one story stands out from quite a different point of view. Many years ago I met an aspiring artist from a noble milanese family. Years later he confided in me that after discovering my work, and greatly admiring it and understanding how much I had put into it and how driven I was, he quit painting and gave up all aspirations of being an artist! I was devastated to hear this as my aim was always to inspire others to embrace their creative energies, but he was actually thanking me! Luckily for me he became one of my most loyal collectors and remains a good friend to this day!

Ironically it’s when people completely fail to or refuse to see anything other than the most superficial levels of the work. I’ve spent all my years trying to create doorways to consciousness, often hiding my true intent in layered figurative works as a means to entice the viewer into other layers of being and many do see what I’m trying to do, but many have such powerful preconceptions of what contemporary art should look like that they fail to see beyond the most basic interpretations of the work.

If at all possible, I would invite anyone interested to try and see one of my works in the flesh. We are in a world of reproductions. I avoided social media for as long as I could. art should be seen in the flesh, naked in its glory. not as some little digital square on a computer screen or phone! Already a printed version is much better. My work is often large and soon I want to work huge! This needs to be experienced! Let’s hope that soon the world returns to a place where that is possible. otherwise you can always look at my website!

For some reason I have been holding many things back. I have been holding on to thoughts and ideas, often not even my own, that have stopped me from truly expressing myself all the way. I want to free myself of any unhelpful limiting beliefs, or desires to please some invisible audience or worse; that invisible critic in my head. What’s next is to attack those limiting beliefs that I have been hanging on to and release them, to give it my everything, to really finally touch that inner belief that made me follow an art path! To allow my best work from my soul to

unconditionally enter this world. to explode in light in a time when the world is under such a shadow that I feel it really needs truth in whatever form that may take! 

Pope John Paul by Bruce Atherton
Pope John Paul by Bruce Atherton

On my wedding ring I have the words NEC SPE NEC METU. which was what was inscribed on the knife that Caravaggio carried. It means NO HOPE, NO FEAR. It was used as a rallying cry for freedom by Caravaggio and his contemporaries in the time of the Reformation. no hope meant no imposed religion, no fear meant no hell. which for me always said believe then in yourself. Art, true art, is courage, and a pursuit of one’s truth.” 

Bruce Atherton Website

Cover: Foteini by Bruce Atherton 2017, 90 x 130cm, Oil on Canvas

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