Ewing Paddock - Contemporary Commuter Art
Ewing Paddock is a graphic designer, sculptor, furniture maker and painter. He is probably most well-known for his paintings of people on the London Underground. We had a chance to catch up with him about his work.
You set up an underground set in your studio and invite commuters to model for you, which gets around a number of problems with taking equipment on a crowded tube! Can you tell us a bit about this and how you approached people to ask them to take part?
Making the replica Tube seats was essential for the way I wanted to do the project. It made people understand how serious I was but there was also an element of fun about it. Also, the seats were comfortable and relaxing so my passengers didn’t feel they were posing.
The idea of inviting strangers was essential (ideally I would have included every possible combination of ethnicities, ages, sub-cultures, etc), but as you say a bit daunting. So the first paintings were of people I knew well. When I’d completed a few paintings I made a small folder to give to people I wanted to invite. Nobody was ever offended by being approached – I think most were quite flattered – but not everyone responded.
Were people who you really would’ve liked to have painted who refused?
Memorable ‘escapees’ were a very amorous couple, slightly smashed, and a full-dress Admiral reading a Kindle. But getting recruits was never a problem. Some who got to hear about the project would even invite themselves, which was difficult if I’d never met them.
Each of the underground paintings have their own narrative, the people in your paintings are both models and actors and each painting is like a scene. Did you have a clear idea about what you wanted / who you wanted to have in your paintings before you started making them?
A few of the paintings were deliberate constructions (Adam, Eve, and Grace, Grace, Grace) but mostly they seemed to invent themselves. A good example is Alex, Natasha, Peter. I spotted Peter on the tube one evening in his bowler hat and pinstripes, a normal sight 50 years ago but very unusual nowadays. Luckily he accepted my invitation, and for a several weeks his image sat alone on the canvas waiting for someone to join him. I’d originally intended to include two Australian girls who had been collecting for charity dressed in mad costumes, but they never showed. Some weeks later, as a result of an attempted burglary at the studio, I met Alex (the police officer who came to take statements) and she more or less recruited herself. The gap between Alex and Peter stayed empty for a few more weeks until Natasha, who regularly modelled at the studio between acting jobs, offered herself in her wedding dress, just because it was such a contrast. The image of this wild-but-lost-looking girl caught between the two authority figures seems to demand explanations – has she been rescued, arrested, saved or summoned? – make up your own story.
As time went on I started to use the images in the carriage window – posters, exteriors etc – as a way of adding extra layers of interest. In David, Joe the windows reflect what’s going on in their heads rather than the seats opposite.
What kind of preparation (pre-drawing, iterations, research etc.) do you do for one painting?
At my passenger’s initial visit to the studio I’d photograph some poses and we would agree on one they’d be comfortable with, also what to wear and what stuff to bring – bags, phones etc.
Typically, people could only sit for three sessions of three hours or so, which isn’t long. So my method was to work on the difficult parts first, the portrait and hands, without any preliminary drawing, and also establish overall outline. More reference photos were necessary to make corrections and complete complex bits of clothing when the sittings had finished. The fixed points of the seats, armrests and floor helped a lot with getting proportions right. I often borrowed the sitters’ bags and shoes as I enjoyed painting them from ‘life’ later. In Paul, Janet, Paul I strung up the Financial Times in mid-air to re-create its position in the reference photo.
How much of an influence on your own creative development was the work of your Grandfather, William Paddock?
My Grandfather, William Paddock, died in 1925, so I only know him through the paintings and drawings that remain in the family. He was a genuinely accomplished artist, and although he exhibited at the RA and other places, he worked for most of his life as the senior art master at University College School in Hampstead. I have always been able to draw reasonably well but when I retired from graphics I started life-classes to see if I could somehow develop my talent, sort of in William’s memory. It doesn’t actually make sense! But I hope he’d approve anyway.
What is your first memory of creating art?
Nothing to do with art, but I was one of those kids who’s always making things out of cardboard or match-sticks (we had to make our own fun in those days) – I’ve still got a little knife-scar on my thumb as a souvenir. I have continued making things on and off, pieces of furniture with wood inlay, and window panels of sandblasted glass. So I enjoyed researching and building the Tube seats replica and it definitely added to everyone’s enjoyment of the project.
As well as the underground paintings you have also been working on figurative sculpture. Both the painting and the sculpture work are quite a departure from graduating as a Graphic Designer in 1967, just as the Photorealist Movement was taking shape. How much did photorealism influence how you have developed as an artist?
I remember those Photorealist shows, and the techniques were and are seductive, but I’ve always really preferred ‘painterly’ painters. It’s in my nature to be meticulous, so I feel I have to guard against trying for too much perfection. I’d love to know how someone like Sargent achieved his portraits so quickly, just a sort of genius I guess. Stanley Spencer is another favourite, especially his exceptionally raw self-portrait with Patricia Preece, which seems to anticipate Freud’s work by 20 years. Of course I admire Freud a lot – I was introduced to him and Bacon one evening in Soho in 1968, one of my ‘name-drop’ memories.
The sign of a good portrait is forgetting that what you’re looking at is a painting of a person and instead finding yourself starting to wonder about the sitter. Something enjoyable about your paintings is that they do not appear to be posed and that there is an element of serendipity to them. What is it you enjoy about figurative painting?
Thank you for appreciation of the portraits in the Underground paintings, I worked hard to make them look natural. I think it’s mostly to do with the lack of eye-contact with the figures, they keep their privacy. I began to see that the way people sat, what they did with their hands and feet, was as individual as their features, and that the accidental combinations of hands and limbs made their own visual rhythms within the paintings. This is most obvious in On, Bianca, Charlotte, three friends on a Girl’s Night Out. I found out later that of the three, the two on the left were actually closest, and in retrospect you can see this by their body-language.
There is a touch of Uglow in your life paintings, in respect of using block colours to define shadow and form.
I’m flattered by your Euan Uglow comparison with my life-paintings. They were made at a class at the Working Men’s College in Camden, where speed was of the essence.
I tried to use my experience at the life-class in the Underground paintings, but inevitably the technique got less broad when rendering all the textures of fabrics, leather, plastic etc.
Is the Underground painting project ongoing? What are you working on now?
I’d love a new project but haven’t yet found anything that enthuses me as much as Painting London Underground. I haven’t ruled anything out, even a return underground at some point, but the practical issue of finding an affordable studio has to be resolved first. In the meantime I’m keeping my hand in at life-classes and waiting for something to turn up.