Tim Fowler is a British mixed-media artist who creates semi-abstracted paintings informed by the migratory plants that accompany his West African ancestry, via the Caribbean to the UK. He uses a signature colour palette of bright, saturated hues to decorate oversized canvases with broad strokes of striking botanical, portrait and cityscape compositions.
After graduating from Sheffield Hallam University with a degree in Contemporary Fine Art, Tim started painting urban scenes, then portraits – both with an architectural, graphic approach. Today, Tim uses a variety of brushes and tools with oil, acrylic, spray, enamel and graffiti inks to capture light, create movement or instil emotion with his pieces.
Can you tell us about how your personal ancestry has influenced your work?
During lockdown I started looking into my family history, specifically on my mum’s side of the family from Barbados. I did a DNA ancestral test, expecting to see Barbados and various other Caribbean countries. Instead, it came back with a number of African countries, with nothing from the Caribbean. I knew the basics about the Atlantic slave trade, but it had always felt very far removed from me and my life. Seeing these results in black and white sparked a curiosity in me to learn more.
At the same time, my art practice was already beginning to move away from portraiture, and I had started painting these banana plants another artist had brought into the studio. The two themes eventually merged together, and I started researching more into plantation and migratory crops that came to the Caribbean from Africa, including via slave ships. Banana, plantain, tobacco, cotton, coffee and sugar cane were the first types of plants I painted. This series has developed into anything botanical that has an interesting narrative, meaning or history.
How does capturing plants differ from capturing people? Do you enjoy one more than the other?
I had been painting people for around six years, and I started to feel restricted by the general composition of portraits. Additionally, I didn’t enjoy the pressure of having to get details exactly right – for example, if an eye was slightly out of place it would throw my whole piece. As my work started to become focused on plants, I immediately felt more freedom when painting. The organic structure of plants meant I could work in a looser way, add more abstract elements to the painting or simply remove sections I don’t want, such as rearranging leaves and stems to better suit a canvas size.
I also used to mostly paint celebrities, and I always hated the fact I’d have to use other people’s images of them as a starting point. I like going to places like Kew Gardens, the Eden Project and even my garden to take my own reference photos. However, though I enjoy painting plants more, this has still come from years of developing my practice through portraits. I always think it’s important as an artist to keep pushing forward and not to get too comfortable.
We understand that you set up a studio in the LCB’s Light Box gallery space where you worked, ate and slept in the space for a week. Can you tell us more about this experience?
I didn’t know what to expect from this project, but it was a challenge! It was titled ‘Observe’ and was a great experience, but it was a lot more intense and stressful than I initially thought. I moved my studio and a bed into a public gallery space with windows that looked out onto the street. I started with roughly seven blank canvases, and had a live webcam streaming 24/7. People could come into the space from 8am to 11pm on some days, depending on how late I was working, and could even watch me sleep, while I struggled to get to sleep.
The idea was to totally open up every stage of my practice to the audience. I wanted to push myself to the limit, taking away the vast majority of my privacy and seeing what effect it had on my work. There was no hiding if a painting wasn’t going well. Overall, it did really help my practise. The time restraints and pressure forced me to loosen up my marks and brushwork. It was also very interesting to get constant feedback from the public throughout. There were paintings that I would have overworked if I’d been on my own instead of having the confidence to leave them.
Do you believe that your works are best experienced in a gallery? If not, where else?
As an artist I love to see my work hung on a clean white gallery wall with professional lighting in a space that’s not my studio. However, for the viewer it can be more interesting to see them in an artist’s studio. Where you can see research images and sketches stuck to the walls, along with paints, mediums and the overall energy of the space where the work was created. That’s why a couple of times a year I like to have an open studio day so people can see where the work is made and learn more about the process, not just the finished product.
You work with a range of different materials such as oil, acrylic and enamel graffiti inks. Do you have a favourite medium?
I like to try out lots of different mediums because each will have a specific property or effect that you can’t get with others. The majority of my work is made with acrylic, and it’s my favourite medium to use. It’s very versatile; you can add water to thin it down for a wash similar to watercolour, or you can add heavy body medium and spread it on thick. Also, the drying time for acrylic is quick, and it has the largest range of colours – especially fluorescent hues – which are important factors in my work.
What does a typical day in your studio look like?
I always start in the studio at 9am after I’ve done the school run. The first thing I do is make myself a black coffee and start painting. This is when I feel most productive. I’ve recently moved from a shared space to a large factory unit on my own, which means that I used to take more breaks where I would converse with other artists in the building, but now it’s less sociable. It does mean I’m getting a lot more work done. I really struggle to work in silence, so I always have my headphones in, and I pretty much listen to ‘creepypastas’ all day, which are best described as short horror-related legends. It sounds strange, but I’m addicted to them, and they help me focus!
After a few hours of painting I’ll stop and catch up on jobs like admin, preparing prints or packaging work to send out. Then I’ll have something small for lunch and continue painting. I work on several paintings simultaneously at various stages. This stops me from hyper-focusing on one piece too much and gives it time to breath. It also means I’m not wasting time waiting for things to dry. I take photos and short videos throughout the day that I will review in the evening to help make decisions for the following day.
We understand that colour plays an important role in your practice. Can you explain why?
From a young age I was drawn to brighter colours, whether in clothing, toys, animals or art. I would often wear 90s-style oversized colourful t-shirts or be pouring over encyclopaedias of tropical snakes. When I started taking painting seriously I tended to change the colours of the subjects to ones I preferred. Over the years this has developed into a very specific group of colours, usually centred around pink. This has given my work a distinctive style. I’m sure these colours will change over the years but for now this is my preferred palette.
What do you think about when you are making your work?
Sometimes I zone out and don’t think about anything – it’s almost like a meditative state. Other times I’m thinking about the placement of colours usually a few moves ahead, like when playing chess. I find overthinking painting can make things harder and you can put too much pressure on yourself. If I’m listening to something it helps me paint from my gut instincts.
Are there any collaborations you wish you could take part in?
I’ve collaborated with a few brands over the years, which I’ve enjoyed as it takes my work down a different route. I’m a big fan of Ted Baker’s womenswear range, and I buy my wife a lot of their dresses, so they’d be amazing to collaborate with. As artists go it would definitely be Damien Hirst. He’s a big inspiration of mine and I’d love to work with him on something epic!
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
The main piece of advice I always give to aspiring artists is to be patient and play the long game. There are no shortcuts to success, and it can take years to build up your name or get to a position where you’re doing it for a living. Just keep making work and trying to find opportunities to get it seen. Don’t sit around waiting for galleries to approach you – get out there and do it yourself. Put on your own exhibitions or look into independent art fairs if you have the money. Most importantly: don’t give up!
Are there any current or upcoming projects that you’d like to share?
I’ve recently been granted Arts Council funding to start a collaborative project with a glass artist called Graeme Hawes. We’ll be creating a series of botanical glass sculptures based on the concept of native plants – blowing and forming the glass as well as painting into it. The pieces will have a strong influence from my colour palette combined with Graeme’s vast knowledge and experience in the glass world. The work will be shown in the Botanical Gardens and Attenborough Arts Centre in 2023.
All images are courtesy of the artist. Click here to see more of Tim's work.
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