Interview between Paul Winstanley and  Helen Waters,  3 June 2010

Helen Waters


Paul, you are primarily known for your paintings of empty interiors and landscapes.  You often revisit the same subject - for example one of the paintings in this exhibition is called Veil 25. What appeals to you about certain subjects and why do you return to them?

Well I’ve got to go right back to the beginning to answer that really.  It was the interior that initially interested me most as a subject.  It partly came out of abstraction as I began my life as an abstract painter.  At some point in the 80s I made a rather big change to how I was painting and the interior offered a number of possibilities relating to my previous abstract work but with enormous potential for future development. On one level the interior acted as a metaphor, quite literally, for the interior world – an interior psychological world -  and initially the paintings made no reference to landscape; they were hermetic and self -possessed.  I chose interiors that didn’t have values of possession or ownership; I was drawn to institutional spaces where an agreed, socialised taste predominated and which had a generic quality. I was also particularly attracted to those interiors that seemed to be from a post-war period – a time which had a certain utopian feel about it, a time when I was growing up in the north-west and where many of my earliest memories come from.  Many of these interiors were quite empty and minimalist and I felt were connected to the values of my earlier abstract painting, which had been particularly influenced by American minimalist painting, so I felt there was a connection between these works and my previous abstract works.  Over the last 20 years or so there have been certain locations, some found by chance, which have lent themselves  to the demands of my painting such that it’s inevitable I would want to go back to them. It’s like Morandi’s  Still Lifes – the way he kept returning to the same bottles.
The location of Interior with Red Chair, one of the paintings in this show, and the set of watercolours,  is based on one such room I have used on and off for a number of years – it’s in an institutional campus near my home in south London, so very easy for me to access.  Every few years I have returned but each time I visit, the resultant work has quite a different character as I make new demands on it. The room is characterised by a polished, very worn, scratched parquet floor; narrow floor to ceiling windows (which are not visible in this set of works) and a set of interchangeable chairs that present themselves as simple slabs of colour.  Since I was last there they had introduced office plants into the room. In this group of paintings you can almost read the interior as a still life with objects.  I deliberately chose just two locations in the room so that the light can come in from the right or the left and in each case wash the back wall.  So this group of works has a very different character to previous work.  Returning to a subject and location doesn’t mean returning with the same frame of mind.


 There seems to be a lot more colour in these new works?

I am not a theorist.  The use of colour has come and gone, but at the moment it’s definitely important and in the new mono-prints it is very central.


In 2008 you had an exhibition in New Zealand entitled Threshold - it seems to me that a lot of your work could be described with this title.  Is there something that appeals to you about the idea of passing from one place to another - of looking through, of entering, of being on the verge or brink of something unknown?

Yes, absolutely.  The Veil paintings exemplify better than anything else how ideas occur and grow.  I wanted access to the idea of landscape but I wanted to relate it to the interior too.  I had made a series of landscapes in the early 90s, based on photographs taken from a moving car in the Fens.  The paintings were flat and minimal and the movement created a distance from the landscape , which was important in establishing a non-familiar relationship to it. The initial Veil paintings didn’t contain landscape at all.  They are derived from a location I found in central London. The room has one entire wall of glass with a net curtain hanging in front of it. Through the glass you could see railings, street lights, bollards and so on; the photo I took was gloomy and it was only much later that I saw it quite differently and realised it had possibilities.  This was partly for technological reasons – I had just acquired a computer for the first time and I realised I could clean out the view and reconstruct it.  I had always manipulated the photographs I used, but this was a much more efficient way of being able to remake the image.  I made the first couple of Veil paintings with no landscape – just a blank wall of light.  Subsequently in later paintings I decided to introduce a landscape behind the net, which was to be partially visible somehow.  But in doing so, what’s crucial is that it’s like a membrane that’s been created - the surface of the painting representing the surface of the curtain which acts as a membrane between the foreground of the interior and what is beyond.  It is something and nothing.  We are looking at a kind of nowhere, a suspension of the self within this ‘non- space’.  It is a specific space and yet it’s also a completely ‘non-space’.  There is a very shallow foreground beyond which is a much bigger landscape. But this landscape is implied, rather than explicit. However, the more you look at it, the more you think you see.   The nature of the landscape seems to reveal itself – you distinguish  the trunk of the trees from in the folds of the cloth, and something, which may or may not be water.  You start to see foreground and background, a hill, perhaps, to the right. All this information reveals itself slowly.  All of this is implied, I almost don’t paint it. It’s very understated – this is the nature of the condition I desire.  These paintings are as much about the reflection of the self in relation to both the object and illusion of painting, as they are about the depiction of the subject matter. 


As well as oil paintings, this exhibition consists of watercolours, monoprints and etchings.  I'd like to spend a moment talking about these different methods of working - can you tell me what draws you to each of them and how important they are to you.

Let’s start by talking about the etchings first.  I’d always wanted to get into printmaking, but I didn’t want to do the same thing as I have been doing with painting – there didn’t seem to be much point in making prints that, for instance, derived entirely from the photographic process or reproduced the paintings.  It took a while for me to realise that  I could engage with printmaking in a way that allowed a deconstruction of the work.  The Veil etchings were made firstly because I was invited by Alan Cristea Gallery to think about making some prints.  Also around that time I had three new large Veil paintings in my studio waiting to go to New York to a show. A visitor to my studio asked me whether I painted the landscape first and then painted the curtain on top.  This was such a literal reading of the work, bearing so little relation to what I do, that it stuck in my mind. The paintings are actually made in one layer of paint – I start at the top and work my way to the bottom. There is obviously some adjustment afterwards, but the image  and the illusion contained within it is essentially established in one go.  When it came to making the prints I remembered this comment – and decided to express the idea of the Veil but comment on the construction of the image.  I planned to make two plates – one for the landscape, to be printed first, and the second for the curtain and the rest of the room, which was to be printed on top.  I then took that further by thinking about using different kinds of visual language for the two plates so in looking at the final print the intention was that there should be a sort of contradiction between the two plates but one that was nevertheless countered by the impetus of the illusion.  After some experimentation I made the landscape plate by hand painting with sugar-lift solution. This was a bit like painting with jam; it has its own dynamic, does its own thing, which is quite apparent when you look at the result.  The second plate needed some aspect of looking through and I decided on a half tone dot system, which used to be widespread in newspapers and reproductions  where an image is composed of black dots – close together for dark tones and far apart for light tones.  I liked the idea that you would be able to see the landscape through the gaps between the dots. Interestingly, through trial and error at the end, to make the prints work, it became a question of tolerances and nuance; the degree of etching of the plate, the inking, the pressure of the press – to get the balance – to make the right visual relationship between the two plates.  This parallels the paintings – they also have to be made with exacting tolerances and nuances. The monoprints came out of this.  I found that the sugarlift plates were intriguing in their own right – in the Veil prints they are very understated, but there was a force and strength about them that appealed to me.  I made some experiments with those plates using colour to express atmosphere and mood, which pushed things in a new direction – so I made four new plates – each of a different aspect of the same landscape.  I became quite adept at using the sugarlift solution. We also applied some progressive etching to make dark and light areas in the image to create space.  There is one plate per image.  I arrived at the printers with a set of pre-mixed acrylic colours for the backgrounds - there are two colours per image – one for the top and one for the bottom – plus I also mixed the appropriate colours  to ink the plate – another two colours.  The inked plate was then pressed into the wet painted paper.  The intention has been to create a balance between the use of colour as a descriptive tool to depict weather, time of day etc and colour as something in its own right, with its own chromatic characteristics.  So the image is not necessarily naturalistic but remains convincing in its own terms.
To move onto the watercolours – I’ve been making these for about 5 to 6 years and have become increasingly interested in the medium.  It’s very different to oil paint, it wants to do different things.  The obvious photographic quality of the oil paintings is a less significant element in the watercolours.  In some ways the subject matter gets foregrounded more as it doesn’t have this intervening language and the abstract qualities of these images are also much more  obvious.


Can you tell me a little bit about the exhibition title, Everybody thinks this is nowhere?

 The title is basically a misquote of Neil Young’s ‘Everybody knows this is nowhere’.  Of course ‘this is nowhere’ is self-explanatory but relates in this case to the ‘non-space’ I was talking about earlier - which characterises so much of my work.  This  generic quality allows that they can be part of anyone’s memory – part of anyone’s past.  They are nowhere and everywhere, but, of course, they have to be based on real places.  These landscapes for instance are reconstructed from  photographs I took travelling in the north of Finland.  So I changed everyone ‘knows’ to everyone ‘thinks’ as this suggests the corollary –Everyone Thinks this is Nowhere ……….. (but actually – it is somewhere).


Everybody Thinks This Is Nowhere, Published by Alan Cristea Gallery, 2010.