Richard Friend - The Interview
Ahead of our upcoming show starting 15th June we asked Sheryl Garrat, former editor of The Face magazine, to track down Richard Friend and find out more about this artists who very much likes to keep himself to himself…. Read his first ever interview right here…
People make art for all kinds of reasons. Richard Friend does it because he’s never been happy doing anything else.
“I need to do it,” he says. “When I had a proper job in London, there was a period of three or four years when I couldn’t make work, and it was making me feel quite poorly. It’s just something I have to do.”
For 10 years, he worked as an office manager for a firm of equity derivatives brokers in the City. “I got into it by mistake,” he says drily. “And I stayed there far too long.”
He was living in Rochester at the time, in a tiny house where there was no space to make art. So he’d drive up to South London in his battered Volvo estate, get his bike out of the back and then cycle the rest of the way to the office to arrive at 5.30am. This allowed him to paint at his desk for an hour before the markets opened, and the brokers began coming in to work.
He now lives in an 18th century cottage Sandwich, and works in a tiny outbuilding in the garden, 12–14 hours a day, seven days a week. The City job paid better, he says. But it made no sense to him. “I couldn’t understand what the brokers actually did.
“Now I take a clean piece of paper, I spend time with it, and I turn that into something that someone is going to be really happy with. There’s a purity to it. I love that. It’s an extraordinary feeling, and a real privilege.”
How he learned
He studied art at Canterbury (where his huge monochrome drawings won the Eric Hurran prize) then Liverpool, where he slowly began working with paint, and colour. This was the mid-90s, when the hype around the Young British Artists was at its peak.
“I didn’t enjoy art college very much,” he admits. “There was this tremendous sense of competitiveness, this feeling that you had to be The Next Big Thing. You’d go to the pub after spending the day in the studio, and there would be these students pontificating, all covered in paint and going on earnestly about the meaning of their work. But I couldn’t work out how they got covered in paint, because they never appeared to do anything! My grandfather had a phrase: the hollowest drum sounds loudest.”
Now, he’s now reluctant to explain his work at all. Press him on it, and he’ll say a lot of it is rooted in childhood memories, and the landscape of Kent. His dad died when Richard was just 16. He was a police officer who often worked nights, so his three children didn’t see a great deal of him. Time with him felt particularly precious, and accounts for the recurring theme of trees in Richard’s work.
Memories and magic
“Dad would take us to the woods around Eastry, and we’d wander about. We’d find cartridges from the second world war when they used to train in there. And he used to tell us stories about him and his mates playing there. I don’t have that many memories of him, so those woods have become really important.”
For a while the family lived in Dymchurch, and on the drive over to visit their grandparents, they’d pass a little white house set amongst trees at the top of a field. Richard and his sister used to enjoy making up stories about it, and the house also began to appear in his pictures: “I call it the Woodcutters cottage.”
Perhaps the strangest addition came around 2012–13, when he saw a dark shape in a picture that looked like a figure. He’d always sworn he wouldn’t paint people, but the shape was persistent. “Every painting I did, this figure was kind of resolving itself. And I ended up with Hester.”
This mysterious girl in a red cloak now appears in many of his works. He named her after Hester Prynne, the defiantly courageous character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. And he gave her his cat Oscar as a companion. “I liked the fairy-tale notion of her wandering around in the woods, but I didn’t like her being on her own.”
Joining the dots
After moving back to east Kent, he began taking Hester and Oscar into the more urban landscapes of local towns such as Deal, Sandwich and Canterbury. She became a totem and guide for the viewer, a lone human in a world otherwise mysteriously devoid of people, or any signs of human life apart from buildings, and sometimes lights. “I like the oddness of there no being any people, or cars,” he says. “There’s a sense of energy moving about, of expectation and suspense, a slightly dream-like thing going on.
“I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I just started working. Then these dots started coming in, and the colours all changed. And this working process with the dots on top of dots on top of blocks invented itself, very quickly. I love the way the dots move you around the picture. They’re directing you, and there’s a kind of magic to them.”
It’s hard to believe, looking at the joyful, jewel-bright hues on his paintings now, that he once found it hard to paint in colour. “Gradually it’s just taken over,” he says with a laugh. “But I really struggle with putting colours on top of each other. It feels awkward to me. So I started making rectangles and squares, and I discovered I like the way colours pop if you’ve got a complimentary or contrasting colour next to them.
“The paintings just suggest things to me, while I’m working on them. My favourite way of working is just getting a light yellow, and scraping it across the page with a razor or a scalpel blade. It suggests shapes, in the ridges and furrows. And then I have very little control over what happens.”
How he works
He works on heavy paper, with a mixture of watercolour, acrylic and acrylic ink, bending over the paper to build up intricate patterns of rectangles and dots. A big painting can take five weeks or more of intense, back-breaking but absorbing work. Sometimes, he’ll start at 6am and lose track of time so completely that it’s a surprise when his wife pushes the studio door open at 5.30pm, to tell him she’s home.
“There’s a three-dimensional aspect to some of the dots, he explains. “Some of the paints are quite heavy-bodied, where others are more transparent. But the heavy-bodied ones, if you load the brush perfectly and you just get the right moment, it just sits nicely, almost like a little thumb print in a piece of Blutack. Sometimes you put a blob of paint down and it has a perfect energy to it. It just feels perfectly right, and it has its own energy, and its own movement. You just have to do that several thousand times!
“I’ll have favourite splodges on the paintings. I like them when they’re slightly rounded, but you kind of get the sensation of the movement of the brush. And the energy is held there, like a fly in amber. I love that.”
Richard Friend is represented by Taylor Jones & Son gallery in Deal, where he has a solo exhibition from June 15-July 15.