Interview: Tom French

'Born in 1982, Tom French grew up in Newcastle Upon Tyne, North East England. Tom began his studies at the Newcastle School of Art and Design and went on to graduate from the Sheffield Institute of Art and Design achieving a first class BA Honors in 2005. 

Through his work, French focuses on the reflection of the conscious and unconscious mind. His oil paintings are a skillful combination of academic realism and surrealism, enveloped in carefree, loose and ostensibly unfinished abstract forms. 
This unique fusion of figurative realism and lively abstraction treads the fine line between the beautiful and the unsettling, allowing layers of narrative to filter through whilst bringing life and movement to his compositions.'

Tell us about how you got started. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Creative life began in childhood, my parents have always been interested in, and involved with, various forms of the arts, so anything creative was very much encouraged. My early childhood was very rural and we didn’t have a TV, so a lot of time was spent drawing or making things - trying to perfectly replicate album covers or attempting murals on the bedroom walls. My dad is an artist too, so I was often surrounded by his weird and wonderful creations. Being an artist wasn’t a decision I made at a particular moment, it’s more something I’ve always done, and I’ve just taken little detours along the journey.

We love the gesture and movement combined with elements of the figure in your work. What are some things that you think about when creating each piece? 

Most of my conceptual/theoretical work is already complete by the time I begin actually painting, so during the painting process my main concern is translating these preconceived ideas into a visual reality. 

The characters/figures in my work, the actions they carry out, and the environments which surround them, are more psychological than physical - metaphors for mental processes and fields of thought, rather than anything tangible. So when creating the abstract marks in which the figures are situated, I work in a very free and intuitive way - it’s not at all planned, going with what feels right. Rendering the characters, on the other hand, is a very considered task. I’m concerned with how they interact with their surroundings, but mainly how they interact with each other - directly or indirectly. A lot can be read into small figurative positional changes - a slight change in the angle of a head, or the way a finger is held, can make quite a difference to the flow of a painting, so often sections of the figures are repainted quite a few times until they have the desired effect. 

Does each work require a lot of planning and preparation? Give us a glimpse into your process. 

I tend not to plan my paintings as much as I have done in the past. I used to extensively plan my compositions and final outcome, but that way of working becomes rigid and feels restrictive over time. 

I spend a reasonable amount of time in preparing the physical canvas - I use a very fine grain canvas then prime and sand it back 3 to 5 times so the surface is a particular smoothness ideal for the painting techniques I use. For the latest works I used only black paint - no white other than the primer - so the black paint is applied, then wiped back so that the white of the canvas shows through it.

Once the canvas is prepared and dry I go straight in with the biggest boldest abstract marks, its fast paced and immediate, undoubtedly the most enjoyable part of the process. This abstract beginning largely dictates the position of the various elements to follow, allowing the image to naturally progress, harnessing as much of the unplanned/unexpected marks in order to retain a strong sense of immediacy. The process gets progressively less animated as the image develops, with the final stages being a very time intensive process of rendering the technical figurative elements and balancing the lights and darks in order for the structure of the image to pull together as whole.

Name a few of your favourite artists and influences. 

My influences span a lot of genres and eras so it’s difficult to summarise. The theoretical influences come from research into subjects like philosophy, psychology and physics. I relate to the progressive approach the surrealists took regarding perception and our interpretation of images. I’ve admiration for classical painting, abstract art and everything in between, and enjoy incorporating a blend of different genre’s into the work, visually and conceptually. 

Congratulations on your solo exhibition at Unit London! What do you hope the viewer takes away from the show? 

Thanks! Everyone will take away something different, their individual experience, as is the nature of these things. Every now and then I get an email or message from someone who has really connected with the work - it’s meant something to them personally and they’ve felt compelled to share that with me. Its those kind of moments that make the time & effort work worthwhile.

What is the best advice you received as an artist?

A long time ago I didn’t understand the difference between criticism and critical analysis. Or more to the point, that criticism should be taken as critique. So many artists can’t deal with hearing anything about their work that isn’t a compliment. The ability to objectively consider your own work is, for me, one of the most useful tools for progression.