Conductor, recording producer and Artistic Director of the Hertfordshire Festival of Music Tom Hammond interviews Stephen Hough CBE, who this year is the Festival’s Principal Artist and Featured Living Composer – plus a cycle of his oil paintings will be on display at Hertford Theatre during the duration of the Festival (June 10-16).
Stephen, have you ever done an interview about your paintings that hasn’t referenced music, or the piano?
No I haven’t. In fact I’ve very rarely spoken about my painting, in speech or in print.
Do you remember a day when you put paint onto a canvas for the first time, and thought “Now, I’m a painter”?
I haven’t really thought in those terms. My painting is something very private, partly because it’s the most sensual thing I do artistically. Playing the piano is sounds in the air, writing music or words is marks on a page, but painting is dirty, physical, earthy – and tangible/present. I can look at what I’ve done and show it to someone. It exists. And it can be destroyed … gone for ever.
Can you describe your processes? What sort of paints, canvases, brush techniques, textures, etc.?
I’ve used mainly acrylics in the past but recently I’ve fallen in love with domestic gloss paint. Its liquidity and the vibrancy of the colours. I like to mix other things in with the paint – grit, sand, shredded paper etc. I use a palette knife mostly but also brushes. And fingers, but with surgical gloves!
When a painting is framed and/or hung, do you step back and think ‘finished’, or do you look at a canvas later and think ‘wish I’d done something slightly differently’?
I think with abstract art in particular it’s never finished. That’s one of its fascinations. It’s an improvisation like jazz. When is a riff or a solo finished?
Will you be nervous about people’s reaction to seeing one of your paintings?
The first time was hard – like taking off my clothes in front of strangers! And any time when someone else is in a position of judgement it is an emotional risk …
Is the process of painting cathartic, or stressful?
Mainly cathartic, though not relaxing. I get very excited and energized when I paint.
You’ve probably collected more air miles than Phileas Fogg; do you take paintings with you when you’re working in, Asia, Australia, South America…..?
In the past I tried doing small pieces in hotel rooms. But it’s pretty frustrating, and now I’m painting bigger works it’s impossible.
What was the last painting or other purely visual art that you saw that spiritually moved you, and can you explain why?
I loved the recent show at Tate Britain – All Too Human. I’m moved spiritually by the fragility of human life portrayed in art, not by angels and altarpieces. Christ in glory doesn’t move me; Christ as everyman suffering does.
In one hundred years time, would you like to be remembered for your paintings?
I honestly can’t think about that. But the indestructibility of paint perhaps means that when CDs are faded the globs on canvas which have avoided the landfill might still be hanging in there somewhere.
Stephen Hough will be in residence and involved in four events on June 10 and 11 at this year’s Hertfordshire Festival of Music. Book online, by telephone or in person. Full details here
Image: ‘Dappled Things’ by Stephen Hough