Being a fine artist is a combination of self-investigation and experimentation alongside organisation and time management.
I grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, in a small town which was a cultural desert. As a child I was never dragged around museums, although I remember spending a lot of time alone drawing and copying images from books. It made sense to me as a language and was a way of clearing my mind, meditating on my life through exploring the space of the page.
I didn’t do art at GCSE level as it didn’t strike me as a pathway at the time. Fine art wasn’t seen as a standalone career choice, more an add-on to more conservative academic subjects. When I came to study at A-level though, I experienced far more freedom and independence, and this allowed me to start figuring out my reality and how to use my visual skills. My A-level art teacher was a classic, rebellious kind of guy, the sort of individual who enthuses and sucks you into the energy of creating.
I started working at A-level and Foundation as a potter and the sensibilities of pots took me not toward sculpture, but the surface, the finishing of the pot – the glazing – took me into painting. For my Fine Art degree at Manchester School of Art (MMU), I had to choose between painting, sculpture and printmaking. There weren’t the eclectic choices available to artists then; the conventional routes were clearly enforced. It was helpful in some ways as it made things clear and I understood before I started my degree what medium and language I needed to engage with straight away.
Immediately after I moved to London to study an MA in Painting at Chelsea College of Art and Design. Then, for about five years, I went subterranean. I found a studio, I worked in a bookshop, I freelanced in the fashion world, anything within the creative field.
In 2005 I was awarded a five year ACME Fire Station live/work residency (a programme designed for emerging artists at a critical stage of their career). I had a combined studio and living space so could reduce my paid work and concentrate on developing my practice. I’ve since had multiple solo and group exhibitions in London, Berlin, Paris, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US and worked with international commercial galleries. Exhibiting is not just about selling work – selling work is not a reason to make it. It’s also about exposure and new audiences. You need to maintain exposure in different ways; online presence, galleries, Instagram.
My work has been acquired by Tate, Arts Council, the Government Art Collection (GAC) and Centre Pompidou. I was commissioned by the GAC to produce a new glass work for the British Embassy in Brussels, working closely with the architect and glass manufacturers on the installed artwork. More recently I was invited by Tate to write an essay on the artist Patrick Heron, from my perspective as an abstract painter.
My advice to emerging fine artists would be to make as much work as possible in the early days. Production is a way of thinking: make mistakes, keep making, and work through those ideas in the studio.
It takes effort. Why would you do it if there was no direct financial or social benefit? Why would you get out of bed and do it? Think about the intellectual reason for making the work. Why are you making the work and how does it relate to the history of the language? All global contemporary debates link back to history. What is the relationship between the physical object and its function? Think of it as a philosophical decision.
Robert Holyhead is a lecturer on our BA (Hons) Fine Art course.
Want to find out more about our courses? Book a place at one of our Open Days.