If David Aspinall were a painting, this painting would show movement, shafts of light, a ‘normal’ scene which grabs and holds your attention, a relaxed approach to the subject with fastidious execution, and judiciously placed dots of colour that lift the whole image. In fact, such a painting might be rather like his own work. For David Aspinall the man, now in his eighties, is a very approachable person, engaging, without airs and graces but full of energy and bubble. He talks seriously about his craft, interspersed with little chuckles and bursts of self-deprecating humour, his eyes blazing and the trademark spectacles jiggling around his neck. “Art is everything to me”, David says – “well, I can’t do anything else and I’m not good at DIY”. That, however, is not the whole story.
It all started pretty much at school. As a youngster David was keen on drawing and knew he wanted to get into advertising. After completing two years of national service and with a National Diploma in Art & Design from Farnham College of Art under his belt he started in the advertising world by doing little jobs in an agency – which included cleaning the water pots. Eventually he was asked to try his hand at a design job that came up. At the time, designers were using watercolour, magic markers and layout pads, no computers, everything had to be drawn – which David loved. The account director and clients were happy with his first work and this was the start of David’s illustrious career as a designer in advertising, rising to Art Director and Group Head leading creative teams. Even after taking early retirement from a London West End advertising agency in 1997 David was coaxed back to set up the creative department for M & C Saatchi.
“Getting started is so difficult to do
– the paper looks so pure”
DESIGNER TURNED PAINTER
All the while, David was aching to dip his toe into the water of painting in his own right, not just in the context of making advertising pitches. He undoubtedly had been given a special gift for drawing and painting and it ‘wanted out’. Thinking ‘Let’s do a bit of painting and see what happens’ David had taken six of his paintings into a shop in Cranbrook – they sold almost immediately. A one-man exhibition in Cranbrook Library followed and another one in Headcorn where he sold 90% of his exhibits – this only confirmed David in his desire to concentrate more on painting. He decided to run down the advertising side and increase the art element in his life, finally retiring in 1999. He was turning from a designer into a painter who also did his own framing.
Pivotal in that transition proved to be the Channel 4 programme Watercolour Challenge which pitted four painters against each other painting the same scene. David recalls that he went to a first audition where he painted The Three Chimneys pub in Biddenden from memory and then went on holiday in France only to be told on arrival that he had been selected as a contestant and had to return immediately for the filming. This proved to be an exciting experience. David got to the final round of six, emerging as the Kent region winner. As a result of this programme David’s painting career really took off – complete strangers came up to him and said they had seen him on TV and he was asked to give lessons. So from then on his world revolved around painting and exhibiting, showing in Cranbrook, Headcorn, Tonbridge and London.
David’s style is quite distinctive – it is easy to spot ‘an Aspinall’. Apart from the early training on the job in the advertising business, David says his style owes elements to influences from a few other artists. Early on, in 1978, he met the English watercolour artist Edward Wesson (b. 1910) who helped him greatly. The Maidstone artist Michael Chaplin RWS (b. 1943), who was guest art expert on the Watercolour Challenge programme, became a good friend. Chaplin taught him about the ‘feeling’ of a painting, how to really look at the subject matter, and about the importance of light. David loves to paint outdoors – that too is a legacy of working with Chaplin. Alvaro Castagnet (b. 1954) also had a profound influence on David’s style. David attended a course with Alvaro and found him to be a powerful painter, critical to the point of being abrasive in his critique – “I don’t like pretty paintings”. David feels his own paintings became more powerful too – painting dark interiors, imbuing a painting with an atmosphere, playing with the strength of light and dark – something that watercolour lets you do brilliantly.
“There are always rules to be broken”
Where does he find his motifs? He loves street scenes, architecture, people, even cars. Subjects are everywhere, he says. Light is always there too – which you can change into something special, something dramatic. David uses multiple sketch books: one to capture the tonal values (light/dark), another one for the details, plus he takes lots of photos before he composes the painting on layout paper.
His preferred medium is watercolour although he has been experimenting with oils in the past year. Watercolour has immediacy and you have to think before you put your brush down. With oil it is difficult to know when to stop because the medium allows you to keep on making changes which may result in losing some of the spontaneity.
David’s watercolour painting of Estaing in the Aveyron region in France is a typical example of his work. It shows a street scene, with towering buildings on the shady side of the road, people going to and fro in the street or sitting in a café on the right under awnings. Slightly centre-left, in the distance, the eye is drawn to an outline of buildings. The sun is shining and leaving long shadows. David started this painting en plein air, sketching the outlines and deciding where the focal point should be, as well as establishing the tonal values – the areas of dark, light and very light. The initial drawing, in his view, is the key to a good piece of work. It does not mean lots of detail as long as the shape, proportions and perspective are right. There is relatively little colour in this picture apart from the vivid emerald green of the awnings and little splashes of red that add accents. Red is one of the colours David loves to use – in particular Cadmium red and Alizarin crimson. He finds Alizarin a lovely, useful colour: if you use it under a cool colour it makes that colour glow. In the composition of this French street scene, light plays a vital role. David does not use white, instead he allows the paper to shine through for a fresher look. In some areas he lifts out and creates a soft focus. There is a lot going on in this painting – David started with under-washes, then painting over the top, reinforcing the shadows. The most important element here are the figures, they bring the whole piece to life. Figures pop up in many of David’s paintings – he sees them primarily as shapes to help with the composition, without needing detail on their faces.
"The initial drawing ....
is the key to a good piece of work"
On the whole, David tends to work with a limited palette of watercolours – mainly Cobalt blue, French ultramarine, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Transparent yellow, Cadmium red and Alizarine crimson, plus a few others for emphasis. He uses Saunders Waterford rough, Arches rough and occasionally Bockingford Extra rough paper, fixed to a 3mm board with masking tape. He says these papers do not require stretching up to about 16”x 12”, above that when stretching he only wets the back. For his watercolour work David prefers to use an adapted photography tripod, not an easel.
Having painted hundreds of paintings over the years, does he have a favourite piece? Yes, there is usually a favourite painting, at any given time. But then evolution happens. So how does he think his style has evolved over time? David says he got more confident with using darks and lights. He has always been fascinated by the light element and the contrast of dark and light.
When you talk to David you can sense that he is deeply excited about painting – whether it’s actually doing it or talking about it. For him painting springs surprises when he is painting en plein air, with his back to a wall, sitting in the shade. People very occasionally have come up to him and asked to buy the painting he is still working on – that’s a great feeling. Like the buzz you get from your first ever sale of a painting. Is selling his art important for him? Yes, he says, it is important of course whether you do or not. However, it is not the be-all and end-all and there is always an element of luck – the right person comes along at the right time and falls in love with your painting. David can look back on an impressive sales record and is commanding good prices. Pricing is a tricky business, David concedes. It is difficult to get the pricing right at the beginning when you start out – when you have to ask yourself the difficult question how much you think you are worth. Once you are more established as a professional artist you have to take into account the various commission rates that galleries charge, anything from 40% upwards, as that is reflected in your price. David feels that there is a tendency for some artists to sell their work too cheaply simply because they want to achieve sales.
David has been a member of the Weald of Kent Art Society (WOKAS) for many years, serving as its President for over a decade. He feels there are enormous benefits in belonging to an artists’ community such as this: you are together with like-minded people who are faced with the same challenges, sharing experiences in your chosen field. It is not only at WOKAS that David has given back. For many years David has been mentoring up-and-coming artists and given demonstrations at various art societies and painting groups. It is his firm belief that if you have been given a gift – such as his painting skill – that it should be shared. Anyone who has experienced one of David’s demo sessions can vouch for the fact that this is an inspiring and yes, uplifting experience. When after the first bold washes the painting looks like a bit of a mess to the uninitiated David is only too happy to admit in his witty and self-deprecating way that it does look like a disaster – but then is able to turn it around and pull it all back masterly with the next strokes of the brush. What does he himself get out of demonstrating? He says the marvellous feeling that you can hold an audience. There is an art to demonstrating, not every artist can do it. Not only is your painting ability put on the spot but you also have to deal with tricky questions from the audience. Here David can happily fall back on his experience in the advertising world, giving presentations to demanding clients.
"It is all a learning curve, an education.”
It is a testament to David’s spirit of enterprise and resilience that at a moment of low ebb in his life, at the time of his divorce, he channelled his energy into setting up his own ‘Cheetah’ courier company as a sideline – much to the astonishment of his then advertising bosses. And that wiry energy and free thinking spirit is very much in evidence today. David says he does not think about the future too much, he just keeps going. Instead of harbouring big ambitions he is content to have the opportunity of trying something new, like painting with oils. He does concede that in the present coronavirus times there is perhaps less purpose and pressure, partly because artists can’t show their work. Art is a big part of David’s life, without art his life would be shallow, lacking a lot. The feeling that you get when you produce a painting that has got a bit of a ‘zing’ to it – that’s marvellous. He never gets over that buzz no matter how often he paints.
What advice does he have for up-and-coming artists? “Don’t give up, carry on painting”, he says with a glint in his eye. “You will always experience periods where you feel you are not sure where you are going. Feed your soul by going to exhibitions. It is all a learning curve, an education.”
David Aspinall (born 1938) is based in Hawkhurst, Kent. Gunda Cannon was in conversation with him in October 2020.
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