Interview with Peter Lamb

Jo Hunter : I’m just going to start off by asking you simply, why do you do art?

Peter Lamb: Well, I’m a retired teacher so in a way I’ve always had a bit of a connection with art because if you’re teaching, you’re very often being creative in lessons and preparing worksheets. I always used to enjoy drawing little cartoons and things like that to get the kids interested. But never in any structured way. When I was a student, I used to quite like painting and drawing but I never studied it formally. Then when I retired I thought it was something I’d really like to take up. Not just as a time-filler because I’ve got plenty of other interests as well. I just thought, “No, I’ve got to try to learn how to do this properly.” So I did a course in watercolours. I did a drawing course. I did one on acrylics and mixed media, and a couple of other courses. So in a sense, I’ve tried to pick up some kind of education in art. But I’m always in awe of people that have done it for GCSE or O level, A level, and then they go to Art College and their whole life has been absolutely immersed in it. I’ve never had that luxury as I went in another direction. But now that I have the time to indulge in it, I love it. I’ve become obsessed with it.

What is it that makes me do it? I think it’s actually being able to do something creative that is immediately visible. Because I’m quite interested in writing and done quite a lot of writing – short stories and I’ve got a novel that’s all in bits at the moment that maybe one day will take some sort of coherent shape. But that’s something that’s always rather hidden away, apart from those you care to show it to proof read it and get a judgment on. But the nice thing about painting is that it’s immediately visible. I just love the medium of oil. Oil painting is what I really love.

I suppose given my circumstances as a retired teacher, one could say that it’s at the latter stage of one’s life; you start to get quite reflective about things. You quite like to feel you’d leave some mark in the way you’ve responded to your life and what you enjoy. I enjoy the countryside. I enjoy the city. I enjoy talking to people. So that’s one way of expressing that urge to communicate something that is an important part of your life. But I suppose there are other deep-seated reasons and a certain amount of hubris. You want praise in a way. You want to feel you want to be able to do something well and get acknowledgement and some sort of plaudit from people. So one tries to get good at it. You know, that’s what I’m trying to do – trying to get good at it and trying to get it recognized in some way, even if it’s just by friends and family. My wife is very supportive. She says everything I do is wonderful but I know it’s not! She’s not perhaps the harshest of critics and is very gentle with me. I think it’s about making a mark – in the same way a primal urge of a caveman to put something on the wall of a cave or carve something out of a piece of stone. It’s that sort of urge to create, which I think is fundamental to everyone. I think everyone has it but a lot of people don’t acknowledge it.

JH: And is it something you do everyday?

PL: I try to, yes. I try to do something creative everyday. Sometimes it’s just in my own head. Sometimes it’s literally a snatched moment. But I find with painting, if I have devoted some time to it, if I said, “Right, this morning I’m going to paint.” I find I go into an altered state where time just goes by so quickly. I start at 9 o’clock in the morning and suddenly it’s lunchtime. It is a very interesting process, the whole process of creating. If you are interested in it, you get really immersed in it and enter an almost hypnotized state. It’s the same with writing. When I’ve sat down to write things, and I don’t quite know how it’s going to go, but I start to write and then it kind of takes over. It’s almost like there’s another force coming from inside that’s pushing you on, which is quite interesting really.

JH: That’s very interesting. Do you think doing this offers something to the rest of your life as well? How do you think it affects the rest of your life?

PL: Well, I suppose in a way it is fulfilling. In a way also, I think if you’ve created something and it has a degree of permanence, then it’s kind of a legacy in a way. I think as you get older, you become more conscious of that. Sometime in the future I will be gone, hopefully my two children will be here, and their grandchildren, and they will have something that their father, grandfather or great-grandfather created. I think that is very interesting for me because I actually have a couple of very interesting drawings that were done by my great-grandfather. They were done about 1860/1870 and they’re stashed away in my family archive but in a way I look at those I think, “Good god, at some point my great-grandfather sat down with a pen and ink and actually drew this very intricate picture.” So that’s also a dimension to why I do it.

JH: Do you take time to reflect on your practice? Do you think about it after you’ve done it or why you do it, or is something you do in the moment?

PL: I think about it a lot. I think about what I’m going to do next. I think in advance about how I’m going to do something, what I want to paint, and how and what techniques I’m going to use. But also, when I’ve actually had a session of painting, I start to think about how it’s coming together. I guess sometimes I wake up in the morning, in the early hours of the morning, and I’m kind of painting in my head, working out what will be the next thing I’ll do on a painting or how I will develop something I did the day before. So it’s not something you do and then go away and forget about. And you constantly look at your work. It’s the same with writing. I occasionally sit down at the computer and I’ll have a moment and sometimes consciously, I’ll go back and have a look at something I wrote a year ago or six months ago and I re-read it and I start to judge it. “Ah, that bits very good. That bit’s rubbish. Why did I start writing this piece? Where does it come from?” Sometimes I even find things I’ve written on the computer and I’ll click on it and starting reading it and think, “I don’t actually remember writing that.” Sometimes, as I say, you go to this altered sate, you write something and put it away. Then you move on and you’ve almost forgotten you’ve done it. You think “Gosh! I wrote that and it’s pretty good!” or “I wrote that and it’s a load of crap.” It’s quite interesting. It’s the same with painting; I’m constantly going to look at them. I’ve got two paintings that I did and I actually had them framed and I put them in our sitting room, which one could say is a little bit arrogant. But I want my paintings to be seen! If people don’t like them, then tough. I like them enough to have them in my sitting room. And of course, I’m constantly looking at them and I’m constantly looking at the things that work and the ways I would do them differently if I did the same subjects again. It’s constantly engaging with the work you’ve done.

JH: What about other people? How important are other people in your practice? I guess a two-part question; 1) if you collaborate with people and 2) how important is having an audience to you?

PL: Not so much collaboration, but I go to a number of workshops and when you’re working with other people, and you’re seeing what they’re doing and you’re commenting on each other’s work, and you’re working in a communal environment; I find that very rewarding, extremely rewarding. I wouldn’t want to do that all the time. I like to do work at home on my own, but I wouldn’t want to do that all the time. I think it’s very important to go out and work with other people in the studio for example. I do that on quite a regular basis. So that’s important. I don’t really collaborate with anyone. So I don’t do things jointly. Although by collaboration, I suppose you could mean – I go to one workshop every week – and we’re set a kind of theme to work on so we all work on something similar. If we want to, we don’t have to – it’s very free. If we want to follow the artist’s agenda, he might say, “OK, today we’re going to look at skies. I’m going to show you some ideas on how you might paint skies or draw skies.” Or faces, or hands or trees. Then you can do that with the others and see how other people approach it.

What amazes me is just the sheer number of people who are doing it. It is extraordinary. I live in the borough of Richmond-Upon-Thames and a couple of weekends ago, they had two weekends running one after the other, of open art studios. So you’ve got your little directory, the whole map of the borough is dotted with these little numbers where you can go and see people’s studios, and see people’s work, private homes, commercial studios, sort of little communal commune type situations. I availed myself of that with enthusiasm. I spent a whole Saturday going round and a couple of other days as well. It’s really interesting just in that one borough to see the people who are really very active and exhibiting and engaged in art. If that’s happening in Richmond, it must be happening elsewhere. And that’s just the people who do the open art studios. Then you’ve got all the other people tucked away in corners doing art.

JH: We met, for example, a voluntary arts network the other day, who said that there are nine million people engaging in arts, theatre and visual arts in this country. Nine million people are engaging in amateur arts! It’s amazing.

PL: And your aim is to get 53 million! Well, you know I think everyone has a creative instinct. But I think some people are afraid of it or they just think they can’t do it or they’re afraid to lay their creative urge on the line. They don’t want it to be seen, they want to keep it to themselves.

JH: My final question: what advice would you give to someone who was thinking about having a go at being an artist?

PL: I would say, “Have a go”. I think that’s the most important thing. Don’t worry about, or don’t get into the mindset, that you can’t do it. I think you have to say, “Right, I’m going to do a painting. I want to do a picture. I want to do a drawing. I want to write a poem. I want to get a lump of clay and make it into a shape.” I think that’s very important. I mean virtually every kid when a teacher sits them down at a desk and says, “we’re going to do some drawing”, they will do something. They don’t feel inhibited about it. Somehow we build up barriers, as we get older. As we mature we lose that childish desire to just while away the time creating something. I think finding the child inside yourself is quite important.

JH: That’s brilliant. Thank you very much.

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