Just an artist – 20 years and counting. EP were delighted to talk with Gavin Penn about the major influences in his life and work.

Posted on June 2019

“Artists need to connect with their audience and art therefore reflects life in a moment of time. Art of an era, reflects a social moment and art has, for hundreds – even thousands – of years been a symbol of great society. We all judge homes, hotels, banks and museums by the art that sits within. It tells us something through our senses rather than words.’ (Henry Ward)

EP were delighted to talk with Gavin Penn about the major influences in his life and work. Gavin is one of the UK’s emerging artists in a time when many people are falling back in love with paintings. The variety of Gavin’s work extends from figurative paintings of football fans, dancers and musicians to stylised character paintings and most recently to imaginative creations for an upcoming psychedelic-rock album cover.

Art has become once again reflective of life.

Gavin was born in Scotland, his artistic talent was evident from an early age, and in 1999 (20 years ago) he graduated from Edinburgh College of Art with a BA (Hons) in Painting and Drawing. His work reflects his interest in people, sport, film and music.

“As an artist I think you should be willing to embrace new opportunities and that all your previous experience will provide influences for your next work. Much of my inspiration comes from music, dance and sport –talents that express themselves through their own art. I know that this makes my work connect with people all across society. I use colour, light and reflections to make a visual piece that tells a story, sets a mood and creates an emotional response in the viewer. I believe that this connection and response is why art is so important.”

So how did these influences play a role with Gavin?

“It is fair to say that my areas of focus have changed over time, but my interest in people is a common thread. For my degree show I focused on North East football fans, through the ups and downs of the season. This subject and figurative style made my work stand out from the abstract art that was popular at the time – and the visitors loved it. There is something real about football fans: they are tribal and emotional. My show was very successful: the work won awards and pieces are now hanging in collectors’ homes and in a premier football club.

After graduating I loaned my talents to a high-end interior design company as a mural artist. I turned ceilings into skies, bathrooms into woodsheds and painted lots of children’s rooms. The client relationship worked best when I had creative freedom. My favourite pieces were an atrium covered with Greek gods and a complete room painted as a jungle that reduced the client to tears of joy. This experience made me appreciate the power of my art and the pleasure art can provide.

When I saw Ballet Central perform locally I was entranced and just wanted to paint the dancers. Fortunately that company, and others including Northern Ballet and Matthew Bourne, welcomed me to rehearsals and I relished this generous collaboration. Dance has narrative, mood and lighting, and I expect dance will always be a source of inspiration for my work. Dance is also a popular theme that resonates with people and my work was published and sold in department stores. Art can change not just how a room looks, but how it feels, connecting with people in a deep and personal way.

After a few years I went back to university to study digital art and animation. I learnt digital techniques and produced art work, including character design, themes and environments, for Sony and Microsoft. Among other work I styled a murder mystery game with a 30’s theme. Recently I revisited the 30’s style ideas with a series of character and homage paintings. This series came about when I opened my own studio/art gallery (Penn Gallery), which gave me more freedom to experiment with my work and painting style.

Artists have long gravitated to the coast where the lighting is special and the broad horizons are an inspirational force. Soon after I had found the premises that would become Penn Gallery, in Alnwick, near the Northumberland coast, sea and sky infiltrated my work. These subjects remain a continuing influence. Beach visits are known to be restorative, so it might be reasonable to suppose that seascapes have similar properties. People visit Alnwick from all over the world and my work now hangs on walls from America to Australia.

I paint to music and enjoy hunting records and planning playlists. For me there is a fascinating theatricality in the cultural origins of modern music and its emerging genres. Shortly after I opened my gallery I was contacted by a renowned music producer about artwork for their upcoming psychedelic-rock album. The digital design skills I had learnt allowed me to experiment and develop concepts in a creative collaboration with the music producer. The opportunity to explore the visual expression of new music is irresistible and continues to be absorbing.

Painters are not always good in using words to explain their work. I am no exception so perhaps it is fitting to quote the father of conceptual art, anti-painter Marcel Duchamp ‘What art is in reality is this missing link, not the links which exist. It is not what you see that is art, art is the gap’. After 20 years as an artist I can appreciate this sentiment, whilst executing it differently. Duchamp again, ‘I’m nothing else but an artist. I’m sure and delighted to be’. For me the opportunity to paint and to see my work affect people with meaningful emotional response is a joy, a privilege and a responsibility.”