Last Friday I caught up with our Procreate trainer Julian Vilarrubi in his wonderful studio above the Phoenix Art Space to talk about his art, his inspiration, and why he loves drawing on the iPad.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to specialise in your programme?
About 8 or 9 years ago I decided the paintings I was doing were a little bit tight. I didn’t like the way they were turning out and I thought what could I do, how can I get around this? How can I loosen it all up? I looked back over some previous work from 20 years before and I quite liked the way I’d been approaching that work.
There are certain ways of working; working with wax resist, working with materials that are more immediate, working more quickly on-site, working at a slightly smaller scale and I thought I need something to somehow create paintings more quickly on-site so I returned to the more mobile, rapid way of working. Which is what I had worked myself away from. That is why I got an iPad.
I had seen David Hockney’s “Arrival of Spring” series at the RA and I quite liked the marks he was making and I liked the scale he had been printing these at. I thought ‘I’ll give it a go’ and I bought an iPad, downloaded the ‘Brushes’ app and lo and behold I had the facility there at my fingertips. To use colour, to basically have a whole studio at my fingertips. The intention was to make painterly responses to wherever I was whether it was from the landscape or the figure, and then I thought maybe I could use that as the basis for oil painting.
I haven’t really exploited that transition yet, but I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of drawings and there are some I think would translate really well into paintings. But I haven’t successfully utilised that side of it.
Is that because you are happy with the results you get from the iPad on their own and you feel there’s no reason to?
In particular, I have tried to exploit the painterly side. With the selection of brushes, it’s very easy to make bold, flat, coloured, cartoonesque type drawings using the apps, (the drawing and painting apps). I wanted to use the more painterly brushes to get some kind of equivalent to what you might get with your materials. And yes, eventually I did start to be able to do that, so I didn’t feel the urge to transform it as much as I had done originally.
I want to hear about your training at the Royal Academy Schools – what was that like?
In the first year, we had compulsory life drawing two days a week. We’d go into the famous life drawing rooms in the basement of the Royal Academy – the Royal Academy Schools are in the basement of the RA. You used to enter from behind, in Burlington Gardens, but now with their extension into the Museum of Mankind, they’ve ploughed a walkway between the two. You can actually walk through the middle of the RA Schools as a visitor and you can look left and right to see the main corridor. You can’t go in it but you can literally walk through the middle of it.
We also had a professor of chemistry, who would talk to us about painting materials.
Is that a normal thing in an art school? I’ve not heard of that.
Not really. We had a professor of perspective, a professor of chemistry, and a professor of anatomy, so we’d have inputs from each of those. So that was interesting, it linked traditional training approaches to a modern fine art course. Apart from that, we had shared studios and we had assigned personal tutors (often who were RAs themselves). We’d get a lot of visiting tutors who were contemporary artists, sculptors, printmakers, painters but we didn’t have any set programme in terms of projects, because it was an MA.
So, we were kind of let loose in the studio and then the tutors would come round. One tutor would maybe focus on composition, and another may be more concerned with the subject matter of the work. You kind of build up a relationship with somebody, it was very good for identifying sort of kindred spirits, you know, across your tutors.
It was a great place for meeting people, for opportunity and connections. If I had been a little bit older, I would definitely have played that card. Some of these people were instrumental in helping me to survive for a few years. One of the things we didn’t have at the RA was professional developmental training, and we were aware of that. So, we felt we were flailing a little bit because we weren’t taught that side of it; how to survive when you left art school.
I’m doing this 10-day challenge on Instagram, and people from the RA are starting to come out of the woodwork. So, it’s nice to realise you were all in the same boat. We’re all still kind of doing it in one shape or form. It’s actually 29 years ago that I left there, there are still a lot of people doing it, contemporaries, and tutors. I am still in touch with my A-level art teacher and my first-year director of foundation studies at Newcastle University. I spoke to him the other day, so I am pleased I am still in touch with them, it’s really nice. We get on well, as friends, I stay at their houses if I go to Newcastle or North Yorkshire. I mean when you are young you don’t realise these vibrations will stay with you through your life, I’ve been lucky.
How did you feel about getting into the RA?
Well, I took a year out between my degree and MA to focus on my application, I really wanted to go. I applied to The Slade as well, I got into The Slade, so I had a choice. The RA was a three-year course, amazingly the only three-year course and The Slade was two years and I was torn so I didn’t know what to do. I knew a few people who were going to the RA so I thought that might be a good option. I went for the RA but obviously, it was great to get into these places.
What is the creative process behind your work? How do you start? Where do you get an idea from? Is it usually from life?
It’s always life-based, it usually starts from something I’ve seen. I’ll sit and draw it.
Are you always drawing? Are you the guy with the sketchbook in his back pocket?
Pretty much. I mean not as much now but in the olden days.
My Dad used to live in Miami and whenever I went to visit I used to go to the local art shop and they used to sell these 100-page sketchbooks. They had lovely proportions, they weren’t ‘A’ proportions, they were a bit squarer.
I’d load up on these 100-page sketchbooks so I was wanting to fill them. I filled loads of them but eventually, I broke them up – they’re all in pieces now and I sold some of the paintings that I did in them. I’ve got all the drawings in storage.
Basically, I just roam about, I’m a roamer. If it involves travelling even better. I’ve been thinking about it because I’ve been doing this 10-day challenge and I’ve realised how I work a little bit. I respond to what’s going on around me. It used to be always landscape and places, but now it’s a little bit more figure based and that’s where the iPad comes in. But yeah, I just draw it and then I’ll do a painting.
Why do I draw it – that’s the big question. How do I choose to draw that thing? It could be atmosphere, light, it could be the significance of the place or the objects in it, it’s a combination of all those things.
So you don’t get an idea and set up a scene?
No, not really.
What tools and techniques do you use and why do you love your programme?
I use an iPencil, that is the only physical tool I use. In terms of in the programme I hardly ever use any of the pattern brushes. Some of them look like wallpaper patterns…you brush the drawing and you end up with the pattern of a brick wall or something. It’s only as wide as the brush so you might only end up with a section. So, I only use those for fun. I tend to go for the brushes that look most like something you would use in real life. I try and use as many brushes as I can. Not in the same drawing but I like to get around the brushes, I try not to use the same ones all the time.
On Saturday afternoons I’ve got my life drawing drop-in session at Sussex County Arts Club. It’s voluntary work, I don’t get paid for it…
That’s very altruistic of you.
Well, the reason why I do it, I get to book the model, I get to pose the model, I get to light the model, and I get to draw the model. It’s a free session and I don’t have to talk to anyone about their drawings. I’ve been doing it for about 8 years, so every Saturday afternoon, that’s where I am and that’s how I built up a whole stock of drawings. So when a Crowood Press came to ask me to write a book about drawing on the iPad I already had a stock of drawings I thought would be instructive for the book, so it was kind of a fortuitous opportunity.
But the thing about it is because every Saturday afternoon I only use the iPad for drawing I haven’t actually done anything on paper yet. Ever. So that’s what it’s for, that’s what Saturday afternoons are for, that’s where I test out my brushes. I challenge myself and think; today I am going to use the weirdest brush I can find that I don’t know very well, I’m going to put it through its paces. It makes me learn, I don’t worry about the result, it’s an experience, I’m not precious about it.
You were saying there were some new features in Procreate, what were they?
Well, very recently they released Procreate 5X. There are a lot of great new features. One of them is something called the reference companion window. Very handy. This means you can create a reference window of the drawing you are making. You can zoom in to your main drawing and do some small details and you’ve got your reference layer there to see the whole thing, so it kind of guides you around it. There are new palette features, enabling you to instantly import a brand-new palette based on the colours in a photograph. I think it’s really brilliant and because it’s all at your fingertips, it’s magical, it’s a magical playpen.
Who or what inspires you? You mentioned David Hockney…
Well, I think, everything inspires me, that’s part of the problem. So when I’m walking here, it’s inspirational. If I look at all the street art then I’m being inspired by all the painting. How you can layer things and this works with oil painting or on Procreate. How you can layer information over other bits of information, how you can use colours. Walking down Vine Place the other day the colours were beautiful with the autumn leaves. So just walking down the street and seeing street fashion, street art, architecture, the weather; it all inspires me.
You’re a lucky man!
Let’s talk about these two paintings here, works in progress. I love the colours of this one, is this the evening?
This one? The church? Yes, it’s going to be a diptych. So this is my memento mori, it’s a diptych, two paintings the same size, one in the day, one at night. Flowers living in this one, and this one is going to have dead flowers. I quite like it as it is, inevitably I am going to overwork it.
Is that your weakness?
It’s probably that, overworking paintings. That’s part of the reason I started using an iPad so I could just chop and change, go back, save things, duplicate things and then carry on with them.
The process in painting, the way that I work, and it’s tiring but necessary, is that I will overwork a painting and then I have to unwork it to find a place that straddles the two sides. I usually take it too far, I don’t realise I have done it and lose an important element within it but luckily I know I can get it back by reworking it but by sort of going back, reducing it, destroying it in a sense.
The really tiring thing is it’s the process of making it that takes me to the place of resolution. It’s not colour-by-numbers; unfortunately, I wish it was. So, you know you are going to go on this journey with it, and it’s going to go bad. It’s got to go bad before it gets better because you don’t know where the better is unless it’s gone bad.
So I could leave that painting like that, and people might like it but not me, I can’t, but really that’s just half an hour’s work. There‘s nothing there.
I can see it wouldn’t work with that one, not at the moment, but I do like it.
It’s like diving into the swimming pool and trying to get yourself out again. It’s like ‘oh my god, I’m in too deep.’ There’s too much information, or I need to reduce it, so it’s a matter of destroying it, there’s a lot of destruction. If you look at some of them, they’ve got holes in them where I’ve scratched them.
You’re not angry?
No, I am not an angry person. See that roll of canvas on there? I bought that so I could have 60 feet of canvas. I could pull it down and do another painting because I don’t like edges to begin with. You see, start here and then work out where the edge is. Because I have a real problem with composition. Well, I don’t have a problem with it, I love composition. I have a problem with committing myself to composition early on. But that’s just how it happens. Once you know you have to go with the process.
It doesn’t sound like you plan them out? I mean you don’t do a sketch and then say I am going to transfer this onto the canvas?
Well, I can do a sketch but it’s always the edges that make me feel a bit twitchy. With this one, I have enough canvas around the back so I can move it up and down a bit. That one I have got enough maybe 2 inches on either side. Digitally you can do it really easily, it’s one of the beauties of an iPad drawing, you can say ‘I’m going to make all that smaller and add more surroundings to it’. When I draw a landscape I think ‘I like this landscape, I’m not sure why.’ It’s only through drawing that I discover the shapes and the relationships. I’m not sure which bits are stronger than other bits so by drawing it I find out. The colours are a given. I like the colours. With composition, usually on my sketchbook I just start drawing in the middle and then it stretches out and falls off the edge of the page. I stick another bit on and carry on, I think that’s why I stopped using sketchbooks. Too restricting.
Let’s look at some sketchbooks.
Tell us a joke!
Dishes the way I speak now I’ve got false teeth
Want to know more?
His book, Life Drawing on the iPad is available on Amazon
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(I promise I won’t be in my PJs!)