Mike Worrall is a UK-born, self-taught fine artist. Now based in Australia, his massive oil paintings depicting dreamlike surreality hang in private collections and gallery shows worldwide. His work is exhibited in one-man shows biannually, the latest of which was at the Richard Martin Gallery in Woollahra, New South Wales, from November 23rd to December 11th. Find him online at www.mikeworrall.com.
You’ve been painting since the early sixties. Can you describe for us how you got your start?
When I left school in the late fifties, my father would not allow me to go to art school—he was good father and was thinking of my future and realized it could be a hard life in the fine arts—so I started as a coffee boy in an advertising agency in my hometown of Reading, where I stayed for a year, knowing it wasn’t for me. I next did a stint in the merchant navy, then back into advertising, joining a studio in Soho, London, full of freelance illustrators where I would pick up useful illustrative skills. In my spare time I would be drawing and painting and would at weekends hang on the railings at such places as Green Park Piccadilly, Hampstead, and the Bayswater Road, hoping to sell to the public. At about this time I would attend life drawing classes, etc.
I would become what was called a summer artist; that is, during the winter I would get a job in an advertising studio, then leave when it got warmer. I even did pavement art around the National Portrait Gallery. My big break came when, towards the end of the sixties, I was discovered by a well-known collector who bought all I did for the next three years and introduced me to a top gallery in Cork Street, where I had my first one-man showing 1971. I had arrived and was being taken seriously at last.
You’ve described your early work as presenting more “horrific” themes and subjects, a phase which causes you to “cringe” now. Why? Simply because of the lack of subtlety, or something else?
I think most artists are slightly embarrassed by some of their earlier work; my case being subject matter, partly because the various artists in history I admired tended to dwell on the pathos in life. One such was Käthe Kollwitz, who drew on the downtrodden and their suffering. Inspired by her, I created a highly realistic piece called “After the Rape,” which I thought would stop people in their tracks . . . it did! I was addicted to shock tactics. War images, the pit of death, etc. were to follow. But I feel that, at the time, I did treat them with as much subtlety as was possible. One of my earlier jobs was working as an illustrator for a government magazine called Accidents, the purpose being to warn and prevent accidents in industrial workplaces such as factories and building sites. One was given a draft to illustrate a particular mishap, often ending in a fatality. A lot of them were quite grisly, too. “Show no blood or horror” was the mantra oft quoted, which presented quite a challenge. One had to show a lot of subtlety and yet get the message across. I think this was good training for what I call my “Blue” period. In about the late seventies the wish to shock had abated somewhat, as I realized shock had a short-lived attention span, and that more pleasant subject matter has more staying power.
Tell us about your role as a conceptual artist in feature films in the seventies and eighties.
Well, it was through one of my Blue period paintings that I was first introduced into concept art for film. Roman Polanski told me that he got the idea to make his version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth from a painting he had of mine, and asked me to work out the design for Panavision. From there, a few years later I was invited to do work on a Nick Roeg film version of Flash Gordon, later aborted. I have worked on several feature films and television productions in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Hollywood.
So your work has inspired creators in other artistic disciplines. Do other disciplines inspire you? Music, fiction, film?
I suppose I feel a need to create out of habit. I have only known a life of thinking up ideas since my earliest memories; it’s my identity, it’s my essence. I get very depressed to the point of tears at times when I have an artistic blockage (which I do every so often), but I have learnt that you can only go down so far and it always breaks and I’m back up again fighting, fit and ready to go! I did have a nasty tussle about eighteen months ago. It lasted nine months, that was hard going. But I broke out of it! A lot of the reasons I get so-called blocks is I lose faith in myself, in short I’m suddenly confronted with the fear that nothing will work, and I’m no bloody good, and people are just humoring me and it’s all a whopping lie! It helps to just keep drawing. In my case I doodle a lot. In fact, these days, unfortunately, I hardly ever go on to a full drawing: it’s do a doodle which I like, then straight on to the painting. This is a shame . . . I’m trying to rectify this.
Why do you create this sort of work?
My mind is geared to creating what you could call Mystery Paintings. They can be surreal situations like stills from a dream. My love is to incorporate women, mainly in various interiors or landscapes and backgrounds, suggesting a bit of a conundrum if you like—this can be a nice place to be—or even a face with an odd expression or knowing gaze. These expressions usually just arrive or don’t in the process of painting. I mostly paint directly from my imagination, preferring not involve a model or photo. But sometimes I do use a real person’s face which is inspiring. Of course, I am unconsciously observing and absorbing the material of life as I move through it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently tidying up the studio and catching up on all those piled-up jobs that I have ignored over the last eighteen months of sometimes frantic activity in preparing for a solo show, which we had the opening night for just the day before yesterday. But I am very aware of not letting the brush get too hard and am thinking what the next project will be. You could say it’s a bit of mystery.
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