Updated: Sep 2
By Elizabeth Gracen:
I'd have never have believed that Twitter would be a conduit to reach out to artists all over the world, but wonders never cease. It ranks low on my list of favorite social media platforms, but it has proved an eye-catching source of attention for me this past year as I've prepared articles for this website. Following the lead of various artists I've interviewed, I have wound my way through the Twitter accounts of artists they follow to find a treasure trove of gorgeous, thought-provoking art—the latest of which is the work of Alistair Little.
A self-taught painter with career origins in advertising and the film industry, UK artist Alistair Little approaches his work with a storyteller's eye, creating narratives that provoke the viewer's curiosity and draw attention to the tension and mystery so necessary for any good story worth its salt. Little's oeuvre swells with lush chiaroscuro and directs us to the specific mise en scène of each subject he approaches, staging his characters with a filmmaker's sense of composition and drama. One is left with more questions than answers and is given free rein to imagine the story behind the image.
I reached out to Alistair to ask about his work, his influences, and what it's like to be a painter in Scotland.
Please meet Alistair Little!
EG: Alistair, I found your art on Twitter when I followed artist Paul Reid’s feed after doing an interview with him this past year. I never thought that I would discover so many exceptional international artists like you on that platform, but it’s exciting when I do. Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and about your origins as an artist.
AL: Thank you for your kind words. Where do I start? I always enjoyed drawing and took art at school. I did A-Level art, which marked the end of my formal art education. Driven by my love of movies, after leaving college, I pursued a career in film and worked for three years at Shepperton Studios and Ealing Studios in special effects, model making, and prop making for film and TV. After this, in 1997 (at the age of 22) I started on my own as a freelance artist and illustrator. Through a friend I met Bill Bradshaw and I worked with him for the next 10 years. Bill is a storyboard artist in the ad industry, and he taught me the importance of strong draughtsmanship and really "looking" in order to understand what you want to portray. He also taught me to pay attention to narrative, something that has informed my work to this day. With Bill, I worked on colouring storyboards and animatics for advertising. The (ad) work I did on my own was mainly one-sheet posters and layouts, although I quickly discovered I wasn’t quick enough in my own right for the advertising business. It was during my time with Bill I started painting pieces for my own enjoyment; these were often copying film stills and were completed in acrylic and gouache.
I started to show the work I was making during this period to local galleries, and in the early 2000s I got picked up by two galleries and had my first sales. In 2005 I started exhibiting with Panter & Hall, who still represent me in London today.
EG: You’re known for your expert draftsmanship and ability to portray a recognizable yet somewhat enigmatic narrative in your work. Now that you’ve fully embraced figurative oil painting, what is it about the medium that pulled you away from advertising and the use of markers and pencils into the realm of oil?
AL: I always wanted to use oils. The paintings that I admired were all made in oils.
I had no formal education in painting (with oils), and it took me time to understand the medium. In fact, I’m constantly learning how oils work and interesting ways to use them. I wouldn’t call myself a self-taught "artist," but I would say that I am a self-taught "painter."
I like the freedom that the medium gives me. It’s a very forgiving medium in that you can apply it in many different ways, and if you make a mistake, you can correct those mistakes very easily. Also, no other paint medium has the opacity of oils, and that suits my style very well.
EG: Your roots are in model-making and design, and you started your career in commercial illustration and advertising. Now you are recognized for the cinematic drama you conjure with the use of chiaroscuro in your paintings. There is a precision to your art that connotes specificity, yet there is so much mystery in every canvas—a story that the viewer is compelled to discover. Over time, has the progression of your work been a deliberate quest for masterful storytelling? How does the medium you choose to work in facilitate the journey toward the story? Do you ever work in other mediums?
AL: In terms of storytelling, my love of cinema plays a big part in that. I am always thinking about the narrative. This has developed along with me becoming more comfortable with using oils. I don’t think of myself as a subtle painter. I like to use high contrast and block primary colours. These techniques were certainly born from my love of the comic medium. As far as the medium goes, oils allow me to work quickly, which hopefully gives the work some life. I also use pencils, pens, marker pens, but very rarely for finished work. These are usually used in the planning stage.
EG: You have had a love for cinema since you were a teenager. All of your art, whether it’s a painting series, licensed movie posters, and even commissioned portraits, have a cinematic quality to them. What is it exactly about the films of the 20th century—specifically the films from the 50s and 60s—that fascinates you so?
AL: I respond mostly to visual storytelling, and my love of cinema goes back to early childhood, thanks to my dad and grandpa. The exposure to their favourite films lead me back to Spaghetti Westerns and old detective movies, which have been an enormous influence. The colour palettes, the widescreen compositions of Sergio Leone films, and the hard shadows from the expressionist detective films have left a lasting impression. I tend to think of my own paintings as a film still.
EG: When you start a new painting, what compels you to tell a story that drops the viewer into a scenario, much like watching a film?
AL: As I hinted at earlier, I want my paintings to feel like a narrative that has been frozen and you’re looking at a moment in time. Trying to give the scene some life is challenging, but I try to achieve this with a looseness to the figures in particular. The composition, colour palette, and lighting also aid in bringing the scene to life.
EG: The art of cinema is a huge influence, but who and what are your other influences?
AL: My ideas and inspiration honestly come from everywhere. For instance, Brexit and the #MeToo movement both coincided with the making of my 2018 Boxing show. Although not immediately obvious in the paintings, [they] had a big impact on the motivation behind a lot of that work.
My last holiday in Scotland was a big source of inspiration. An idea could come from anywhere though: a movie, a song, a piece of artwork. Anything that I see around me.
In terms of artists who have inspired me, I am heavily influenced by Laura Knight, Frank Brangwyn, and Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, the American Ashcan school (specifically George Bellows), a lot of American art from Winslow Homer to 20th- century golden-age illustrators such as Harvey Dunn, Norman Rockwell, and Dean Cornwell. Comic artists also have had a big impact: Alex Toth, Ian Kennedy, and Mike McMahon to name three—they might not directly influence my work, but their draughtsmanship and storytelling is inspiring.
EG: If you are comfortable talking about it, please take me through some of your process when you begin a new idea for a series. Do you choose a subject first? A location? Do you use live models or photographs? Do you meticulously plan out the series, or are you flexible as you go along? I read somewhere that you carefully pose your models. I’m not asking for the magician to reveal all his tricks, but I’m curious about your process. Take, for instance, that incredible Theatre series . . .
AL: Although I work within an oeuvre, I do like to tackle subjects that I’ve not painted before. I hit on the idea that theatre would lend itself to lots of dramatic narratives and imagery. I was interested in seeing how the theatre worked behind the scenes as well as depicting the on-stage production and, as it happened, I produced very few images of the stage.
Typically, the idea would come first, followed by some rough thumbnails, which is more like note-taking at this stage. Then I would start reference gathering, pose models, and take photographic reference, although this can be very loose—they also help as visual reminders. Next, I work on compositional thumbnails before building a reference in Photoshop. Then comes a painted rough before I move on to complete the final piece.
EG: Can you tell me how the lockdowns and the pandemic virus has impacted your life and art? Has it changed how you approach your work? What are you interested in creating next?
AL: There was certainly a period of adjustment mentally, and we had the kids at home, so my wife and I had to juggle our daily routines. I was painfully aware that so many people were coping with disruption and loss of all kinds. In that regard, I was incredibly lucky to have the studio to go to. Painting often allows me to escape and process the world around me, and during the pandemic it allowed me to contribute as well. My friend (gallery owner and artist) Hannah Ivory Baker headed a charity initiative to feed NHS workers by selling postcard-sized artworks to raise money, and Tom Croft began the Portraits for NHS Heroes initiative, and he was kind enough to ask me to contribute to that. Both experiences were wonderful and humbling.
EG: Alistair, thank you so much for the interview. There are so many wonderful painting series, posters, and portraits on your website, but we like to end these interviews with asking the artist to talk about some of their images and why they decided to create a particular series. Please share!
Untitled (Kids series): This is the most personal painting I’ve ever made. I love to include my children in paintings, and this one depicts my son and me. My son is autistic, and this painting shows how complicated our relationship can be. There are many visual metaphors, and needless to say they are all very personal. It is a good illustration as to how I like to hide personal meanings in a painting, but equally I like people to bring their own stories to it, and that goes for all my paintings.
Ardnamurchan (Scotland series): This is a good example of a painting that was inspired by a holiday. My wife and I holidayed on the Ardnamurchan peninsula several years ago, and it is a beautiful and inspiring place. The solitary male figure crops up time and again in my paintings (a psychologist would probably have a field day with that!), and I wanted a painting that has a dramatic Scottish sky, beautiful sunlight, the threat of rain, the figure clinging on to the last of the sunlight. I like the idea of the lighthouse being a haven of some kind. Edward Hopper’s lighthouses were an influence here too.
Heave Away (Theatre series): During my research trips to the theatre, I was lucky enough to get backstage at some West End theatres, and I was keen to show life behind the stage as well as on the stage. This image depicts stagehands hoisting a curtain or some scenery into place. I was keen to show the hard work that goes into a production. I really wanted to capture the weight of the object they are pulling and the effort it takes to move it.
Low (Boxing series): Boxing was a subject I knew nothing about. I do like to come to subjects cold. Although a brutal sport, it does lend itself to beautiful aesthetics in terms of the movement of the human body. In this piece, my aim was to capture the movement, the punch, and the weight of the figures, giving as much life to the image as I could. The bright downlighting also adds drama to the image. George Bellows, one of my painting heroes, made some amazing boxing paintings. His sensibilities had a huge impact on the show.
Departure (Journeyman series): These paintings were painted at a time of crisis in my life; this idea of going somewhere else—escaping. Blue skies, heat, the possibility of a new start are all feelings I wanted to get into this piece. This again goes back to the palette of 60’s movies and American television. That solitary guy who is traveling somewhere was, and continues to be, a motif of my work.
To find out more about the art of Alistair Little: