In his recently published book “Passport to Paint’, Clive McCartney tells a story that says everything about his work – and why he has become one of Britain’s foremost painters.
It’s the early 1980s and Clive has just graduated from the Central School of Art and Design. In a travel book, he sees a picture of a valley in southern Spain called Las Alpujarras. He’s never heard of it, but he’s so captivated he decides to go.
Soon after, he arrives in nearby Granada, and waits for a bus. It doesn’t come. So he walks 70km to get to this special valley filled with lemon trees and olive groves. He ends up staying for three months, living above a goat barn and painting every day.
Most people looking at Clive McCartney’s effortlessly accomplished work would describe the artist as gifted. This is understandable. But it's not the whole story. The truth is that Clive has worked relentlessly over four decades to become the master he is today; he’s lived in goat barns.
Clive was born in 1960 in New Delhi, India, but returned to England when he was five. His passion for art was sparked around this time, and was encouraged by his parents. His mother would take him to London’s great art institutions: the Wallace Collection, the Tate, the National and National Portrait galleries. Clive would soak it all up.
His other passion was travel. Clive’s family moved around a lot. He loved it. “I was drawn to all the old things and how they evoked history,” he says. “When I travelled through Europe in the summer with my parents it seemed like the ghosts of the past were everywhere: in the cafe overlooking Barcelona’s Ramblas, in Rome’s squares and, of course, in Berlin’s Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate.”
In his studies, Clive demonstrated the same spirit of openness and adventure. Though he is now known as a figurative painter with a passion for observing the effects of light, Clive has always been interested in every kind of painting. In his biography he reveals a fascination for the strange surrealist work of Yves Tanguy and André Breton. He also recalls a period of intense interest in Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionism.
As a student, he clearly absorbed every possible influence. But in the end, it all came down to light. And his commitment to painting its effects was total. “In the summer I resorted to sleeping in my sleeping bag under my table – hiding while the janitor made his rounds. While it was still light you could paint the panoramic views of London as they made their transition into twilight and then night. The next morning could be glorious as the sun rose over the east and all was silent.”
This became the template for Clive’s hugely successful career as a professional artist. He has travelled the world chasing these panoramas. But it would be wrong to characterise Clive as a ‘mere’ figurative painter. Rather, you sense he is trying to move beyond the reality of a place and reveal its underlying structure – whether it's a city square, a cathedral or a railway station.
He says that when you look at a setting for long enough “you no longer look at a particular object but see it in its abstract constituent parts. It builds through a system of perceiving and only then it becomes a likeness. Sometimes artists tend to see the likeness immediately and draw only that, not realising that it is the logic of the inner construction that will bring something to life.”
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