AT HOME WITH HIS ART: Artist, illustrator and key worker Graham Willis
AT HOME WITH HIS ART: Artist, illustrator and key worker Graham Willis

Before the coronavirus lockdown Staindrop-based illustrator Graham Willis was excited to show some of his work the Scarth Hall as part of an initiative to support local artists. Like many, however, his life has been affected by the pandemic but he is using his free time to finish off artwork and develop new ideas.

How did you get started as an artist and what is your medium?
I was encouraged by my family to explore with paint from a very early age and as I developed I was pushed and encouraged by various teachers at school. This eventually led to studying and graduating from Sunderland University with a BA in illustration and design.
I mainly use acrylic paint as I like the benefit of the quick drying time and the ability to manipulate the paint, but I am interested in experimenting in print making and collage.

What inspires your work most and which other artists have influenced you?
Growing up in the dale I have always had an affinity with the countryside and my love of animals first inspired me to draw and paint. So my inspiration came from animal illustrator and artist CF Tunnicliffe. But now after studying as an illustrator a big inspiration are the folklore and stories which are entwined in various cultures. I simply cannot work without music and my taste is very eclectic from jazz all the way to heavy metal.
I also enjoy the expressionist movement, Chinese print making, geometric patterns, art deco and my biggest influence is the work of Mark Rothko.

What is your favourite style?
Abstract expressionism is my favourite style/ movement. Although much of my work can seem realistic in its representation, I strive that my work should be more than mere decoration. I am excited when exhibiting and I get a reaction and questions about my work as hopefully it has had an impact on the viewer. It’s that emotional connection which is important to me and this is why my favourite artist is Mark Rothko.

The dale has a wealth of artistic talent. What do you attribute this to?
We live in a sometimes isolated and overlooked part of the UK, but the beauty of the dales and the natural surroundings which have been farmed and worked over the generations is a draw to artists. I love the variety of art produced locally and we have the natural world and our surrounds to thank for that.

What is your favourite work and why?
My favourite piece is called The Departure. It is a large acrylic on canvas and is based around a folklore to do with the Jacobite uprising in Northumberland and features Derwent Water and the northern lights. It is also inspired by the Greek and Latin folklore about Charon, the ferryman who takes people over the river from the world of the living to the world of the dead. I am really happy with how well it turned out as it was a long and hard process including a long period of testing and experimenting on small scale pieces.

Do you have a special place where you create your work?
I would love to say I have a nice studio space, but unfortunately I only have a small space which I use for painting. However, it is more about getting into a creative mindset and having a desk or space to suspend canvas. I often need background noise and as I said before I cannot work without music and often this will lead me to be sat with headphones on working away totally oblivious to anything else going on around me.

Apart from art, what are your other interests?
I love to travel but this may now be a while away, what with the current restrictions due to Covid 19. I like rock music and concerts and we were planning to catch a concert featruing either a Queen, with Adam Lambert or Evanescence.

Do you have a favourite piece of art from another artist and can you explain what draws you to it?
Wassily Kandinsky’s Inner Piece is one that really spoke to me. I love the use of colour and geometric shape in his work and when I saw it at the Albertina in Vienna, Austria, it just drew me in and stood out from other similar paintings. The contrasting sections of the work, one bright and one dark, made me think that everything can look bright and cheerful, but things are not always as they seem at first glance.

How are you keeping yourself busy while the country is under lockdown?
As an artist I always have lots of ideas floating about as you can never tell when inspiration will strike. But as my other job is working in a convenience store /supermarket. I am classed as a key worker, so I am still working. I am trying to work on developing some ideas into paintings and finishing pieces I have previously stated. I’m also catching up on reading.

For anyone who hasn’t seen your artwork, is there anywhere currently they can view it?
Some of my work is currently up in the Scarth Hall, in Staindrop, but as we are currently in lockdown the hall is closed. However, I have a Facebook page which is regularly updated with what I am working on and previous paintings and prints. You can see it by visiting Graham Willis Artist Page.