Inside the Artist’s Studio: Tom French

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The work of artist Tom French finds itself occupying a seat somewhere in an inter-dimensional space, never entirely quite seated in reality.

Through the combining of elements within both realism and surrealism, his work prompts audiences to explore the fine line between the beautiful and the unsettling. 

The subjects of his canvases are highly threaded with mystery, and also upon closer inspection, traces of romanticism – all achieved through a singular monochromatic palette. The artist gave me an in-depth insight to his creative process, the challenges in working with ideas that extend into the conceptually ambiguous and how important it really is to feel understood as an artist.

How does personal history work its way into your craft? 

Unintentionally and unavoidably, consciously/unconsciously, more than I plan it to – I mean, every part of our history leads us to where we are today. Of course there’s elements of myself within the work, though I wouldn’t say the paintings are about myself. 

Can you remember the first ever painting you created that fulfilled you both creatively and personally? 

I can’t remember – probably the first marks I made as a child… but then children can be easily pleased with the simplest things. These days that kind of creative fulfilment is harder to come by. 

Who were your earliest influences at your onset as an artist and what have you borrowed from them? 

The earliest memory I have of being fascinated by an artist was when someone gave me a Salvador Dali book, again as a child. It blew my mind – felt like magic. Although I wouldn’t say he’s a favourite artist of mine, it made an impression. I guess for me the realisation that painting has the power to captivate the mind (as it did mine at the time) was equally as impressive as the content of the work, and led to the ambition that I wanted, one day, to somehow achieve or harness that power. 

Your work combines elements of both realism and surrealism, how important is it for you to have themes of both in your artwork? 

Personally, I like artwork with multiple layers of meaning, depth of concept. I enjoy realism, but for me there’s little excitement in recreating something, which already exists. I find painting much more interesting when the work is strengthened with layers of conceptual interest. 

On the topic of surrealism, have you ever experimented with automatic drawing? 

Yes, to some degree, though not strictly. The surrealist’s use of automatic drawing was predominantly used as a starting point when creating an image, rather than a means of creating a complete work – firstly making marks ‘automatically’ then applying some form of conscious intervention, making the image somewhat comprehensible or representational. With my latest work the method of painting does have parallels with this technique – I create abstract, random, free flowing brushstrokes, then allow the realist elements of the image to emerge from these. There’s something I find particularly pleasing about this marriage of contrasting techniques. 

How do you know when a piece is complete? 

You NEVER know when a piece is complete. I prefer my images incomplete anyway; nobody wants a puzzle that’s already finished, a jigsaw with all of the pieces in place. It’s all there, but the pleasures in the search and the mystery. 

Your palette remains monochromatic. Is it safe to assume you do so to avoid the bias that colour may add? 

Exactly that. Colour can be powerful and influential, but it’s also incredibly subjective. I feel that with my current series of work, the images are stronger for the purity of absence of colour. I like the simplicity of working in black & white and am fascinated by the visual potential of creative use of nothing but light and dark. 

As my characters and narratives are metaphorical (rather than representational), the timeless quality of black & white images may serve to distance them from cultural pigeonholing. 

As an avid follower of your work, I’ve known several instances where viewers find themselves returning to an image of yours, struggling to come to a conclusion about what particular emotion your illusions were trying to covey. Do you feel the public understands your work? And is it important to you to feel understood? 

I’m not averse to offering insight into my own concepts behind the work, particularly with the illusion pieces – I feel it can be beneficial for the viewer. That said, I find it intriguing to hear other people’s readings of the images, and find it interesting that it’s usually personal to them. Everyone will, to some degree, have their own perception of an image, making it a unique experience. Generally my work seems to be interpreted by others differently from my own thoughts on it, but then again, there is never one truth. 

With reference to my illusion paintings, here’s a small insight into my own thinking – the figures within these paintings reflect the conscious mind, interacting with people and going about their business, unaware of the bigger picture – the face or skull – which reflects the unconscious mind – the instinctual, yet hidden, human drives which shape our actions. 

Tell us a little about the practical and creative process that follows immediately after the conception of an idea for a new piece. 

The start of the painting process is fast and furious. Once the visual idea is conceived (as much as it can be) I like to get the majority of the image onto the canvas as quickly as possible. I work firstly with only black paint and thinners, applying the black and removing areas with cloth, brushes, various tools and liquid, so the only white visible is the canvas showing through the paint. The paint dries quickly when used like this, and working fast creates a wonderful sense of immediacy, which I find unachievable using other methods. The finishing off involves rendering up areas of importance, adding emphasis and attracting the gaze where I feel necessary. 

From a scholarly perspective, your work has often been described as figurative but many of the ideas appear very conceptually ambitious. Do you often struggle to reproduce the complex images or concepts you see in your head accurately onto the canvas? 

That’s probably the main challenge. The concepts held in the head are far from 2-dimensional – well, they aren’t at all dimensional, so translating them into a visual image, which can in turn be interpreted, is obviously a challenge. It’s also satisfying. Human nature has always led us into the attempt to rationalise, express and add significance to our mental state and physical surroundings. 

What risks have you taken in/for your work? 

Bold yet calculated ones. 

Do you see your art as relating to any current movement? 

Not from my perspective, it’s not something I concern myself with. If anything I’d feel restricted by doing so. 

 Which other artists might your work be overheard in conversation with? 

That one I’d be interested to know! 

What is your biggest priority in regards to sustaining a career and growing yourself as an artist? 

To retain the conceptual integrity of my work. This may be naive in terms of a career, but it’s vitally important for myself as an artist. 

 Words by Luciana Garbarni