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Bob Shirley

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Bob Shirley2We met up with Bob at his home studio to find out more about him and his painting. Based centrally in the market town of Bicester Bob has combined his living room with his studio, a satisfying arrangement as he is never too far away from his prized easle and paint brushes. In the past Bob has strived to move his art through different genres including abstracts in olis on large cancases to his latest acrylic paintings. We chatted over a cup of tea to find out about what inspires his work and where his artist journey has taken him.


Read on for more of Bob's story.



When and how did you first start painting Bob?Bob Shirley 3

   That’s a difficult one. I started drawing when I was about nine I think, then just carried on all throughout school, really. I picked it up again later on using oils, mainly. But I got into pen & ink drawing, too. Then got seriously into my painting in about…1970. I used to come home from work, be painting into the small hours of the morning, then have to get up early to go to work again. 



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What would you say is your favourite medium to use?

    Oils, definitely. I love the feel of them. The only problem with oils is they take so long to dry. When I moved into the place I'm living now, I explored acrylics and found that they dried quickly and suit the environment that I now work in. I can also be quite productive with them. Whilst I’d still paint with acrylics, I’d would like to get back to using oils at some point, on a large canvas, but current space doesn't allow this at present.  Oils aren't something I could leave behind though, because I’ve always enjoyed using them. 

 Do you create all of your work here in your living room and do you ever feel that you truly finish a piece of work, or are you always thinking of ways you could add to or improve your paintings? 

 Yes, I live with it twenty-four hours a day here. I've always got a painting on the easel, I don't like it if the easel is empty, I have to fill it even if this means putting a blank canvas there. And, no. Never. I always said that if I ever do a picture where I’m totally like ‘Wow, that’s it’…I might as well pack up. And I haven’t done one yet. I can always see something. Something wrong, something that I wanted to do and didn’t get. But then, that’s what drives you on.

 How do you find the subject matter for your paintings?

  What I like to do is go out and take my own photographs. I don’t like working from books or other people’s photographs. When I have my own photo in front of me, I can take myself back there, feel the atmosphere or remember feeling of the occasion. I go out and look for places. I’ve just joined the National Trust too, and am looking for some new places to go, but a lot of the gardens can be a bit too 'tidy' and less natural than I like. I like going somewhere where it’s a bit more wild and rugged, not quite so manicured, you know? Like Stoke Woods. I love going up there. Old ruins when I come across them are great to draw in pen and ink, even though it does take a lot longer to complete the details in a pen and ink piece. 

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What's your creative process, and how do you get started with a painting?

 Bob TreesI just work straight on a canvas. I look at my photograph and go right, there’s a tree there, a tree there, then roughly sketch it out with pencil on the canvas. Sometimes I do stray from the photograph if it doesn’t quite work on the canvas, artistic licence! Then, I do is start with the background, and slowly work it up from the back moving forwards, adding more and more detail as I come to the foreground.

I use chalk to mark out the trees, to get an impression of where they might go or to add a branch, and if it doesn’t work I can rub it out. Then I start to layer the acrylics on. Acrylics change as they dry, and it might not come out as the colour you wanted, but the beauty of it is you put another colour on top and the one underneath shows through, and you get the different tones. Pen and ink is a little different - you’re working so intensely because once you’ve put that ink on, you can’t change it. What I do, is put some music on, crank the volume up so I can’t hear anything that could distract me, and I just work away. It’s a tough process because if you start making mistakes its almost impossible to correct, so you might as well start over. 

 What do you think inspires and gives you the motivation to paint?

I can’t not do it - I can put it down for a few months and not touch it, but then I feel like I’ve got to do it again. I might see a scene, or something like that, and know I’m going to pick up a brush again. When I went to college I knew it was an opportunity to really go for it, and I was mostly painting large abstracts, and they were all big, about 5ft by 4ft, something like that. My abstracts were based on the scenes I paint now, which seems very strange, but it was inspired by Mondrian - when he took a tree, and you see all his paintings, he was taking out what you don’t need, and you ended up with lines. So basically, that’s what I was trying to do, whether it worked or not, I don’t know, but it got me an art degree at the end of the day! 

I’ve been through it all trying to make it commercial and come to the conclusion that I don’t want to make things too commercial. If somebody comes along and wants to buy painting I'm delighted, I don’t mind that. But to actually really start pushing, no, I’m not interested. I’ve seen too much of it over the years.

 When do you feel most inspired to paint?

Whenever I feel like it. That’s the thing, really, because I don’t have to go to work and ‘fit it in’ around my day. I got up this morning and started working on something straight away, and I might leave it till tomorrow, or I might be sitting and watching TV later and notice something I want to do. I don’t have a set favourite time of doing it. I like the light, you need the light. Especially with acrylic – if you start acrylic with artificial light, you’ve got to finish it in artificial light because it can really does change if you don't. I get the light directly into my living room, so a fairly dull day is the best light to work with, not too bright.

 What is most important for you to express in a piece of work? Is there a particular idea or theme that you find yourself coming back to or including in your artwork? 

I don’t think I’m really trying to say anything to anybody. If people come along and go – wow, I like that – that’s great. But, you know, I’m not doing it to try and get some serious message across. I suppose you could look at my paintings and go – well, we need to keep more of nature, instead of building houses on it. It’s the sort of thing that we need. You might have a bad day at work, and you go down to Stoke Woods on a nice evening and walk around…we need that. At college that was my theme - man will build a building, man will walk away and nature will take it back.


 Bob Shirley

What was your college degree in?

It was media studies. Not as fine as fine art. We had fourteen subjects spread out over three years and it was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. It was a visual arts media course, so we did printmaking, ceramics, painting, drawing, the lot. Then when I finished that, I stayed on, to prolong the experience, as a voluntary technician and ended up staying there for about five years.

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Which artists do you admire?

Constable, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. I was quite narrow in what I liked before I went to college, but art of the course was to visit so many places. We went to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and I was sat in there for hours. We went to this Mondrian exhibition in Amsterdam and I walked away, because it didn’t interest me, so I went outside and my tutor came out and asked what I was up to. I said I wasn’t interested. He said that I hadn't got the right to dislike it – I don’t know enough to dislike it. So, for me now, it’s not just looking at their paintings, it’s finding out what they were thinking, and what they were trying to do. Then you get a different appreciation. 

 How do you maintain your creativity?

What happens when I’m not painting it’s happening up here, in my mind. Thinking – what can I do next? How can I do it next? I’ll always have a blank canvas on the easel in my living room. I can’t sit in here unless there’s a canvas on it. I just don’t like it being empty. 

 What music do you listen to when you are creating?

 Cher, Shania Twain. When I had my own studio, years ago, I used to put on ‘the Requiem’, and it goes for about eight hours. The louder the better - to blank out any distractions. I’ve had people come up behind me, tap me on the shoulder and that's a big surprise as I had no idea they were there. 

 Looking back on your work, what you do think about it now?

 I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve ever really looked back. I suppose it shows the stages where my style changed. Even from the point I started painting in my flat, it’s changed. I’ve got forty odd paintings in the storage and when I get them out, and I can really see the differences. 

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