Robyn Ward, born in Northern Ireland and now based in London, is a contemporary artist who began painting on the streets of Belfast aged 15. Honing his craft over the years, his work is shaped by the current political landscape, exploring themes of sexuality, drugs and money through eye-catching mix-media works.
Through the use of iconic cartoon imagery, Robyn conjures up familiar feelings and experiences from our youth, a juxtaposition of warm nostalgia against the dark, warped world around these figures. His pieces are simultaneously humorous and sinister, a complex web of emotional responses that reflect these confusing times.
Very Introspective caught his recent show “A Simpler Time” and sat down with Robyn to find out how he got started and what’s next.
First up, congrats on the recent show. Was that your first?
That was our first show, yeah
It was great! I loved the size of the pieces. Have you always worked on such a large scale?
Before I used to paint on derelict buildings and much more street work. Now I'm actually painting on canvas and I still prefer to go big. I don't really like going small.
Have you always used cartoon imagery?
No. This is my first time kind of painting in this style. For a long time I was quite naïve about the world but being exposed to more I kept seeing the hidden meaning behind what's going on around me. I use iconic cartoon characters as a parody really, because it reminds me of a time which was simpler – to play with memories of a simpler time.
I'm actually working on a Winnie the Pooh series at the moment.
Has your work always had a political bent?
Often I paint about sexuality, life experiences and drugs, so I guess its social politics. My paintings have evolved because I’ve changed. I’ve grown up and travelled around the world which means I’ve been exposed to the harsh reality of what’s going on. I have my own personal views and beliefs, but when I'm painting, I just paint what I see.
I'm not saying it's right or wrong. I'm just painting what I see in the world.
When did you start painting?
I’ve been painting since I was 15. Whenever I was kicked out of school I used to go to this one bridge. That's where I just started. I started spraying and laying down sort of tags and basic graffiti whenever everyone else was at school. I literally hung out at the bridge all the time and then that's where I started really getting into it.
It feels like in the last 10 years the importance and perception of street art has changed…
I remember I used to have to go to the auto workshop to get my spray paints. They were basically car spray paints. Now if you look around London, I mean you can go to art shops in Soho, you can get the spray paints, there's like four or five really good shops. In Belfast when I was growing up, there were none.
Who were the artists you looked up to?
There are two artists I really like, one is Greg Simkins, His stuff is just mesmerizing, it's like fairy tale. The other one is Conor Harrington. He gave me a lot of inspiration and he lays all of his stuff on canvas now, but I remember I saw him in New York at an exhibition. I think it was 2007 Now he's huge. He's selling a piece for 65,000 and upwards
I also get quite a lot of inspiration from 80's/90's New York, all that work on the subway.
You mix media, often with spray paint – does the immediacy and quickness of spraying appeal to you?
I want my piece to look like you just cut a piece of wall off. So I'll spend hours on the background, layering paint on things like wallpaper as well as canvas to create more of a 3D texture.
So it’s a lengthy process?
Hours on the background alone! The idea is that the graffiti's not the full thing. It's a nice mix of things.
Do you always work on your own?
I really like to work by myself. I have to have music playing and zone out. It's my form of therapy. That's why I really started painting.
And do you set aside time each day to work?
It comes and goes when I want to paint! I wish I could just say I'm going do two hours or I wish I could say I'm going do all day Friday but sometimes Friday comes around and you just don't feel like it.
I have to be in the right mood. I go through periods where I'll paint really heavy for two, three or four months.
What are you listening to when you paint?
I love white noise, melodic, chanting music. Recently I've been listening to a lot of Surreal Flight’s mixes, I love them. I'll put a stream of their mixes on for 10/11 hours. It gets me to the right place to paint.
It seems like nowadays there are fewer gatekeepers in the art world, it’s easier to get your work out there and share it.
Social media has made the whole world much more accessible. You can openly express something. I'm not the biggest fan of social media but for creatives it's very good because you now have your own platform where you can show your work
Some galleries are much more sensitive about photography than others, where do you stand?
Oh, I let people take pictures of my work. I mean if I saw someone putting a tripod down, setting up the camera I might stop them! I put all my work up on Instagram. I like sharing it.
How long have you been based in London?
I’ve been here since 2000, and I live here for 5 or 6 months a year. I'd say London is my home.
Big cities have changed a lot, people often talk about how it’s harder to be an an artist. Have you noticed that change?
I love the place to bits, I call it my home. But it’s a big problem that London is getting so expensive. People are having to work further and further out, it’s making the centre of London lose a bit of its edge, it's coolness. Young people can't afford to live in central London.
Would you ever live anywhere else?
I'm going to go away for the winter. I'll probably be in Mexico for a few months. I surf so, generally surf about two, three months a year. Go in and zone out, I usually have a setup there before I go.
Would you ever go back to working on the streets or are those days behind you?
Oh no, I much prefer painting on canvas and mixing in elements of street. My take on trashy art!
When I was doing more street art, I would go into doing derelict buildings but there aren’t those opportunities now as cities get more and more built up. The building where I used to do a lot of my work doesn't exist anymore. They knocked it down. Security guards didn't mind. It was an old building and it was out of commission and they were paid just to make sure nothing terrible happened.
They never minded me painting. I'd just lay a piece then I'd go back and lay another piece on top of it and then I'd go back and I would lay another piece on top of that
Could you ever imagine doing anything other than painting?
I don't think I ever could. It's just what I do.
So the fact that loads of people really love your work is just a bonus!
Yeah, it's fantastic and to have so many people buying my work and so many commissions, I'm really flattered by it.
You mentioned the new series. How far into that are you?
I'm going to do a show in September; I want to have 12 to 14 pieces. I'm also working on some encaustic work as well, so I might show two or three of encaustic pieces.
Do you get nervous when you’re about to present your work?
I try not to really think about it, I just go with it. I'm painting until the last minute so I don't have time to worry. With the last I show I was hanging up a piece that was still wet.
Where would you host your dream show?
Actually, the show I'm planning in September is going to be a really cool one, a little piano factory. It’s not just about showing off the art, what’s great about exhibitions is the energy and the vibe that comes off of everyone and everything – people coming together to look at art and talk about it, it’s great!
Do you ever listen to what people say about your work and go “you don’t get it”?
Everyone has their opinion on art. A lot of people give me quick compliments on my work and some people, let’s just say it's not for them but that's just the beauty of art, it's all your interpretation.
Find out more about Robyn Ward at RobynWardArt.com