Question & Answer with CALUM STEVENSON

Read about which artists have influenced Calum and what prompted him to pursue an artistic career.
September 7, 2022
Question & Answer with CALUM STEVENSON

Have you always known that you wanted to be an artist?

I think I have always known. I was always half decent at drawing and I enjoyed it. I was maybe seven or eight and I distinctly remember telling my brother that I wanted to be an artist. I didn't know that was even possible. I thought that meant just drawing superheroes – I thought that that would be the job. 


It was in high school that I realised that this could be something I could do. My teachers were influential in pushing me towards the arts. I had no idea what I wanted to do. A little bit of guidance was needed to make me aware that there is a path for this. Prior to this I had never heard of art school. If I hadn't been guided towards art, I would've ended up doing something like engineering. I like working with my hands. 


Then when I started to discover contemporary painters' work, and for example documentaries on Francis Bacon, I saw the classic tortured artist and it appealed to me. I thought 'I wanna do that'. 


Having decided to study fine art, how did you find the experience of being a student?

 When I went to Duncan of Jordonstone it was a struggle. The first year was difficult. You were given a brief. You worked towards that. Then when it became 'alright, here's your studio, you're doing what you're doing, get on with it' I was quite lost for a bit. It was daunting. But I kinda grew into it and started to do really whatever I wanted. But it was quite challenging going from 'plan' to 'no plan'. I never lost that need to know what I was doing.


Have you achieved your ambition of being a tortured artist?

I think so. It definitely is torture. So yeah. I must have. You spend so long in the studio mulling over what to do next, so I'm gonna say 'yes' to that!


Tell us about your studio?

It's a big upgrade on the bedroom style studio I was working from in my house after I graduated and immediately after Portrait Artist of the Year. But it's still a little bit small. It started with 'this'll do'. But then you get another painting. And another. They pack up. You look around and there's not really much space left in here. But it's good. Although I am planning to move to a bigger one. 


Do you find the physical distinction between work and home to be helpful?

Yeah definitely. Having that 9-5 feeling is maybe quite necessary having spent years working in a studio that you can roll out of bed into. It's convenient, but sometimes you want that human connection, even if it's just saying 'hi' to someone in a business unit next door. All of that feeds into your daily practice. It was very necessary for me to get out of my old studio when I did.


How many works do you have going at once?

I  like to have a couple of small ones on the go while I work on a large one. You're talking three max at a time. I don't like to commit to too many different things. I feel like I get lost. Especially when you're in a process of development. 


Do you know what you're going to paint when you face a blank canvas?

 Not really, no. I think other than being inspired by other artworks like Reubens, (I've always liked those and the compositions are amazing). Maybe you take that lightly into consideration? I just kinda pick a size, pick a shape, and respond to it. 


With this body of work have you found it easier or more difficult to figure out when a painting is finished?

I think my process of painting means that I always have an idea of how it's going to turn out. So it's not too difficult for me to tell when a painting is done. 


Obviously how good can I make a certain part of a painting, how much do I want it to look like the photo, how much do I not want it to look like the photo. These are all just painting problems which you try and solve while you are working. And when you feel like that is resolved, then you can move on. 


But I would not say these are harder than any other paintings. If anything a more direct portrait is harder because it is solely about that. Whereas when you have lots of different elements going on, it's more forgiving, maybe you can relax the realism in areas, which is easier.


How much do you use digital technology in your work?

 A lot. I always use a combination of digital technology to help me improve the work. I've always done that. I feel at this stage it's almost expected of me. There's always a screen near me while I paint. 


I take photographs. I work from photograph. I need a screen to look at the photographs. I use that to get a better composition. It allows me to move things around, make sure I'm happy with it before I start. 


And especially when you start with an abstract composition, the only part which is just free in a way. But when I want to put faces in, or figures, I need to play around with how they're gonna sit. That can be quite difficult. 


What's your favourite gallery or place to see or experience art?

That's a really hard question. I think because I'm always in the studio painting it's sometimes hard to pull myself away and go and visit shows. I don't do that enough. 


Funnily enough the Scottish Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh is a big favourite of mine. That sounds like I'm just saying that because my painting is there! But I always love that gallery and I would always go there when I go to Edinburgh. The fact that I have a painting there is really special to me. I would always recommend it to anyone. You have got some really fantastic paintings in there. 


If you could collaborate with one artist from any time, who would it be and why?

Oh man…I'm gonna say Jenny Saville. A living artist, and the reason is that I feel there would be so much to learn. The way that she goes about her portraits is so free. I've always loved that kind of art. And yet the works are quite controlled, and designed, and that's part of who I am as an artist. I'm always trying to get away from that control just a little bit. The recent abstract elements in my work is me enjoying painting for painting's sake and not worrying about how it's gonna look. And I think that Jenny Saville manages to do that. She can pull the figure through the mess. And that is hard! Her paintings are always impressive. People don't tend to grasp how difficult that is to achieve until they try it. I could learn so much from her.


Do you have a colour you like to work with above any other?

Red. I love red. That's a real obsession at the moment. Red and blue. A combination that I can't get away from. A combination of something that is hot and cold. I just love that contrast. I've used it in everything. I kind of worried about it in the past. But now I'm thinking, nah, let's go with it, embrace it, see how much red and blue you can get in a show before it's too much.