Carne Griffiths’ unique employment of tea and alcohol in his work, allow the artist to create some truly elegant and awe inspiring drawings. Over the past year, Griffiths’ work has started to attract significant global interest, highlighting the admirable creativity, which is displayed in the artist’s successful body of work. We recently had the opportunity to discuss this humbling success with Griffiths, where he spoke about some past influences, the notion of “invisible lines” and “spiritual connections”, along with the exciting piece of news that he has to look forward to.
What drew you into calligraphy art and illustration?
I started combining written marks with my artwork when I studied at college – I remember it being a combination of not really liking the way my writing looked and an interest developing in the idea of automatic writing/drawing. Over time, I developed a style of writing which is more akin to a drawn line than it is to actual words. I suppose it is to do with muscle memory as well and the way you learn to make shapes.
The handwriting I use in my work now is connected in an abstract kind of way to what I am considering whilst working – at the most lucid moments I imagine that it records the subconscious, but not in a clever way, you could also call it doodling. Illustration is a strange word, people will say that the work has an illustrative style and I am not really sure what that means. When I studied illustration we were encouraged to experiment with ways to associate feelings and ideas with text – it was never about a style but more about an association. I know what people mean when they say it though… pen and ink and all that jazz.
For 12 years, you worked as a gold wire embroider. How much of that style influences your current work?
Certainly the work I was producing last year was strongly influenced by the drawings I made whilst designing for embroidery. It was only natural that there would be some sort of connection between the embroidery and my drawings. Being patient with the work is hard, but it is a good thing to combine the two. I think in a successful piece of work I will have attained some balance between the detail and pattern in the drawing, whilst retaining freedom and expression in the mark making and not becoming too precious about any part of the image.
Along with the usual inks that artists work with, you also employ the use of tea and alcohols such as brandy, whisky and vodka. How did this come about?
The first day of drawing after deciding this is what I would now be doing for the rest of my life; I poured a glass of brandy and used it to work areas where I would normally use clear water. Later I tried to emulate this with tea. After a bit of experimentation, I produced the piece ‘The Vine’ which is about alcoholism – it was fun to use different types of spirits within the work, to see how they affected the process.
Can you run us through your creative process? How much of the substances you use to create your work is actually consumed by you?
As a percentage of what I use on the work, pretty little. You would think that alcohol may assist the process of being lucid while working but it doesn’t. Too much is a distraction and affects the line and mark making. I try to maintain a certain level of intensity whilst working and although this really can’t be called concentration – it is definitely a state of being, maybe similar to meditation, which you can be easily distracted from. I find it increasingly difficult to work with people around for this reason.
Have you always been one to experiment with alternative mediums?
To some extent, yes – but I have never been a painter, or someone who considers themselves to have a strong understanding of colour. I think this changed when I started to use tea – it gave a palette that I had confidence in using, it removed primary colours and created a set of earthy tones to lay down, which I could then add colour to with more confidence.
What sort of art were you producing in college, whilst at Maidstone?
Lots of large pencil drawings, model animations and stop frame pieces using balsa wood contraptions, along with lots of string and dusty bits of clock and watch parts, and of course fountain pen drawings. I had four trusty dinosaur pens that I bought from WH Smith’s that saw me through college. All of my drawings were in brown and blue ink with plain water washes and were very free and immediate.
Did you find that your mentors and peers were overly receptive to your work then?
I think we were all receptive to each other’s work. There were a lot of strong individual styles within the group and we were given a lot of freedom to express ourselves. I think college laid down a good foundation for pushing ourselves creatively without boundaries, something that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with illustration.
I don’t think I received any more acclaim there than others, but I was encouraged by the tutors to follow my own path – that helped enormously. I remember a period of time when everything just clicked; it stopped being something you were trying to do or learning to do and became something you just did. I think at that time I started to opt out of projects or at least tailor them so I could continue developing the work I was making. They really were good times. Good parties too!
Your artwork presents some interesting concepts to its audience, for example, the notion of invisible lines. Can you explain this idea to us?
We are all connected emotionally or spiritually to what is around us, whether it is people, animals, nature or inanimate objects – we form a relationship with these things that are unique to each person. I see these connections, (not literally) as lines between objects, between the things we are made of, like contours. They represent lots of different things, including energy, emotions or spiritual connections and basically anything that we don’t really understand.
Another central theme within your work is the idea of escapism. Is producing art a form of escapism for you?
The moment of drawing is definitely escapism. Although the word suggests getting away from something bad, it is more like retreating to an inner world. I am not sure what I am doing is meditating or trance-like, or anything like that. I’ve never read about what those things are supposed to be, but there is a certain amount of euphoria associated with the moments where the drawing seems to take a life of its own.
The international attention you have recently received must be humbling. Do you have any intentions to start exhibiting away from the UK?
It is, when you reach a stage in your life when you are doing what you have always wanted to do since you were a child and people have a certain amount of respect for, and enjoy looking at what you do. It is very humbling. I consider myself to be at the very early stages of developing my artwork – I love to travel and have my fingers crossed that my artwork will enable me to do that, so I can show my work outside of the UK some day.
Do you feel like the current scene in London and even the UK in general is the right place for you to continue producing and displaying your art?
Small fish in a big pond? This drives the work forward I think. The art scene in the UK is daunting. To make any sort of impact on it, you need vision, dedication and the ability to work tirelessly at what you believe in. I think it is a positive thing for an artist to be in this environment, there are no easy ways in and no fast tracks to success.
Have you been tempted into relocating?
I think the time will come when I will need to change base and feed my work with other cultural influences and there is no substitute for first hand experience. I had the great fortune of travelling overseas when I was younger – we emigrated to New Zealand when I was nine years old and my previous job took me to a number of places in India and elsewhere. I do miss travelling and my feet will certainly get itchy soon, but I have been concentrating on laying down a foundation for my work and that has meant real focus over the last two years. I think travelling within this time may have become a distraction.
Aside from drawing and painting, where do your other interests lie?
Too many hobbies – that was always a problem. I have managed to curb them to focus on the work, but making music, playing guitar, drums (both badly by the way) and now my other major vice is cycling – long hilly rides.
Describe your ideal holiday?
A healthy balance of cultural interest, relaxation and good food. Somewhere to explore, with good company.
The beautiful portraits, which you have produced, feature some elegant women, clearly contributing to the dream-like sense you are able to record. Can you tell us who these ladies are? Or are they all a dream?
The characters in the work are a blend of reference and imagination, I have worked with photographer’s images that capture a sense of other worldliness where I feel an image stops you in your tracks – that’s what I want my work to do and then to bring out or to add a sense of mystery anticipation, or seductive quality, I draw from life too. It is essential to develop and maintain your drawing but I do not have a muse… Maybe I could/should advertise!
Have you any good dreams to tell us about?
They are all far too bizarre to reveal here. Someone might be reading this.
Were you expecting the sort of response that your latest collection of work has gained? Did you feel you were onto something special when drawing these images?
No, I didn’t ever expect the response. I get excited when I make artwork – when I make a piece that I think is successful it is very satisfying, but what I aim to achieve and what others like in the work are completely different things. Normally I will take joy in a small squiggle or area of the work that I have no memory of creating. These are little bits of magic to me, but to others they may just be scribbles.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I am to be a proud father of twins in September/October – it is a magical journey and I’m sure it will be a truly life changing event. To coincide with this and to make sure that I never have a minute’s rest, I am working towards a solo exhibition with Ink’d gallery in Brighton.
Ink’d have represented my work from the start and supported and embraced what I’ve done along the way as well as giving fantastic advice. I just want to make sure that I have a body of work together that does them and me justice. I hope you can make it along, the exhibition runs from the 6th September for one month until the 6th October, I’ll be announcing more information through my blog over at carnegriffiths.com between now and then for anyone who would like to come along.
Carne Griffiths Online: