Ken Howard: The last impressionist

Ken Howard, British artist and painter, is an official member of several associations, such as, ROI ( Royal Institute of Royal Painters), RWS (Royal Watercolour Society), RWA (Royal West of England Academy), RBA (Royal Society of Bitish Artist), RBSA (Royal Birmingham Society
of Arts) and most important of the Royal Academy and he was also elected President of the New English Art Club in 1998 and Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2010.

Born in London in 1932, he studied at Hornsey School of Art, but he had to interrupt to serve as a marine during the end of the World War II, and then he resumed his studies at the Royal College of Art until 1958; now, Ken Howard is dedicated to his passion and to his paintings, which became Worldwide popular.

We had the pleasure to meet him in his studio in Venice, to have a little chat with him.

Ken, do you remember the first time you had the impulse to paint? When was your passion born?

Honestly, it never “started” in a specific moment, I have always had this passion, since I was a little child, and now that I am 84, I still feel like many years ago. When I go to sleep, I can’t wait to start the next day just to paint, with the very same enthusiasm that I had when I was a little boy. I think it’s something innate, something that I have always had and that I will never be fed up with. To me, painting comes very natural: some people take a coffee for breakfast, some people brush their teeth after eating, I paint; It’s just something that it is part of my life, or, I would rather say, it is my life. I always paint, the whole day, and I will never stop; I will never get tired of that, as long as I paint, I breathe, I live, and as long as I live, my career won’t finish.

By seeing your recent paintings, I would never say that you served as a marine.

At that time, I used to take with me my sketchbook, in which I drew the environment around me and the moments happening every day, especially the daily life of the soldiers. I never really felt in danger, as the locals could come up and could see what I was doing, and I was doing nothing wrong, I was just drawing, so people understood that I wasn’t a menace. I used to put all my passion in those sketches, by being objective and without making any comment; for this reason I became very popular in my regiment and in 1973 I was elected The Official Artist of Britain’s Imperial War Museum, becoming the first official British war artist since the end of World War II.

Let’s speak about the present, you have now a studio here in Venice, and this city is recurring in your paintings: why Venice? What about London, your homeland?

I’ve always said: London is my wife, Venice my mistress. London is my homeland, my nest, a city in which I come back to find comfort and familiarity. But Venice, there’s nothing in the world like Venice! The other cities are always the same, but Venice is unique, it always changes, it is a very romantic and passionate city; it is here that I met my wife while I was painting, and it is here that I decided to have a studio for the past 10 years in San Giovanni Paolo Square. It is an incredible city, it always gets me excited: every time that I come back here, I spend the first day just getting lost into the narrow streets, deeply breathing the magic atmosphere that surrounds me. Venice is always beautiful, both with the sun and the rain, both when it’s cold and when it’s hot, but I have to say that it is essentially a “Winter City”, it incredibly inspires me; I think that, in that part of the year, Venice literally whispers to the artist.

Talking about the romantic side of Venice, could you tell us more about the meeting with your wife?

Sure, that’s an interesting story: I first met her in 1988, while I was painting in Campo Sant’ Angelo, in Venice; I remember that I needed a subject to put in my work, as I felt it was quite empty, so I decided to paint a lady, who was sitting on a well eating her sandwich. After few minutes she came to me to see what I was doing, and she noticed that the woman in the painting was her, and I bet she got quite surprised. Anyway, after 4 years I took part at the Summer Exhibition in London at the Royal Academy and she attempted to contact me: I have never forgot her, as that painting was published on my first book, so we got in touch, and the rest is history…

What particularly inspires you of Venice?

The water and the lights: on this side, Venice is a painter’s paradise, the colors are soaking up the city and give you such incredible lights! I am a “ painter of lights”, and, to me, this city is perfect to work in: you can come back the next day to the same place at the same time, and it will be exactly the same, while in London the lights are always different, it’s all about light, that is always moving and you have to work in not more than an hour. Other things that I love about Venice are the high water and the rainy days: it always amazes me the way this city adapted itself on those circumstance, it is normal for the citizens to walk around and keep living their life without problems, while they are quite submerged in the water; that’s something that London wouldn’t be able to manage in my opinion.

What is your favorite subject of your beloved “Mistress”?

I love the rain, and I love the lights and the atmosphere that it creates on this city. Venice is all about lights and contrasts, and for this reason my favorite subject is the “Pescheria” (the fish market) in rainy days, because the grey and neutral winter colors are counterposed to the bright and warm colors of the market, especially the red of the fish. I am never fed up with the Pescheria, I have painted that a billion of times, not because it’s one of my most popular paintings, but because it is magic, and I believe that it became a famous painting because it can infuse its sensation of magic.

What is your advice to the young artists that want to portray Venice?

The first time I came here in Venice, I was a young student and I thought “ I don’t want to represent all those famous places that every single artist has already drew”, so I started to paint the most hidden corners of the city, from the narrow ways, up to the unknown little squares. You can’t go to Venice and, for example, plan to paint just San Marco, because, as soon as you turn the corner, you will find new magnificent places, that you can’t postpone; you have to take the chance and paint it right there, it’s all about sensations and emotions that you have to express in that moment. If you go to Venice, don’t do it with the aim of analyze the buildings, the arts or the architecture, just go and soak the city up, breathe it and live it, because this is a labyrinth of emotions and there is always something new to discover.

Talking about young artists, you became also a big inspiration for them. But, what are your inspirations?

With my experience, I am now able to guide some new artists and help them to find their path. The RA (Royal Academy) gave me also the possibility, together with other artists, to create my own palette of colors, which represent my personality and everything that affects me. In my paintings, in fact, you can barely see all those people and artists that inspired me, such as Lucian Freud ( Freud’s grandson), Monet and James Corrow, but also the Italian ones, Morandi, Campigli and Manzoni painters.

What are your techniques? Tell us about your style.

I describe myself as a “Silver painter”: I always use neutral colors, I have my personal range of shades, other painters have their own, it’s a matter of “language”: it is based on your personality and the circumstances around you. Colors show what you are, for this reason, the first thing an artist has to do is finding his own language. Moreover, I like to make a little contrast, by putting some warm spots in my paintings, to lift up my works. I love to paint in winter: you can see the structure of the trees and the sequences of contrasts, the contre-jour effect made by the lights; to me, working through tone is important, the relationship between the natural light of the sky and the shadow of the buildings is something that excites me. It is not that easy to make a work, as you have to paint quickly, but, you know, you give your best when you paint completely intuitively, when you have the sensation of being touched: art is about being touched, and I think I am “the last impressionist”.

Translations by
VALENTINA CAGNIN

Edited by
TEAM VENICE