Last month I flew into Melbourne with the goal to only view 5 exhibitions and then fly out that same day. One of those exhibitions which I was most keen to see was Ron Francis' paintings at Scott Livesey Gallery. Ever since seeing an image of one of Ron's more famous paintings "Skateboard" (not in the exhibition, but shown below), I've wanted to see a large exhibition of his paintings. The exhibition was no disappointment, bringing together 17 wonderful paintings by an artist people should keep an eye on.
Skateboard, Oil on canvas,110 x 110 cm
Only now am I getting around to blogging about the exhibitions seen that day and thankfully Ron has agreed to an interview.
Strange Little Clouds, Oil on canvas,120 x 120 cm
In The Real Art World interviews Ron Francis about his recent exhibition at Scott Livesey Gallery, Melbourne
In The Real Art World: What is the Ron Francis story, how have you and your art arrived at this point?
Ron Francis: I was born in Sydney, Australia in 1954.
Like most people, I drew a lot as a child. One defining moment I remember was in 4th grade at school, when drawing a tree trunk, I discovered that shading could make it look round. This was possibly the beginning of my fascination with art.
In the following years, my time was divided between art, being a guitar hero, girls, competitive swimming and later, riding a motor bike. At around 20, painting in oil became an obsession that eclipsed everything else. In those formative years I was Government subsidised in the form of unemployment benefits for longer than I would like to admit.
Over the next 15 years I was represented by a couple of galleries, but never earned enough to support myself. During that time I began developing a way to use perspective so that a viewer in the right position could look around inside a painting as though they were looking around in real life. This in itself isn’t new, but I approached it in a mathematical way which has eventually developed into software that now has more in common with 3D modelling than the geometry of linear perspective.
I was offered work painting trompe l’oeil murals where I was able to directly apply these principles, and this continued for around 15 years.
I became ill with cancer in 2004 and this made me re-evaluate my life. I decided to give up painting murals in favour of fine art and began exhibiting with Scott Livesey Galleries in Victoria, and still exhibit with him today.
And that is how I have arrived at this point.
Darwin, Oil on canvas,91 x 136 cm
In The Real Art World: There is a feeling of unease in your paintings, a controlled tension that isn't overbearing, or overtly menacing. Your use of humour also deflates the impact of what you are looking at, such as in the Painting "Darwin". How important is it to maintain the balance between visual impact and subtlety?
Ron Francis: This is a bit of an odd question. For me, painting is just a form of self expression and you may as well ask the same thing about the way I relate to people in general. So rather than thinking of it as a controlled product, it is more just the way I am.
In The Real Art World: The 2 paintings I most liked in your recent exhibition are "Darwin" and "Dad", two very different paintings. Tell me a little about them?
Ron Francis: Darwin was a recurring nightmare that I had at least 3 times in different forms. Each time I was surrounded by crocodiles and I was so scared that I couldn’t move. The oddest part of the dream was that there were people around me carrying on as normal, completely disregarding the danger.
Dad was an attempt to capture a very early childhood memory. It was almost forgotten and part of the process rediscovering it. The emotions I have about this scene are complex and contradictory, and the sense of uncertain anticipation is one of the things I wanted to convey.
Dad "Selfportrait As My Father", Oil on canvas,170 x 120 cm
In The Real Art World: Your paintings vary dramatically in subject matter, how do you go about finding the subjects for your paintings and what do you really look for when assessing it’s potential to make it as a painting?
Ron Francis: That’s the million dollar question. As I touched on above, subjects often come from dreams or visions.
I will often have an epiphany-like vision after a long period of contemplation of an idea that I don’t know how to render, and I often see it as a complete image that I just have to try to paint as I saw it. Other times visions seem to come from nowhere. In fact, I can never really know if I have fallen asleep for a couple of seconds and it was a dream. Other subjects are formed to try to express how I feel about something, or may be simply a technical experiment.
When assessing an idea, I look at why I want to paint it in the first place. If I find myself wondering if it will be saleable, then it is almost invariably abandoned. The ideas that are the best are the ones that light a fire in my belly and there is no question as to whether I will paint it or not. There is no assessment process at all.
So this is what I look for, the spark of inspiration. Without it, painting for me becomes merely a polite conversation.
The Divine Window, Oil on canvas,160 x 160 cm
In The Real Art World: Tell me about your working process, how does an idea becomes a finished painting?
Ron Francis: Most of the time I have a fairly complete image in my mind, similar to the after-image one has after just having looked at something, and I have to try to reconstruct it as well as I can.
I will usually draw some rough sketches first which will expose all the weaknesses in the scene.
For example, there may be a certain type of house in a scene. I will know the type and period but the details are vague and I will have to invent those parts or research them.
When I think I know what I’m doing, I will use my software to put it in correct perspective and this will often expose other unforseen problems that have to be ironed out.
When I’m happy with this, I will use it to plot points on the canvas and end up with as accurate a drawing as possible.
While keeping the integrity of the drawing, my first paint layer is an attempt to get the hue, value and chroma as correct as possible and get rid of all the white of the canvas.
The next layers a combination of trying to fix the mistakes I made in the previous layers, and add and refine detail. More often than not, I will add other elements that weren’t in the drawing.
The paint is applied quite thinly, but as opaque as possible unless I’m glazing to correct a colour.
On The Edge, Oil on canvas,100 x 100 cm
In The Real Art World: Who are the artists that at the moment you are looking at, or find their work resonates for you?
Ron Francis: To be honest, I don’t look at other artists very often. Past influences that come to mind would be Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, Magritte, Dali.
I am lucky enough to know Robert Hannaford whose work I love.
Anna Platten is another whose technique I respect and quirkiness I like.
Apart from that, I am very impressed with the depth of talent of the members of the Rational Painting forum, including you Jim.
A Gentleman, Oil on canvas,60 x 106 cm
In The Real Art World: I'm always curious of which colours make up the palette used by the artist, what are the colours you use?
Ron Francis: I use a fairly limited palette;
Art Spectrum: Cadmium Red Deep, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Light, Phthalo Green, Phthalo Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Lamp Black, Ivory Black, Titanium White.
L&B Stable Violet.
WN: Flake White.
In The Real Art World: Finally, what's next?
Ron Francis: I’m in limbo at the moment, wanting that next great idea to surface. So for the time being, I’m having a polite conversation with my canvas to keep my eye in.
To view Ron's paintings at Scott Livesey Gallery Click Here
There is also a full colour catalogue available, illustrating all the paintings, with an essay by the respected art writer Ashley Crawford. Contact the gallery regarding aquiring a copy.