Darren’s obsession with photography came out of holiday snaps, from taking a point and shoot digital camera to European cities where he found lots he wants to capture and thinking of treating himself to a SLR before “in a museum shop in Munich, I saw a lomography camera, loved the idea, it sounded fun, I could use it as a creative tool, I could be experimental. The digital SLR idea went out the window and I bought a lo-fi plastic camera. We were then stranded in the airport after the Icelandic volcano, so I ran around taking pictures which turned out to be abstract shapes and colours because I’d taken the pictures with the long-mode exposure by keeping the button pressed down. Rather than seeing them as mistakes, it was almost like I painted, and I was down the rabbit-hole.”
From the picnic table outside the pub, Manchester stretches out beyond us. We wonder if it’s lost its way, the destruction of history, the bland conformity of the building. Darren surprises me with a sneaking admiration for the new office on St Peter’s Square. He could see the Beetham Tower from the canteen of his old employers, never sure of what it was. We wonder how the skyline will change with the new development.
Darren was never one for art theory. He didn’t read much about photography apart from the occasional blog that he’d come across on technical aspects but not much else. “I do live online. There was a film photography podcast, it was just starting as I was starting, and it felt like I was growing with the podcast, learning with him. That helped to fuel the obsession.” His relationship to aspects like framing and proportion is much more instinctive than planned; “sometimes I’ll be thinking about them, yeah definitely, sometimes not at all.” There’s another aspect, “because I’d been a musician, photography got me out of the house, reconnected with nature and countryside. As a musician you never have to leave the house. If you’ve got a camera, it forces you out of the house.” Darren could never be one of those artists who works on the same single subject over and over. “I get bored photographing one thing, I jump from thing to thing.”
Looking out over Scout Moor, Darren tells me I have to go and visit, how amazing it is. The turbines are stark against the moorland. “You don’t like them, do you?” They intimidate me, I feel they could become animated and take to marching across the landscape oppressing everything in their path, and that’s what appeals to Darren. “I’m very interested in – possibly the only concept I used in photography – I’m interested in what effect man has on the landscape. Pylons in a landscape, or fences in a lot of my photographs, the ones I’d choose, for an exhibition say. All lacking in people but evidence of people. I did a series of stiles, that was a bit of an obsession. Almost every walk with Becky she’ll point out, bit of rusty metal there Darren.”
“There’s always a story behind the things Darren picked as subjects, and they chimed with his interest in green issues, the extent to which we are destroying the planet and we’ll simply leave our own traces. “My house may turn up in photos someone else takes in the future.” A photo of a large concrete block on Winter Hill, which must have had a purpose once but now lost, “is an interest in the stuff that has been left behind, it was like a theme in my work, and actually my photography has declined since I realised that. Now I’m much more discerning about what I photograph and because I can’t get that film developed until the roll is finished, I take less and less.” And the pen took over.
“In 2012, I decided I’d draw a popstar a day.” It lasted, it appears, three or four months before Darren started to feel confined by the format and the hour a day it was taking to draw the portraits. But it made a few things clearer; “I realised it was okay to make mistakes. Doing one every day, only in pen, having to share it online, freed me from errors. In school, using pencil and erasing, I was a very slow artist. Then in 2014, I love this because I can really remember, I follow Darren Hayman on Twitter, who was doing postcards and sending them to people, so I bought some watercolour paper for going on holiday and I went on Twitter and invited people, and sent one to Darren Hayman tweeting him that he’d inspired it.”
Every so often if you follow him you’ll notice Darren say he’s taking a break from Twitter. What this generally results in is a few hours hiatus before something catches his attention or provokes him enough to re-engage. His utilisation of social media is a masterclass and the results are evident. Not to go overboard – he doesn’t have the clout of Stephen Fry, three random words wouldn’t get the tens of thousands of retweets a Justin Bieber would accrue. He has, however, been able to make those connexions he does have really count. That’s not to say he can’t be knocked by the vagaries of a medium which is exposing, especially to the worst of human nature. One of his watercolours provoked a criticism that struck home; “it was not especially good and someone saw it and slagged it off and it really pissed me off. The next morning Darren Hayman has posted my postcard to him, and someone complimented it, recognising the location, and it was Andy Miller. Since then I’ve met him a few times. He wrote a book, about when he lost his love of reading and he sent me a copy and everything he said was a reflection of my life. I mean, it’s a common thing, our generation; but ultimately it inspired me, to become a part-time artist, to develop the talent I’ve got.”
By-the-by, the beer we’re drinking is called Guzzler; “how can you not choose a drink called that,” and I’ve not done an interview drinking alcohol before, and I’m starting to worry about my note-taking abilities. But Darren has learnt that it’s okay to experiment and not worry about the results, and it seems to be something he’s learnt relatively recently. “I always thought I was okay at school, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I went on to Art and Design at Bolton Institute and was thrown in with a lot of people who were excellent, but the tutors were not enthusiastic. One would just sit back at his desk reading Playboy. I was doing graphic design and at the end of the first year I was put into 3D design, pottery and sculpture, when I wanted to draw, and it felt like I was being punished. That was the year I became really good as a musician. I stripped and built a bass that year, and I failed the year.”
Now it feels new, his artistic style is totally different, quickly worked up, much freer, more confident, happier to fuck things up. “That’s come from my music.” He uses techniques that he seems to have retained with memory, using pen and watercolour with which he was familiar from childhood, nearly all straight onto paper, and so when a mistake is made it’s captured as part of the process. He started experimenting with acrylic about a year ago; “I love it, the difference is it dries pretty quickly.” He used oil for the first time a couple of weeks ago. “Can be messy. Printers ink can be the same.” When we talk about subjects, I ask about landscapes, and the sorts of subjects he captured with his camera, but the idea of getting the materials together to go out and do a landscape seems too much of a chore. He doesn’t have a studio and works at home in the kitchen. “I couldn’t justify a studio financially. I just about cover the costs of materials, and I don’t know how I’d work. I do have distractions at home.”
He reflects that he’s been struggling in terms of subjects for painting. Most of his heroes are musical, so there’s a lot of popstars, and he tends to be drawn to black figures, with no idea why. A current series of album covers are almost like a commission, but a self-commission. He is alert to the commercial viability of his work, mostly, although it’s still important to recognise when a subject demands attention. His recent portrait of John Lewis is one case; “I was driven to paint him. His inspiring speech, his history in the civil rights movement, he’s well used to sit-ins.” It seems to be a corrective to the nasty stuff of British politics. “But generally, someone might like to buy it, maybe. That’s a reason for the pop stars for sure.” He takes a high-end digital image of everything he produces, everything is available for reproduction. “The worry is that’s what’s driving my art.”
Darren despaired a little at the range of galleries in Manchester, compared to London. My take was slightly different, and especially when you consider that London might cover the whole of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse if only we had a comparable transport network. Darren regularly visits the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, but has no inclination to produce 3D work. “I love walking round the sculpture park but have no interest in making that work, I’m not driven, I’m not critical of most of it – there’s one piece,” he rolls his eyes in exasperation, “it’s just some steps, like what Bolton Council would put in – otherwise I’m just that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice.” His visit to the Francis Bacon currently on in Liverpool genuinely excited him, to see the physical work in real life, where he was *almost* tempted to buy a Francis Bacon t-shirt. “But it means more. Like when you see Cy Twombly in a book and you think ‘what?!?’ Then you stand on front of one, and you see this is made for a massive wall. I’m still a beginner.”
There’s a slight sense that Darren is daunted when he says that which quickly passes. That’s not what he seeks to emulate and instead he has a cultivated naïveté in his approach to producing art. As a musician he was driven to make the sounds no one else was making and if he’d loved everything he’d heard he wouldn’t have made music at all. While he claims to know very little about the art world, he has been exploring, being inspired by the things people are pointing him to. It’s not the final product that drives him, but again and again it’s process. There’s the instant quality to working that appeals. He says everything about a particular piece would be unplanned and capricious, from subject, materials, medium, although he always incorporates drawing and enjoys having a signature drawing style. “I’d like to try and get my painting to go the same way, to draw with paint rather than colour things in.”
While he loves drawing people, something malleable, Darren is working to get his figurative painting slightly more abstract, and the same for his photography. “I always said I didn’t want a record of a split second in time but a memory, fuzzy.” This is the reason why his recent sequence of album covers are deliberately blurred. “What’s the point of painting what you see? I hate that hyper-realistic style; it’s like a twenty minute prog song, it’s just showing off. I want my painting to be visceral. Like Francis Bacon. And – can I say this? – Rolf Harris. I still remember how he’d make those huge pictures, I loved that physicality.” Size is a bit of an issue, and while he’d like to go larger and doesn’t see himself as a miniaturist, there are logistical constraints. Alongside that, he’s building a portfolio, selling online, printing up copies and thinking of how to approach galleries. He’s been frustrated by their insistence on a concept when for Darren process is the point, and he claims that once it’s made it’s forgotten. “One of the reasons I post is to encourage. I’m convinced everyone can draw;” I shake my head while he continues, “and everyone shakes their heads like that. More so than music, and possibly writing, visual art is the easiest to get in to. As long as you’re doing it and enjoying it.”
Darren is on a journey with his art, and for as long as he doesn’t feel he’s reached a destination he’ll be exploring an experimenting. He considers himself a learner, a student, and finds it amusing that lots of people following him on social media might only know him as an artist. In realising he had a theme in his photography obsession, he found himself at a destination and he disembarked. He was quickly, instantaneously on to another journey and his lesson is that is almost doesn’t matter about the direction. “The minute you stop caring is the minute you start working; fear of failure is such a killer, the worry of getting everything wrong. As human beings worry is what we do but fucking up isn’t possible.” He laughs – he’s spent a lot of this interview laughing – while he teases me with a line that he’s chuffed he can finally get quoted. “One shit drawing is shit. One hundred shit drawings is a style.” One thing is certain about Darren, he’s a man of style.
conversation with Darren Riley took place at Bob's Smithy on Sunday 26th June 2016 from 11:30am // @panchoballard // Stuff Darren draws can be found at www.stuffdarrendraws.tumblr.com