Interview with fine artist John Sprakes, honorary member of ERA

Wednesday 29th June 2022

Renowned British artist and former lecturer John Sprakes has just become an honorary member of East Riding Artists, and on Friday 1st July 2022, he will launch the ERA exhibition at Market Weighton Town Hall.

Heather Dixon visited John at his home in Bishop Burton to talk about his work and inspiration.

Artist John Sprakes gestures to a loft hatch in his studio ceiling and, lowering his voice a little, says: ‘There’s quite a few up there. I’d have no room to move otherwise.’

I would have liked to ask for a ladder so I could take a peek, but it didn’t seem appropriate less than five minutes after his wife Barbara had introduced us. In retrospect, I think he would have said ‘of course’. He’s that kind of an artist – unassumingly generous with his time and extensive knowledge.

Portrait of John Sprakes, Fine Artist

Quick peek into the upper recesses of his modest garden studio or not, it’s refreshing to know that even a quiet giant of the art world has surplus stock - although John’s surplus isn’t your average mish-mash of half-finished paintings, mediocre dabblings and work you wish you’d never started. When he eventually allows them to see the light of day, those paintings currently in storage will sell swiftly to collectors across the world.

For John is a leading figure in 20th Century British art - not only an elected member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, the Royal Society of British Artists and the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts, but also the winner of a long list of awards and accolades that includes (among others) The Leclerc Fowle Gold Medal; the Menena Joy Schwabe Memorial Award; the DAS Award (RIOP) and the MAFA Travel Bursary.

Much of his success can be traced back to foundations of extraordinary self-discipline and draughtsmanship which underpins all his work, from early landscapes and figurative paintings to his more recent transition into abstraction.

‘Drawing is fundamental as an act of discovery, observation and creativity,’ he says. ‘It takes two weeks to learn to paint and 30 years to learn to draw. If you cannot draw it limits your ability to move forward. It’s like note are to music. You have to have the basics. You have to know the rules in order to break them.’

John’s highly disciplined approach to his work began at the age of three when he painted the front door of the family home with a can of creosote and a two-inch paint brush. In a childhood blighted by pneumonia he found solace in drawing and at school he spent more time staring out of the window, watching the way light passed through the glass, than focusing on lessons. He drew prolifically, won art awards in local competitions and eventually ignored the advice of his career advisor to successfully apply for a place at the Doncaster School of Art, where his lifelong passion was allowed to take root.

He went on to Edinburgh College of Art, won a scholarship for a post-graduate year and continued what he refers to as ‘a long train journey’ of artistic development which continues to this day.

‘I have always believed that artists should constantly develop and question their creative direction,’ he says. ‘There is always a danger that adopting a distinctive style can inhibit this process.’

John’s recent book ‘Journey into Abstraction’ is a case in point, chronicling his evolvement via intricate pencil studies, still life paintings, stunning landscapes inspired by Norfolk and Suffolk, glorious studies of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland and, in recent years, colourful and complex abstracts in mixed media. His style is constantly developing, but there is a consistent thread spanning the years, based on his enduring fascination for light and the way it moves across forms; his explorations of ‘harmonious and discordant relationships’ between shapes, colours, textures and mediums, and his search for structures and tensions within everyday objects.

‘I dislike photo-realism,’ he says. ‘I appreciate the skill involved, but I think: Why not just take a photograph? You have to search for what you want to say. It’s a spiritual thing in a way, an exploration of the visual world. I am fascinated by the way objects represent a past, present and future. Abstraction is just another form of expression which works through the best use of composition, balance and light.’

John’s work has also been influenced by two major health problems – cerebellar ectopia (the build-up of calcium deposits around the base of the skull which puts pressure onto the nervous system) and macular degeneration which has left John blind in his right eye. For a six-month period he felt so low he struggled to do anything creative, until a cataract operation in his left eye gave him a new lease of life and brought with it a whole new clarity to his work – literally and creatively.

John still spends time every day in his studio while Barbara works as his manager, between tending the steep, three-tier garden that flanks their cottage, where they moved in 2015 to be closer to two of their sons.

Now an honorary member of East Riding Artists, he has nothing but encouragement to offer the region’s artists and his advice to anyone wanting to consider art as a career is to be determined, disciplined and self-critical.

‘You have to plough your own way,’ he says. ‘Art and design has always been a Cinderella subject yet art, music and drama – all the arts – are essential in creating a rounded person. Unfortunately, education doesn’t always see its value. To do it properly you need to immerse yourself in it every day and before you do anything, you must learn to draw. You must have the discipline to sit down every day and spend time sketching what you see around you. Truly observe. Without the ability to draw you cannot truly develop as an artist.’

But perhaps the most enlightening insight into his own creative life is in his book: ‘Creativity is both a blessing and a curse,’ he says. ‘Nevertheless, there are moments when hard work and determination can lead to a sense of achievement and truly reveal the visual world around us. Although they are few and far between, these days are glorious.’

For further information, please visit John's website: johnsprakes.wordpress.com