Richard Thomas: 'I spent a year in jail and I learned how to paint.'

Richard Thomas is a painter based in London, UK.

Your paintings seem to take inspiration from the people you meet and the street scenes you witness. Can you tell us a bit more behind the concerns behind your art practice and the artists that inspire you?

I live and I grew up in London. London and its people are my primary source of inspiration. When I was three, my Mother took me on the Tube during rush hour. I distinctly remember her being quite concerned about my safety because there were so many people in such a hurry and I was small. But, I was delighted and amazed, quite oblivious of any danger. In those days tube trains were mahogany panelled with yellow, incandescent light bulbs and heavily upholstered seats. There was a strong smell of leather and dust and cigarette smoke. To me, everyone seemed to have a purpose. Going here and there, with an economy of movement. There were all classes and all ages - nuns, police officers, city gents, school children, acting it would seem, with an abundance of unspoken rules as if by magic. Rules like standing on the right on the escalators, allowing people off the train first and giving your chair up for old people. I saw everyone flowing in concert, like a West End musical, or a super intelligent beehive. So, I fell in love with London, (although I didn’t know it at the time). It was my fervent desire to join in with the fun. Much later when I became a motorcycle dispatch rider, I fulfilled this ambition and life was good – though very hectic - for two years. All life exists here. Good and bad. Making money has always been London’s primary purpose. So, many people obviously have a dark time in London. And, often they are living cheek-by-jowl with those living it up. Anyone spending time here must soon realise this. Abuse, exploitation and injustice are here too. Even so, there isn’t anywhere else in the world I would rather live.


There are many artists who I secretly revere. I went to see an exhibition last year of Georgia O’Keeffe’s that has stayed with me. There were many of her gorgeous flower paintings of course as well as some New York skylines. Her desert scenes are brilliant, with the far off sierra mountains having such a feeling of distance. I love the French Impressionists too, like Degas, Lautrec and especially Pissarro. Pissarro, not so much for his art - although some of his work is beautiful - but more for his massive influence on the impressionist movement as a whole. I believe his inspiration runs like a thread through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He guided Degas, who in turn must have influenced many others. I have a great feeling for the Camden Town Group of artists too. Harold Gilman is one. But, I am especially drawn to Walter Sickert. He was one of the founding members of the Camden Town Group and for me, the most significant. I have studied his life and work. There is a lot about him that seems to chime strangely with my own life and experiences. Sickert was a misfit like me, and something of a chameleon too. He was to become Whistler’s mentee and they had, by all accounts, a troubled relationship. Whistler was an egoist and something of a narcissist too. Brilliant and famous, he must have been very difficult to work with, though extremely rewarding, no doubt. They would eventually fall out over a dispute concerning Sickert’s friendship with somebody who at the time was suing Whistler. Contemporary artists that I follow are Clara Drummond – very reminiscent of early Lucian Freud I think, and Lyndsey Jameson. It is a dream of mine one day to commission Melissa Scott-Miller to paint a scene for me too.


You have an interesting ‘journey’ in term of how you came to focusing on art and painting after having a completely different career first. What was the motivation being starting on this new path?

I spent a lot of my life working as a carpenter. This was sometimes a struggle for me because I was an active alcoholic at the same time. In fact I have spent half of my adulthood setting out to get drunk, and the other half, attempting to stay sober. When I was in my late thirties, my drinking got worse and worse until I ended up after a blackout, sobering up in Brixton Prison. I had a spell of Delirium Tremors there too, which as you may know, is a form of epilepsy. I think I went through a kind of personality change at this time and I am convinced that I haven’t really been the same since. I spent a year in jail and I spent some of this time trying to learn how to write on a creative writing course and also, learning how to paint. On the art course, the tutors all thought that I had made some good work and they encouraged me to enter a portrait for the Koestler Awards. The Koestler Trust is a charity, which holds a competition every year to promote art created by anyone detained or in prison. Anyone who knows of Arthur Koestler’s own time in prison will no doubt understand his feelings regarding prison and his strong motivation for setting up the trust.


Having looked at your sketchbooks, there is something very immediate and quick about how you work. The most powerful of your drawings seem to be the ones that are very instinctive and ‘free’. Is that an accurate description?

I do like to work fast. All of my best work is produced that way. This doesn’t always happen though and I still don’t understand the process, and I have tried - rarely successfully - to recreate the feelings I go through when I do work instinctively. There always seems to be feelings involved. I used to think it was pain but now I believe it can be all kinds of emotion. I think I produce the most interesting work when I am in conflict about something. This ups the ante and also, my mind is too busy to interfere with what I’m doing, maybe. I have produced some work where I couldn’t speed through it and have agonised over every detail. I painted a portrait of a man I knew in Camden Town. It took weeks to get right and I radically changed it too, a couple of times. Still, I have begun to really like it.


I always find that portraiture being a medium with such a long history it is often hard to find something new to say when depicting people. I was struck by how your portraits have the rare quality of giving us glimpses of what goes on inside the person, not just their physical appearance. How do you approach making a new portrait?

Yes, feeling or emotion. Even very subtlety done is much more important I think, than proportion or tone or colour, even light. Very often a portrait will reveal something of the subject, and that’s fascinating. But what I find really intriguing is when it reveals something of the artist - his or her feeling towards the sitter. But, the best portraits, I think, are those that reveal something of the relationship between the two, even their feelings towards each other. Then you can get an exciting dynamic. So, I try to produce art about people or things that I care about. Perhaps I am angry or maybe sad. Even disgusted. I must have a hook, something that moves me.


What’s next for your practice?

I have a strong desire to work more fluently. And, painting is, by and large, a solitary pursuit. So, I want to spend some time mixing with other artists. I am adverse to working in company, but I will spend some of my time working where people can see me. Maybe I will become an exhibitionist. On the other hand I may hate it, I don’t know. I am going to try anyway. Recently, some artists and me have set up a free art association. We’ve called it The London Art Association. Its aims will be to promote and encourage visual art produced in London. I will be devoting some of my time to this and, next year I hope to become the artist in residence at London South Bank University. Meanwhile, I will continue to produce work.


You can find out more about Richard's work at and his next project is his involvement with the he London Art association.