Lincoln Townley: 'Collectors buy artists, they don’t buy art'

Art maverick Lincoln Townley, now one of the most successful contemporary painters in the world, talks about rejection, addiction, figurative madness, the Venice Biennale and why money is just as important as the art itself...


You describe yourself as an outsider who had more than his fair share of rejections and decided to bypass the art establishment to make a name for himself. Can you tell us a bit about how you became an artist and created your own success (your ‘own art market’) through sheer determination? How did you keep yourself motivated? was it the fact that you wanted to prove the people who initially doubted you wrong?

Being rejected is a gift, you can use it to fuel your desire to succeed. Many do not, but the ones who do like me become winners. I’ve been blessed with an upbringing that had me our working at fifteen years old and I never had any help financially at all. This lack of money helped me to dig deep and drive a passion for winning. I’ve always painted but only as a profession for the last six years, I’ve sold cars, sold houses, sold strippers in gentlemen's clubs, sold PR, sold double glazing windows and cans of Coca Cola on the streets in the summer as a kid. I’ve never had a day outta work and this is the best foundation I can think of for my subject matter for my painting; what we go through as human beings to succeed!

I’m fascinated in how some people become monster wealthy and some do new collection “Behind The Mask” which officially launches at The Venice Biennale next year is about exactly that. What’s Behind The Mask for successful people, what do they really go through to be the best at what they do...


I have always liked the American term ‘hustler’. I think it can be used to describe someone who simply goes after what they want and doesn’t give up. Like you I worked in PR before focusing on art, but many artists don’t like the idea that they have to market their work and to some degree ‘sell’ themselves and their brand.

Do we buy too much into the romantic idea of the talented but poor artist as being the norm? For example, the art critic Jerry Saltz recently said that if you are an artist you should expect to be poor and accept it…

Jerry Saltz is wrong. Money to an artist should be just as important as the art itself. If not can you pay for my lifestyle Jerry? Next question....

Behind the Mask Collection

You have been very open about your past addictions, including in your book ‘The Hunger’. How do you think that part of your life influences what you do now? Is art what keeps you away from temptation, so to speak, and helps you express yourself in a positive rather than destructive way? I find that if I don’t paint regularly then I simply can’t function. I also had to accept that I probably will never fit in in the ‘real world’ of work, so I might as well focus on what keeps me sane!

I still have the hunger, but we tend to sometimes as I have use it the wrong way. Nowadays I use it to help construct a life of positive energy and creation and as you put it a “destructive nature” comes with drinking and using and I’ve been there and luckily survived it!

Painting is my lifeline, pushing the boundaries of marketing myself all over the world and communicating with my collectors directly assists my sales no end and this is an art in itself, too many artists leave it to their gallery or art agents, I’m sorry but that’s foolish in this day and age. Connect, connect, connect, Constantly with your market.


Social media, and the internet in general, have played a large part in your success. Do you see these platforms as more important than traditional galleries? Do you think that these days artists no longer need to be represented by a gallery to get recognition?

See above. But yes social media and a website which screams out your story is paramount. Always be selling yourself, don’t hesitate get on with it, create your own art world don’t follow the crowd, branch out, kick down doors, be curious and talk to your collectors, they will know other collectors believe me you can get rich and become global and established without a gallery! Most of them sit on their hands and moan about “don’t paint that paint more of these” nonsense, get a smart art agent who will work with you.

Open up your studio to buyers bring them into your world. Look, collectors buy artists they don’t buy art. That’s why I’m rich, I connect and I’m grateful! Ask yourself this do I know all my collectors? Or does my gallery keep them from me? we both know the answer...


Can you tell us about your work process? How do you find inspiration for your paintings and do you start from sketches or go straight to working on the canvas? Your work as a very raw and instinctive quality to it and somehow, I have this vision of you just beginning a painting by ‘attacking’ the surface with layers of paint rather than working careful from drawings/sketches. Or are they in fact highly planned and careful researched and thought through in advance?

I plan nothing. I’m completely compelled to paint how I see life, The life I’m interested in is what we go through to be the best, unstoppable and how do we maintain this? I get the canvas stretched and off I go, sometimes I do the odd sketch out with some thin paint and load the canvas with oil paint with pieces of card, I hardly ever use a brush only on big sections for speed. I want the feeling of the figures exploding with passion and impact.

I want figurative madness, look at the energy as it takes hold. Create something that people will look at and think this guy is seeing how I am inside! I constantly ask collectors if they see themselves in the work and some have been highly offended at first but they then see what my work is about and understand it. We have one life, I don’t believe in anything, there’s no god this is it, let’s make this life amazing, let’s push for what we want whether we get it or not, what a ride...


Who are the artists that inspire you? Bacon comes to mind of course, but who else is of interest to you?

I adore Bacon. One tremendous force of nature is the artist David Templeton who lives in Deia, Mallorca. This guy is out of this world, his work has a dimension to it which captivates me, very very powerful and he’s a serious musician. If you can get some of his work...


Tell us a bit about your involvement with Bitcoin

I’m in the process of being involved with a cryptocurrency art platform, very exciting indeed and this will open up a new wave of collectors and give power to the artist selling their work, can’t say too much on that watch this space BUT it’s happening. My new collection will be first available through Bitcoin this is how much I value this form of currency, it’s the future.


You have painted portraits of many celebrities including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Charlie Sheen, Meryl Streep and Kate Moss. Who is the one person, dead or alive, you really wish you could get to sit for you next? Also, would you ever do a portrait of the Queen, as Lucian Freud did?

I did the Queen for her ninetieth, that sold in minutes to a NY collector. I don’t know where the ICONS collection will go next. I’m artist in residence for BAFTA LA and I’m hoping to be doing the fifth year for them this year at The Britannia Awards but that’s yet to be announced. I am doing Clint Eastwood 60 years in film but that will be later this year. I’ve just been commissioned by Mastercard to do Pierluigi Collina for the UEFA cup final and that was a great honour, I will be doing some new football ICONS for the World Cup but I can’t go into who they are just yet but that will be fun and I’m looking forward to going to Russia.


You have said you don’t mind being outspoken and having many ‘enemies’ as a result. I always tend to be more suspicious of people who are constantly charming and agreeable, rather than those who tell to your face that you pissed them off. But my bluntness gets me in trouble all the time…how do you find people react to your straight-talking style?

I’m extremely hardworking. I really do not care if someone likes me or hates me, I want results and I get them, this has caused a few haters but I can live with that.

You need thick skin and try to always be polite. Deep down all I’m interested in is getting things done and giving my family all the things they want and need, outsiders rarely get in my way...


What are your next plans and projects? For example, can you tell us a bit more about the Venice Biennale and the Hell and Behind the Mask collections?

Due to certain global events happening I’ve been commissioned to paint football ICONS so they are underway and they are gonna look fabulous, I don’t do may commissions as I don’t get much time but the ICONS are very popular with my buyer base.

The Behind The Mask pieces are completely different and full of my soul when it comes to expressing my feelings about the subject of what’s behind the masks of successful people to be as hugely wealthy and driven as all of them are and I have had pre-orders on pieces already which is spectacular news and shows I’m heading down the right track.

My Hell collection are all sold now and that was a real dynamite collection of images looking at the hell we go through to get what we want out of life, I love go-getters, I’m interested in fame and fortune. People that push boundaries people that don’t give up! People that fail and keep going, on and on and on, bring me people like that!


What do you think the traditional art establishment needs to do to keep relevant, and try to become more open and stop functioning so much on recommendations and the idea that what matters is who you know?

Who you know can help you sell that’s a fact. But, more importantly artists need to think like this, I want to go out of my way to do the things that unsuccessful artists are unwilling to do. There is no “art establishment” to me anymore, I AM MY ESTABLISHMENT! You have to think different than all the rest, function outside the box.


And to conclude, what is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

It’s from my car and van Sales Director John Collins, a legendary salesman from when I was in my twenties, he said to me “Why are you in the office? I told you there are no van buyers in here, get back out on the road and sell, do not take no for a answer, learn from it. Keep knocking, keep talking, keep showing them your face and do not stop. You don’t need to know anything more than they have vehicles and I want them to have ours, so get out there”

That’s the magic there, all I do now is sell art not vans!!!


More information about Lincoln Townley can be found on his website. Lincoln currently divides his time between the US and the UK. All the paintings shown alongside this interview are part of the 'Behind The Mask' collection.