In Conversation with Mike Bernard RI

Published 19 September 2017

Mike Bernard's exhibition is just around the corner so we wanted to find out a little bit more about his creative practice. Mike's show opens on 27th September and ends on 20th October, we hope you can make it to the gallery! See the full exhibition on our website here

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

We would like to know a little bit more about your life as an artist…What does a typical day in the studio consist of for you? How much time do you spend in the studio each day? And can you describe your studio to us?

I’m someone who really enjoys a deadline. When I’ve got a show, I am in the studio for the usual working day of 9 – 5. That freedom to work all day is a luxury now as I used to have to fit in my practice around my teaching so steal away to the studio in the evening. I enjoy my time in my studio, particularly the peace and quiet.

If I had to describe my studio I would say I keep one side strictly for collage and the other side for the painting. I’ve always got one table laid out for collage as collage is such a big part of what I do – the table is often covered in newspapers, magazine, tissues, coloured papers, rolls of wrapping, ephemera etc This access to materials allows for my use of paper cuttings to be much more random and spontaneous which is very important to my creative process.  

The other table is for painting – this is where I keep my tubes of acrylics, acrylic inks and there is usually a container of oil pastels for finishing touches.  

I’ve moved studios recently as we are living in a new house which belonged to the writer Peter Ackroyd. My studio is in Peter’s old study and library so I’ve had a chance to use his shelves to fill them with my artbooks. It’s the first time they’ve been out of boxes for ten years! It’s interesting that Peter has done tv series on the Thames and Venice as these are places of interest for me too! 2008 Peter Ackroyd's Thames (ITV) and 2009 Peter Ackroyd's Venice

Borough Market, London

Borough Market, London

Your style is highly original and distinctive, how long have you used paper collage and acrylics in your work? And why is this medium so appealing to you?

The first ones I made were probably in the early 90’s. It started when I was teaching in Southampton at the art school there. I used to teach students drawing and one of their graphic teachers at the time briefed them to do a picture of a market using collage – they had to collect paper from the local market and compose a scene. I’ve always been drawn to using marketplaces in my work but this new process really interested me as I was just using oils at the time. It’s always great to be inspired by your students! We’re only ever a couple of steps ahead of the people we teach.

I moved to collage as I found it a much more liberating and spontaneous medium that truly allowed me to loosen me up. The textural qualities also appeal to me rather than the symbolic or meaningful purpose of the newspapers or ephemera I’ve chosen, people often imagine there are hidden meanings beneath my layers but I’m afraid it’s mainly left to chance! However, if I do a commission I will add collage with meaning – often clients give me their own collected ephemera to make their painting more meaningful which I really enjoy.

Riomagiore Cinque Terre, Italy

Riomagiore Cinque Terre, Italy

Tell us a little bit about your creative process?

I like to work from a state of chaos and collage gives me more freedom. I can be selective with the detail this way as I can let paint, paper and texture do the work. Usually I will always start with collage – originally with the idea to get rid of the white canvas – it’s always been a very spontaneous process – I try to establish the composition with blocks of collage and build up from that – I usually select two colours to work with initially. Once the collage is dry I will spray it with water and add the liquid acrylic to seep into the folds and cracks of paper adding to the textural effect in a spontaneous way. I will then build up with more inks and pastels to add details. I really enjoy the process of gradually defining the image. Sometimes if I find my work gets too detailed or fussy I have to cover it up with more paper and start from scratch, it isn’t a simple process and there’s lots of pushing and pulling!

Many of my paintings are re-worked so you will find many layers. People have a romantic idea about painting pictures but it’s actually pretty hard work! 

Your recent collection of work feature many London street scenes, do you have a favourite place to paint?

I drew a lot of Berwick Street Market in SoHo when I was a student in London – that was my favourite then. I then discovered Borough market when I was on the train to a football match as a student in the 70’s and really wanted to take a closer look. I’ve always been drawn to marketplaces as they are bustling with activity and I find they lend themselves perfectly to my style of work. I returned to these places in the 90’s but with my new creative process. I felt the markets lead themselves perfectly to collage - they have so much typography on display – red lettering on a fruit box, price labels, hanging signs etc – which allowed me to use printed matter in an impressionistic way. 

Market Entrance, Borough Market

Market Entrance, Borough Market

What was the most influential exhibition that you have visited? And if you could meet one famous artist, living or dead who would it be and why?

I always found it hard to relate to the major artists, the real big names. I did enjoy them but couldn’t relate to them. One of the most memorable exhibitions I went to was a show of Barbara Rae’s on Cork Street in the 90’s just around the time I was starting to use collage. She had a fantastic show of huge expressionist paintings of Glasgow dockyards, she used collage and found materials in a way that really inspired me. It was the first time I saw her work properly outside of a book and I was incredibly impressed.

I have been lucky enough to meet one of my favourite artists! I met John Blockley who was a self-taught artist who died in 2002. He was a real innovator, I was only about 14 when I got his first books and I sort of followed him ever since. When I got elected for the RI he actually called me up to give me the news. He said I don’t suppose you know who I am and I said of course I do, you’re one of my hero’s! It was like a hero getting in touch with you.

When I had the pleasure of talking to him I was amazed to find out he was just as insecure as I was as an artist – it was very revealing – like most artists they are troubled souls. John was an artist I really got to know and I still find him incredibly inspiring.


Gwilym John Blockley RI PPPS NEAC RWA (1921-2002)

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