Asking Artists: Why do you paint? With Liam Toner
Liam Toner is a friend and artist with a style which is so unique and incredible it blows my mind. It’s so different from my way of painting that I can’t begin to conceive how he does it, the amount of information conveyed in so few strokes is so well thought out and bold. I’m really happy to be chatting to him about what he gets out of the process and how he’s got to this point.
[some of my favourites of Liam’s work on Instagram)
Cat: Hi Liam! Thanks so much for offering to answer a few questions … *we proceed to discuss vomiting children and how there is no set deadline for this piece, the joys of working with friends* … so tell me how you got into painting and how you’ve got to this point. What do you get from painting?
Liam: I’ve painted since school. Over the years I would periodically do a painting, nothing particularly fancy and normally as a gift for a friend or family member.
I really struggled with the first covid lock down, I’d changed jobs just before lockdown so didn’t have chance to get any routines in place before we were all working from home. I work in adult social care so things for a lot of people got fairly rough. I’ve got two young kids, who are lovely but that first three months stuck in doors got intense for all of us and then in June my uncle committed suicide.
While all that had been going on I finally got my appointment to go through the diagnostic assessment for autism. Overall that was a fairly positive experience but again it was intense and required a lot of self reflection and analysis.
I had a month, following my uncles death where I really wasn't coping and decided to do a small series of portraits. They were a way for me to carve out a small part of the day where I could focus on something that was just for me. Each one took less than an hour so we could accommodate it as a family and doing them got me through that month. It was something that didn’t require me to talk, didn’t require me to think and if I messed it up no one would get hurt, no one would be put at risk and no one would have to see it. I can’t tell you how liberating that was. I then started to share them on social media and people responded positively to them so they became a way I could connect with my friends and family when we hadn't and wouldn't see each other for months. Painting became a vital part of my life and still is. Since then I’ve started to use it as a way to think about and process what goes on in my life. At the moment I’m thinking a lot about my experiences of being autistic and am using my work as a way to explore that, in conversation with other neurodiverse people.
Cat: I totally agree and probably the main purpose of painting for me has also been to stroke my brain back into shape. It’s so incredibly soothing, as close to anything meditative as I would manage! Can you explain what sort of art do you do and what do you get from each sort that you do?
Liam: I paint. I mainly paint portraits. I’m interested in people and there's something particularly affecting about a portrait.
I like to paint with acrylics as they’re vibrant and quick. You can capture a brush stroke really well, you can work thick and you don’t have to wait a month for them to dry.
I work on hard board as it gives you a really smooth flat surface to work from and I like being able to see the shadows of the grain underneath the work when its caught by the light.
I like to do my paintings in one sitting. I do a lot of prep before hand and often have a pile of sketches and paintings done on paper which I throw out, then when I feel like I’m fairly clear where I’m heading I’ll start on the board and try to finish in one go. I’ve found if I go back and tinker they end up loosing some of their dynamism. If there’s something I don’t like about the work I leave it and do a new one.
Cat: that is so incredibly organised! I love your portraits, the ones with emotion as well as the ones which are really expressionless in the face. There’s something so striking about them.
Liam: I like to use vibrant colours and clear visible brush strokes. I want it to be obvious its a painting and not a photo and think there's something I find fascinating about how a single brush stroke can give the impression of a cheekbone or the bridge of a nose. It’s like magic at times.
Cat: It’s definitely magic to me. I need 58 details for every tiny element. Do you want to share a little bit about how you got to this skill level and developed your style?
Liam: Painting has been therapy and as a result I just keep doing it over and over again. I think that’s what’s helped me improve and develop, lots of repetition. I do like to experiment; it’s not always clear online but my paintings range from tiny (10cm x10cm) to fairly big (over a meter). I also like to experiment with the brushes and pallet knifes I use as well as the range of colours and movements I make. The best bit though is going back to the familiar and seeing how all those small experimentations influence and shape your next painting. The main thing though is that I have fun and stop doing things that make me stressed, if it’s not fun I wont do it.
Cat: What would you say to someone who’s worried about starting and mucking it up?
Liam: Muck up, muck up a lot, if you don’t like it abandon it, throw it in the bin, whatever you’re working on isn’t the culmination of everything you’ll ever do, it’s part of a process. If there's something that you love do more of that, if there’s a colour or a brush stroke that really works do that in your next painting (I love the colour Phthalo Turquoise). Still feel free to abandon it, even if it’s good, carry on having fun and taking forward the good bits till they’re all that's left.
Cat: I love phthalo turquoise! Great minds. I love that way of doing things so much. I’ll personally take that advice 😁 Thanks so much for all of this!
More of Liams paintings can be found on Instagram at @liam_p_t
Watch this space for more artists who are going to share their reasons for painting and their thoughts on starting out.