A teapot. A staircase. A partly obscured door. They’re all common-or-garden items with little inherent value or meaning. But to me, they’re a pathway to inspiration. I love making art with everyday objects: and I’m not the only one.
For centuries, artists and sculptors have turned the banal into works of art ranging from the divine to the preposterous.
You’ll see them in any gallery: an image, drawing or site-specific installation, capturing the most humble or humdrum items and turning them into works of art, given a twist or a new direction by the artist or artists who created them.
Observation = creation for the artist
As an acute observer of the world around me, I’m well aware that anything from everyday life can ignite the creative spark and, no matter how hard I resist, can compel me to pick up a brush.
I understand how enticing the everyday can be, whether it’s the kitchen I cook and eat in every day, or a building I pass on my way somewhere, or a place, frozen in time in a photograph.
Let’s take a closer look at a few commonplace objects and how I’ve transformed them into works of art, as well as a handful of artworks that have dazzled and delighted audiences.
When everyday objects become art
Artists can’t help but pay attention to what’s going on around them, whether they’re long since gone or are part of the contemporary world. Noticing and absorbing their surroundings is in our blood.
It started the moment a caveman picked up a charred stick and drew an animal on a cave roof: a relatively mundane image at the time that changed the world forever.
Ever since, people have been painting and sculpting the things they see, filling museums, galleries and private collections the world over with art that made the familiar beautiful and fascinating.
What do artists see in everyday objects?
It’s a very good question and, and many artists will have a different answer. Pop artists might see a chance to poke fun, sculptors may want to create large-scale sculptures of something little and mundane.
For me, it depends on what I observe and, sometimes, how long I look at an object.
My limited-edition screenprints of a blue and red teapot are perfect examples of how a simple, everyday object can take on an entirely new form when painted.
My aim was to capture the beauty of the teapot’s curves and colour: draw the viewer in enough for them to want to reach out, cup its shapes in their hands and feel its warmth.
When ordinary objects demand to be painted
Sometimes it’s an arresting clash of colours that almost screams “paint me!”, as was the case with Old & Tired, other times it’s the way the light hits a particular surface or object.
The Clore Gallery – Tate Britain is a perfect example. The colour palette and wonderful patterns in this space just demanded to be painted, I ended up with a series of five!
It’s not just ordinary objects that can bring on a rush of creativity. Contemporary living can also be a deep well to draw upon.
The moment I clapped eyes on the composition for Niki, I knew I had to paint it. The romantic image reminds me of the pre-Raphaelites in the staging of a wistful, solo woman, and is among my most satisfying works.
Art inspired by contemporary life
Throw a metaphorical stone in any direction in the art world and you’ll come across pieces that have turned the humdrum into something curious and even desirable.
Vincent Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of a rustic chair has to be among the most famous. It’s placed in a corner of a room, an onion box behind it, and a decorated pipe and a pouch of pipe tobacco on the chair’s seat.
It’s the simplest composition, and yet Van Gogh’s cataloguer Jan Hulsker later said “there are few pictures of Vincent’s about which so much was written in later years.”
A window into my world
Perhaps that ordinary, random order of apparently everyday items spoke to Van Gogh in a way that others didn’t? I can certainly empathise if that’s the case.
I spent years looking at the gorgeous cheeseplant in my bathroom, a composition I thoroughly enjoyed and finally got it down on canvas for Still Life with Sink.
It was a similar story with Still Life with Mantelpiece. This seemingly random collection of beautiful objects adorning my mantelpiece became a snapshot of my life – much like Vincent’s pipe and tobacco on his chair.
Creating fantasy from the banal
If still-life painting tried to elevate the everyday into something else, pop artist Andy Warhol took it to another level with his iconic can of soup.
He proved you can put your own twist on even the humblest object and bring new and surprising elements into the composition.
My work Room with a View is a great example of blurring the lines between my own reality and fantasy.
It brings together the wooden toy I painted in Christmas with a plain side table and places it in front of a window looking out onto a real landscape from Tossa del Mar in Spain, a small fishing village where Marc Chagall once lived.
Can anything from everyday life be inspiring for an artist?
Absolutely, and that’s the real beauty of art: there are no rules. Morning View represents what I see every day when the sun shines in the summer.
As well as giving me the chance to play with elements of light and shade, there’s an air of expectancy about it, as though any moment now, an arm is about to come in and lift a shirt off the rail. How will the shirts move in the light, what forms will the shadows create?
What amounts to a collection of commonplace objects, from toys to rags, for one person could, be the springboard to something creative, or prompt a buyer to start seriously collecting.
Galleries are full of artworks made from a range of materials, with contemporary life represented alongside the natural world, politics cheek-by-jowl with satire, fantasy and frivolity all sharing the same room.
Leave room for the creator
Behind every work based on the most trifling of objects is an artist, a painter, a collaboration, all looking for some sign that their work has stirred interest in their audience, started a conversation or even just raised a wry smile.
That, of course, is among the biggest challenges for every artist.
Using the medium of art to create a drawing or a sculpture that moves someone enough to want to put it in a room, look at it every day and always be affected by it.
No matter how humble the subject, I never forget its impact can be truly extraordinary.