Thomas Cameron captures everyday moments of city street scenes and the psychological landscapes of people that inhabit his paintings. He explores the city, guided mainly by his intuition and interest in the urban environment. Cameron captures beauty in the mundane through a process of exploration, photographing, collecting, editing and painting. He applies careful consideration to the seemingly ordinary through the use of tactile brushstrokes and attention to lighting and composition.
Woman with Coffee, 2022, Oil on canvas, 70 x 100 cm, © The Artist
LPC: You work mainly with street scenes in your paintings. For this exhibition, you have included a larger portrait. Is this a new direction for your work?
Thomas Cameron: Usually the people in my work are incidental to the scene, and more of a compositional device. My paintings are not about the individual, even in the case of this painting where the figure is tightly cropped. I wanted to see if I could still create a kind of archetypal image of the city with the context removed; the background only hinted at. The composition came from a sketch on paper. I will sometimes make studies of specific details, and this provided a composition that I wouldn’t normally have painted.
Even though the portraits are stripped of a specific context, it still feels identifiable as an anonymous, isolating urban setting.
This was one of the aims of this series of painting, the paradox of focusing on an individual whilst still expressing the alienation and isolation that is so pertinent in city scenes.
Photography provides the specificity which I enjoy – the particular body language, clothes, expressions, subtle lighting effects and so on. Through the act of painting certain emotional elements can be enhanced.
Winter Evening, 2021, Oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, © The Artist
The painting, Winter Evening depicts a TJ Hughes Discount store. Is there a significance to the types of stores or locations you include in your work?
When I’m taking photos, it’s important for me to be guided by my intuition without a specific agenda. I’m naturally drawn to some recurring themes, but I’m open to any subject within the city, especially if it can provide a particular atmosphere and hint at a narrative. The shops and locations in my work are not so significant, just as the people I paint are not what the painting is about.
There is a depressing quality to these kinds of stores that adds to the overall feeling of being small in a big, isolating city. There is a certain beauty to the way you painted the glow and illumination of the light in the scenes.
These scenes might be interpreted as a bleak outlook on the city, but this isn’t necessarily my intention. This view was one I passed a couple of times a day on my commute, and I was interested in the items in the shop window, the graffiti and the glowing light. The heavy rain also enhanced the scene, reflecting the shop window. The changing high street does capture my interest. There is a poignancy to the urban decay I see, which became more pronounced during lockdown, and this is perhaps reflected in my recent paintings.
American Nails, 2021, Oil on canvas, 45 x 30 cm, © The Artist
Street photography can feel very invasive when you’re trying to capture a person, whereas painting is a completely different process.
When taking photographs, I try to be respectful of the individual’s identity, which is why the face is often obscured. Further changes take place during the editing, drawing and painting process in such a way that it becomes detached from the original scene.
You have such a direct connection to photography as an integral part of your process.
I see photography as the visual language of the everyday. We’re increasingly inundated with disposable digital images. We come to understand the everyday visually through film, TV, the news, holiday snapshots and social media. My work embraces and reflects this. This manner of using photography as a way of engaging with the everyday goes back to my favourite artists: Degas, Manet and Sickert, followed by Hopper and then Warhol and Richter. Another aspect of my work is the desire to point things out rather than represent them. The apparent objective realism of the photograph comes from a desire to highlight specific things we all recognise, and present them for consideration.
That reminds me of Gerhard Richter’s book, Atlas which is a photographic archive of archetypal topics that he references. Does the painting process of capturing the city and environment through photography act as an archive of your experiences?
I don’t have a set of specific themes or locations that I explore. I really enjoy coming across things by chance, it’s much more exciting for me. I take hundreds of photos and sometimes it will take years before to paint one. I’ll come back to it and find something that I didn’t see at the time. The current series that I’m working on is from two years ago during the lockdown in Glasgow. The city was deserted, so when I saw people walking about in the city alone, it captured my attention. In responding to this I would sometimes paint from images taken before lockdown that I felt captured the atmosphere I was after. So it’s important for me to have this archive of images that I can draw from.
You use the photographic language by expressing the decisive moment and finding the punctum of an image. You take a lot of photographs and let them sit in your subconscious. After some time you might go back and rediscover something new in the photographs.
Yes, part of my process is the subtle tweaking and editing of my photos. I need to sit with the image for some time before being sure about painting it. Often something about the image will resonate with me, but it’s very difficult to put into words.
I noticed during the lockdown a desire to record this historical moment in time. Did the pandemic affect your need to record the city?
I know that some people were going out to capture the empty streets of the city, but I didn’t really do that. It took me a while to realise that I should start trying to gather some images. It would be things that I happened to come across and incorporate, like found images. Many of the photographs I had taken before lockdown showed empty streets and solitary or distanced figures anyway, so I didn’t go out to capture something particularly different. It was more the change in mood that was incorporated into my work.
Do you explore other environments such as nature or interior settings?
I have painted holiday snapshots of beaches and pools, botanic gardens, domestic interiors and landscapes. I see everything as a potential painting, and the way I paint is more important than the subject. My primary subject interest however is people and the urban environment.