Interview by Louisa Baumgärtel
Louisa Baumgärtel: How did you come to art?
Michael Alford: I first started learning to draw as a child from my father who was a very good draughtsman. He taught me the basics of drawing in perspective. My whole family did a lot of drawing. My mother was a competent watercolourist, too. I didn’t do much art at school and it was never one of my subjects. In my 20s I started painting large-scale murals and trompe l’oeil and that was the most thorough introduction I had to learning about the practicalities of painting as distinct from drawing.
LB: Looking back at your early works, what do you think about them today? How has your technique changed through the years?
MA: It depends on how early you want to go back. My really early work is mostly graphic, but I think that’s typical of young artists learning to draw. I think my work has generally become looser over time. Some of the work I look back on and I think it was good and I’m proud of it, other things make me wonder what I thought I was doing. It’s very inconsistent. As usual with paintings, there are always parts of the work I’m happy with and other parts I’m not so happy with. But that can apply to paintings I did last week as much as paintings I did 15 or 20 years ago.
LB: You are well known for your cityscapes. How do you decide which cityscapes to paint? How do you find your subjects?
MA: I spend a lot of time travelling through London by bicycle or on foot or in a car. Over the years I’ve worked up a mental scrap book of particular views or times of day or places where people congregate. I keep these in my head and often revisit them because a place that looks extremely dull and monotonous at one time of day can be transformed at night or with human activity.
The interesting thing about cities to me is how much they change. Unlike rural landscapes, which don’t change from one century to the next, there’s always new stuff going on in a city, and particularly in London. As for the subjects themselves, I’m drawn to certain types of architecture and juxtapositions of different types of building. In London, you find the classical right next to the medieval and the modern. The way all these things are jumbled together with the clutter of street furniture, which you find in all cities nowadays, is visually interesting to me.
LB: Working on a new project, what are the first steps you take?
MA: I prepare boards and sketch directly on them with water-based media in a loose fashion, often with only the vaguest link with the subject, working in more detail as the painting progresses.
LB: Which artists do you admire?
MA: Velasquez and John Singer Sargent have been long-time inspirations for me. Joaquín Sorolla is another wonderful painter, often overlooked. I also love the work of Richard Diebenkorn. Recently I’ve been admiring the George Bellows painting acquired by the National Gallery, Men of the Docks. It has both lyricism, with the stark quality of the light, and realism in its subject matter. These are qualities I enjoy seeing together in the same painting.
A version of this interview first appeared in the online art publication Singulart Magazine.