In the age of Photoshop, it’s reassuring that people like Frank Laws are still putting brush to paper. The east Londoner specializes in hyperrealistic paintings of gritty estates, transforming the grim sights into something altogether more mysterious and subtle.
Why are you so drawn to council estates?
It’s not necessarily because they’re council estates. I like showing people’s existence without having to shoe people – their laundry lines and lights. I think early council estates are really beautiful buildings, because of the care and attention put into them at the time. I try to represent that by incorporating as much detail into them.
You’ve painted recognizable east London sights like the infamous Pembury estate, where the riots kicked off. Why?
I’m an observer and I live round here. I just see buildings I like and I try to read up as much as possible on them. The amount of work that went into the Pembury Estate is crazy when you think about it. It’ll never happen again.
What’s the creation process like?
The main image for this show took me about a month. I start on watercolour paper, stretched out onto board. Then I work in lots and lots of layers of Indian ink. I’m using tiny little pots so I get through quite a lot of those! Then I build in the detail on top.
When did you start painting buildings?
About two or three years ago, during my MA. I lived in Norwich before, but I grew up in a little village. When I moved to London, I moved to the big city for the first time and I was very intrigued by it.
When did you start painting?
My mum and dad are both from art backgrounds. I used to paint with my mum in her little studio.
And we hear that you used to be a bricklayer…?
I wouldn’t say I was a bricklayer, I worked for a year as a labourer! A lot of that influenced my work though. I start at nine and try to do a full day’s work, that sort of work ethic comes from being a labourer. I was really bored when I was doing that, because there wasn’t any creativity, but it makes you work as hard as possible at doing what you want to do. You forget how lucky you are if you get to do art and go to art school.
Do you think that in the digital age, people are losing traditional art skills like painting?
I don’t think people’s skills have gone, I think they don’t have time to do it. People want things really quickly now.
So what do you say to all the people who think that council estates are grim?
I wouldn’t want to paint something I actually thought was ugly! I think my paintings look moody, but there’s a beauty about them as well.
Do you have a favourite building in London?
Arnold Circus in Shoreditch is beautiful, but it’s almost too nice to suit my work!
What are your influences?
I don’t really look at a lot of illustrators. A few of my tutors were influential. And Hopper, obviously. Plus George Shaw, which is quite weird because I didn’t know his work before, but it’s quite similar to mine. It’s just one of those things that sort of happens!
Frank Laws’ London Bits exhibition will run from 25 July till 24 August at the Orange Dot Gallery, 11am-5pm, 54 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RG.
Words: Zing Tsjeng