Margate-based painter David Shillinglaw’s thought-provoking paintings

Taking inspiration from French outsider artist Jean Dubuffet, David Shillinglaw creates bold landscapes and impulsive patterns. From his sunny studio in Margate, he chatted to us about his career as a painter, his collaborations with his partner Lily, and the creative body of work he touchingly refers to as ‘love letters’ to his young daughter. 

David Shillinglaw

Q: So, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, how would you best describe it?

A: Eclectic and impulsive. Informed by the brutal beauty of nature.

Q: Have you always been creative from a young age?

A: As a child, I was always drawing. I never had computer games. Drawing was an easy and cheap way to be entertained. My mum was really creative and always encouraged me to draw, paint, and do collage. 

I went to quite a strict school where you excelled by being sporty or academic, I didn’t fit into either of those. Art was my escape and refuge. Whenever I got a break, I’d be in the art room working in my sketchbook and listening to my cassette walkman.

I was really into comic books, Tank Girl and Robert Crumb were my favourites, which led me to love Pop Art and Surrealism. I remember being about 10 years old and my mum let me decorate my bedroom so I decided to paint ‘Whaam!’ by Roy Lichtenstein on my wall.

After school and college, I got a place at Central Saint Martins in London. Unlike most of the other students, I hadn’t done a Foundation Course before I started the degree. I remember the tutors were totally bemused by this fact – like it was some kind of mistake.

I was the youngest in the year too and I didn’t find it easy to fit in there. But, like school, it gave me something to push against and to prove myself. 

David Shillinglaw's studio in Margate

Q: What was behind the move to Margate? Has it affected your work?

A: I needed somewhere to live and I had friends already living in Margate. It was a bit of a leap of faith, but pretty soon I fell in love with the community here, the live music scene, small galleries, great food and of course the ocean on your doorstep.

I can’t imagine being anywhere else now. It has affected my work because I have a separate studio to where I live which helps divide my time and be more productive.

Margate is another world compared to London, I always felt London was an impossible mountain to climb, and seemed to get bigger every day.

Margate feels like an island and the pace and vibe gives me a lot more time to focus on my own work and home life. I also think seeing the horizon and ocean on a regular basis has influenced my work. 

Q: Travel seems to have played a huge part in your life and work. Was there a particular trip that marked a turning point for you?

A: Ever since I was a teenager, I have always been travelling around. I think reading ‘On The Road’ (Jack Kerouac) and ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (Hunter S. Thompson) gave me itchy feet.

Those books also made me realise that any trip is an adventure waiting to happen. Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson were major role models for me in the sense that they made work on the move and created art as the bi-product of doing other things.

I did a project at university where I made a drawing every hour for 5 days while travelling through 5 different countries. I began in London, flew to Prague and got the train and bus back through Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels.

The end result was a hand-bound book of drawings. I have always loved sketchbooks but this particular trip really sparked my interest in how important a sketchbook is in the artistic process. Sketchbooks are like travelling studios. They’re also companions. They can be both a tool and a final product.

David Shillinglaw at work in his studio, photo by Joanna Duderidge

A: After graduating I had the opportunity to do a residency in Beijing. I was in China for almost two months, fully realising the potential of being a full-time artist in a place where I didn’t speak the language or understand much of the culture.

That trip marked the beginning of a decade of travelling and making art. The two went hand in hand. Rather than taking work to a place to exhibit I would arrive and make a whole new body of work informed by the new place, people, language, food and so on. For me, it was the perfect combination.

David Shillinglaw working in his studio

Q: You have done some collaborations with your partner Lily (@lilymixe). Your styles are very different, is that helpful?

A: Lily and I have made a bunch of collaborations. Mostly murals but we also had an exhibition together in Margate and in New York. Our approach to making art is quite different but I think we both benefit from those differences.

It is good practice to work with someone whose work is different, it keeps it fresh and takes you out of your comfort zone. I would say that we meet in the middle with subject matter: we both love the natural world, plants, and animals.

There is a world of inspiration we share. I love working with her and I can’t wait until we can do that again. But our little girl keeps us very occupied, who knows, maybe one day she will be painting with us too!

Q: How does a working day pan out for you, do you have any set routines?

A: There is no fixed routine. My working day is determined by how busy I am. Right now I’m three weeks away from a show and book launch so I’m at the studio everyday, usually three times a day, morning, after lunch and again after dinner.

I am lucky to live just a few minutes from my studio so I can just walk around and carry on. Daytime is full of admin and organising and the nighttime is when I paint, although I love painting first thing, I’m usually held up by emails and to-do lists. I force myself to take time out and be with my family too.

Work kind of comes in waves, it builds up and I spend about 6 months obsessing about a body of work and building towards a show. After there is a natural break – literally an empty studio – I pick up the pieces and start again.

To be honest, by the time the show is over, I’m already thinking about the next show. I get used to seeing the work every day and when it’s finished it’s almost sad like the battle is over.

It’s similar to a musician bringing out an album, you spend a lot of time focused on something and then it’s out of your hands. I’m just lucky that I don’t have to keep singing the same songs for years. I think that must drive musicians mad. 

My current body of work has been in the making for over a year and it coincides with a book which has been cooking away for almost two years, so there will be a big release when all this is done. I plan to spend most of September eating watermelon on the beach and teaching my little girl how to build a sandcastle.

‘My sketchbooks are maps of where I have been and where I want to go.’

David Shillinglaw

Working materials in David Shillinglaw's studio

Q: Sketchbooks seem central to your way of working. Are your ideas formed mainly internally or are they triggered by physical observations or settings?

A: It’s a mix of both. I draw things I see, a view from the beach or the table top at dinner, but I allow other elements to interrupt the composition. I paint and collage into the sketchbook in the studio, then continue working on it at home.

I work on the same page over a number of days, and eventually when there is enough information, the page is complete.

My sketchbook serves as a starting point for a studio work or murals, almost like the sketchbook is the hum of a tune that I try to make into a complete song later on.

I often think my sketchbooks are the best things I make. The space of their pages is so intimate. I carry them around with me and they collect time and traces of where I have been. My daughter scribbles in them too.

There is a freedom I find in sketchbooks that I don’t easily find on a canvas or a wall. Maybe it’s because it’s not for sale or even able to hang on a wall, this takes away the usual values we place on an artwork and places a new set of values just for me or who I choose to show it to. My sketchbooks are maps of where I have been and where I want to go.

‘Children are incredible mark makers, they just go for it. I envy that freedom and immediacy.’

David Shillinglaw

Q: What is the current driving force for your work? Are certain themes brought to the fore with the fact you now have a daughter and concerns about the world she may have to grow up in?

A: Yes I think about the world slightly differently with her in mind. I am more and more concerned/influenced by the climate crisis and trying to unravel the landscapes of planet Earth.

I made a painting recently that hints at wildfires and imagined futuristic Martian landscapes. Both wildfires and Mars play on my mind a lot. In general, the collapse of ecosystems upsets and disturbs me and I can’t help but include it in my work.

The new fashion for space tourism also seems absurd and finds its way into my thoughts. My work often attempts to describe my place in the universe and maybe having a child has moved me toward this direction.

It’s hard to know, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing. I do know that a lot of my past work was about me and now it’s more about people in general or the planet we all inhabit. I am trying to speak in a universal language, of colours, shapes and lines.

I want to make things that don’t really require an explanation but are felt universally. After all, if you explain a joke it stops being funny.

It is interesting to me that a child of two is able to access art on a very basic level like that’s a tree, that’s the moon, that’s a rainbow and so on. My daughter also influences my work directly by scribbling on drawings with pens.

I encourage her to do this and I have begun to include some of these marks into my work –  it’s a love letter to her but also a way to free up my own mark making which can become a little too ‘designed’ sometimes. Children are incredible mark makers, they just go for it. I envy that freedom and immediacy.

Q: Which artists – contemporary or past – inspire you?

A: One artist who I think about a great deal is Jean Dubuffet, partly because of his work, but also because of the outside artists he championed. I'm very interested in outside art, or as he called it ‘Brut Art’. He’s a big deal to me.

I also run an account on Instagram called @the.dirty.paradise. Initially, it began as a way for me to publish zines and organise exhibitions. But, for the past year, it’s changed a bit to become a place where I point to art and artists that I think are great.

Q: Words seem important to you: Do lyrics, music, poetry inspire you?

A: I have always enjoyed playing with words, either within the work, or the title of the work. Marcel Duchamp once said, ‘The title of a painting is another colour on the artist’s palette.’

I love how certain words have double meanings or puns, or sometimes words and numbers just have great geometric form. As time goes on I use words less in my work, but I’m still interested in how compositions can be read like hieroglyphics.

My aim is to speak to as many people as possible so using English words will ultimately limit who can access the meaning of work. My favourite writers are Richard Brautigan, Oliver Sacks, Italo Calvino.

As for music, I am always listening and discovering new things. For me, top lyricists are Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, David Bowie, and Paul Simon. I like a mix of heartbreak and humour, comedy and tragedy in equal parts.

Q: Back in 2014, we read that you ‘hope to open a restaurant in the middle of a forest that cooks pizza and serves coffee in ceramic pots’. Is that still true?

A: Haha, yes I’d still love to do that. Food and art are two planets revolving around the same sun. I cook and draw every day. I’d love to open a restaurant someday...

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