As most of our readers know, Charlie Harper is the legendary singer, songwriter and frontman for the world famous British punk band the U.K. Subs. What maybe most of our readers DON’T know, is that Charlie is quite the talented and renowned painter and visual artist, having worked in watercolours and now working primarily in acrylic paints. I sat down a few days after Charlie had finished the U.K. Subs last tour and chatted about his artistic creativity, what his favourite subject is to paint and CNN. As always, one of my favourite people to speak to and always a delightful conversation to be had. Thank you to his wife, the eternally amazing Yuko, who helped me organise this interview and pictures of artwork.
Erin: So, what is your first memory of creating art?
Charlie: My first memory is I drew a car when I was I dunno, about 4-5 years old? A car shape, with wheels and looked like how cars looked in the 40’s, must’ve been a 40’s car, probably a little Austin, whatever they were.
Erin: Where you interested in drawing as a little kid? Just like doodling, or colouring?
Charlie: Yeah, my grandmother got me some kind of colouring books and stuff and then the next thing, I was at school around 5 or 6 and we had these raffia classes (raffia is a fibre obtained from the leaves of the raffia palm, used for tying plants and other objects and for making mats, baskets, hats and the like,) where you make this sort if table mate with raffia and I got commended for mine. I can still remember it – it was a sort of purple and green, the Wimbledon colours.
Erin: And you were rewarded for yours out of your whole class?
Charlie: I got a gold star for that.
Erin: Well, it meant you were on your way to art and lifelong creativity! As an artist, what are you trying to say or what feelings are you trying to provoke from the viewer who is looking at your art?
Charlie: Mmm… When I paint, you know every single painting has got a different idea, it’s like a different song, its got a different idea behind it. Some kind of art is meant to provoke thought and ideas. I’ve done a series of American flags and every star had a war that Americans had been involved in. I think when you count it, it’s like 94% out of the entire American history they have been at war with someone. Kind of like the old Roman Empire. So there was a good parallel with that piece. I think it’s basically kind of human nature, that’s what kind of makes the world go round. They’re causing trouble with someone else and we are on their side (Britain,) they are wrong but we go and back them up. It’s the same with everything that is happening now. So just exposing that and you know I actually write words on some of my paintings, and one piece had on it Russia killing 30 million of their own people during their revolution and I found that was quite horrifying! They were 10 times worse than the Americans, so I looked it up and the British were even worse, they were the top killers.
Erin: Wow, I did not know that.
Charlie: Yeah, when you research all their colonies and whatnot, they are the top killers.
Erin: You bringing that out into art helps expose people and open their eyes.
Charlie: It’s all been done it’s just that people are looking back. There was a lot of stuff on TV about African artists looking back at their roots and how they were enslaved. Thousands of years before the white man came along, they were taken as slaves by warring tribes and raiding the next tribes land. So this has been happening since human life evolved. We are just savages.
Erin: Since time began!
Charlie: Nothing’s changed!
Erin: And it probably never will!
Charlie: The problem is we are going backwards.
Erin: I will wholeheartedly agree with you on that.
Charlie: At least half the world is going backwards.
Erin: That’s one of the many reasons I am so glad to no longer live in America and be here in France with Wayne, although I will always “be” an American. As you know, I did social work,
Charlie: You must’ve been a bit of an outcast!
Erin: Of course I was! Standing up for the underclass or helping the voiceless and disadvantaged is extremely out of vogue in America. It just saddens me that in places where the people that are the most disadvantaged and vulnerable are the ones that are harmed and have what little resources available to them taken away by politicians that all think “they” know what’s best.
Charlie: There’s a Woody Guthrie drawing where these people are sort of banged up behind bars and there’s a guy outside with a shotgun and it says, “Protecting human rights.” (laughs)
Erin: That’s the other thing-why won’t they ban GUNS IN AMERICA??
Charlie: Money. And the NRA. The government in a lot of countries really, they are just puppets. If they’re not aiding crooks then they’re crooks themselves. More games. Our (U.K.) parliament is one of the best in the world, but if you kind of watch it, it’s really kind of a joke. Luckily there’s a good speaker to sort of put them in their place, but there’s a lot of just bozos.
Erin: What does creating art mean to you and what do you get out of it?
Charlie: I wouldn’t say it was a therapy; it is a kind of job. On my desk right now there are a few commissions. Can I show you?
Erin: Of course!!! I’d love it!
Charlie: Can you see this? (Pans camera over to his art table.)
Erin: Yes! I see the dogs.
Charlie: This is something I tried to do myself-this woman with a cat. Oh! Here-I gotta do this guy’s cat, a tabby cat.
Erin: Oh the tabby cat has beautiful eyes!
Charlie: Yeah, yeah! Alright! I’ll highlight that. That’s the main thing of it, I’m glad you spotted that. Me art stuff (pans camera to a whole array of brushes and paints,) can you see it all?
Erin: Yes! Do you work primarily in watercolours?
Charlie: No, no acrylic.
Erin: Didn’t you work in watercolours in the past?
Charlie: Yes, I did. I like the idea of watercolours, but I wasn’t that good and I kept it so simple. I did a series of landscapes. The job I’m in, which is music, I’m kind of lucky. I came down from; I think when we came back from Ireland? As we came in near England, there was Snowdonia (big mountainous place in Wales,) and as we were driving towards the mountain across the bridge, I did a sketch of Snowdonia and I thought, yeah, this would be a good idea to do as a watercolour. Very simple, just a few shades for the sky, few shades for the mountains, it was an exercise, but they all sold.
Erin: They say that watercolour is the hardest visual art medium to work in.
Charlie: Yes. It is. I say it’s the hardest for a beginner, but once you master the technique, or “a” technique, then you’ve got your style. There are some amazing people doing watercolours, big watercolours, amazing stuff. Hats off to them. By the way my hair was your colour yesterday. (My fringe is bright blue, Charlie is currently bleached blond!)
Erin: Did you bleach it out (your hair) to do a new colour?
Charlie: Yeah-see I’ve got no roots now!
Erin: Lemme guess-is Yuko (his amazing wife,) your hairdresser?
Charlie: Yes she is!
Erin: I feel her pain-I’m Wayne’s hairdresser. (Charlie laughs) I just got the comment today from my “client” that there was some grey coming in the back and I better get to bleaching and dying and cutting his hair pronto! The things we do for our frontmen husband’s ha-ha!
Ok, how do you compare the music community to the visual art world community?
Charlie: For me it’s the same thing. I kind of just move in the punk rock area of visual art. So it’s almost like the same thing, but it’s another extension. When we have these kinds of opening parties and I think it’s better than kind of the mainstream art world. I’d never want to be in the mainstream art world just like I never wanted to be a mainstream musician. Commercial stuff it’s all done for money and nothing else.
Erin: There’s no integrity behind it.
Charlie: They lose their integrity, if they ever had any!
Erin: So, you think both the worlds for you are pretty much the same then?
Charlie: Being untrained in art although I did go to night classes.
Erin: Where did you go to art school?
Charlie: I didn’t go to art school. My parents wouldn’t put up the money. So I just went to night classes. I learned really useful things like how to mix skin colour. Then years later, a friend who was an artist taught me again how to mix skin colour. Then I thought, what’s this? I just begin with orange and then put stuff on top willy-nilly. If you look at say, Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” album cover, I think Johnny Rotten has done one as well; they don’t care about skin colour. Purple, green whatever faces. So I do pink cats and green cats and I don’t bother being accurate I just want to send out a statement. Although there’s a lot of aesthetics, it’s got to be aesthetically pleasing or aesthetically ugly even.
Erin: It’s like who made the rules that you have to paint a tabby cat’s different shades of fur in greys, browns and blacks? Why can’t you do it in yellow and blue?
Charlie: Painters like (Henri) Matisse with his colour. I listen to a podcast on Guernica (Pablo Picasso’s mural oil painting from 1937,) which they say, halfway through it he kind of experimented with colour then thought “nope, it has to be black and white”, because at the time the newspaper articles were coming out black and white with publicizing this mess. (Guernica was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in Northern Spain, by the Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish nationalists during the Spanish Civil War.) So there are a lot of instances like that regarding colour. I’ve done black and white cats and black and white penguins. I get an idea at the time and I put it on canvas.
Erin: Do you dedicate a certain amount of time each day, week to create or nurture your artistic ideas or is it more sporadic for you?
Charlie: It’s more sporadic. I’ve always painted quick. When I was younger I used to draw a lot and do everything pretty quickly. But it’s not always the case. You know it’s like the songs. Some come out in like just, minutes! Some take weeks. So I can have a painting kicking around for months. Someone asked me to do “The Owl and the Pussycat”, (Edward Lear’s nonsense poem and illustration from 1871,) and that took me 3 months and I painted 3 at the same time, different aspects of it, the owl and the pussycat in the boat with their honey and their money, it was a really detailed thing. But some can take me a day! It’ll come to you BANG! BANG! BANG!
Erin: How does being on tour affect your artistic life? Are you able to at least sketch when you’re on tour?
Charlie: I think it does me good because we’ll be driving and then suddenly there’s this almost a mountain or castle and I’ll take a photo of it and think, “Wow! That could be a good painting!” It’s probably a castle no one knows or cares about. There are just hundreds of them in Europe, in England as well. Of course you’re from America so you don’t know castles!
Erin: Wayne always laughs at me because in America, I would tell him when we first met, that my house was so old being built in 1947, or how we mark buildings from the mid-1800’s to early 1900’s as historical landmarks and he’s laughs and says, “that is NOT EVEN CLOSE to being old!’’ The building in France where we live is probably, seriously, 600 years old maybe? And it just blew my mind that my home is almost 3 times older than my home country! When you’re stuck in the tour van travelling and sometimes it’s 7-8 hours in the van, you take advantage of that to look at landscapes or landmarks that you can turn into artwork which really, is brilliant!
Charlie: We played in 2 cities in the East of Europe, I can’t remember what the names were, but both cities have these big hills in the middle of town with castles.
Erin: With the castles on top of the hill?
Charlie: One was kind of a fortress, didn’t look that pretty, the second one was a really pretty castle lit up at night. Actually, both were lit up at night. What I’m doing travelling on tour it gives me a lot more thoughts and ideas of what I can do, so it’s good. I think I would be a little bit bored with just painting all the time. I’ll have a couple of week’s rest where I have to keep away from it, or something will have to drive me towards that art table.
Erin: Sometimes you need a bit of distance or break to regroup.
Charlie: Yeah, sometimes it’s my wife with a big whip!
Erin: Do you listen to music when you’re creating art?
Charlie: No. There’s a TV in the corner that’s on.
Erin: For just like, background noise?
Charlie: I’m just listening to the news maybe; BBC News is on at the moment, that’s about it. Oh! And I do watch CNN.
Erin: So that’s when the angry art comes out!
Charlie: Yes, that’s right! I try to listen to “Loose Women” (a British panel show with women that discuss anything from politics, to sexual abuse, to celebrity gossip,) sometimes they’ve got someone pretty good on there; it’s interesting. They had an America comedienne on, Joan Rivers and they banned her! She was just too much for the program. I think they cut her off halfway through. She’s a legend.
Erin: What is your favourite subject to paint? Do you have a particular subject?
Charlie: (Laughing) I kind of have phases. You know I’ve been painting cats?
Erin: Yes, I’ve seen them and they’re great!
Charlie: Sometimes I include them playing the guitar with a lot of electric wires around and some pedal boards and pedals, my favourite ones. If I do a little landscape there will be a cat in it.
Erin: I’ve noticed cats are prominent in your artwork.
Charlie: Well, people want me to do cats. I’m always doing some kind of abstract art and that’s my own little experiment to see what I can do. Even the hotels we stay in everyday, there will be something on the wall. Normally, it’s very commercialized.
Erin: And it’s HORRIBLE!!!
Charlie: But sometimes you come across something and I meant to take photos of this stuff but I forgot, one night, the hotel room had a painting of these little men in these funny kind of Humpty Dumpty suits, with little buttons and little hats, they were brilliant! There was a series of them doing different things, maybe riding a bike or something and they were absolutely amazing these little fat men in their little suits
Erin: It definitely wasn’t your typical hotel shit commercial art!
Charlie: The colours were brilliant. They were like the guy who did the sunflowers, Van Gogh; you know they have a yellow background? He had done hundreds of sunflowers, but the dying ones had a nice, sepia brown colour and they were kind of yellow with a brown.
Erin: It’s kind of like a burnt sienna.
Charlie: Yeah! Sometimes when I go to squat gigs where stuff is kind of all over the walls, there are a lot of skulls, but some of the paintings are real good, like jokers and crosshatch, stuff like that. All this stuff gives me inspiration.
Erin: Do you have a particular piece of artwork you’re most proud of that you’ve done?
Charlie: Ooh… good question! There’s a few of them that have been challenging and then I’ve managed to do it, but I can’t say one really stands out. Like the American flag one stands out. Whenever it goes into exhibitions I always put it at a higher price so that people won’t buy it.
Erin: You’re just gonna keep pricing it higher so it won’t sell?
Charlie: Well it won’t be TOO high. I put a painting into an exhibition and didn’t realize the commission was like something like 80%, the painting went on the wall for £900 and I had painted it 20 years before and it was on hardboard. Steve Slack, our old bass player is a framer.
Erin: I had no idea Steve was a framer!
Charlie: Yeah Steve carves frames, for museums and stuff like that, really high quality stuff. So he made me this amazing frame, made the painting look SO good and it did sell! This painting was of a kind of girl and I found this tube of cobalt blue and it was a big tube and I went “wow! I can use this!” it was just cobalt blue and white, the whole painting. So yeah, someone bought it.
Erin: That’s so awesome! I love that colour, cobalt blue. I bet the contrast between that and the white on hardboard was amazing.
Charlie: I don’t do it for the money, but I was very proud that someone bought a painting of mine.
Erin: When someone is so impressed by a piece and they fall in love with it they’ll spend the money to acquire it.
Charlie: He was a punk rock fan, even a Subs fan. He was like a managing director or something, so £900 was nothing to him.
Erin: How do you know when a piece is finished?
Charlie: Oh god! (Laughs)
Erin: That’s always a hard question for artists to answer.
Charlie: Every artist has to kind of think about that. You know, what I do, when I’m doing a painting I have it out in front of me and I can look at it and I criticize it. My wife who doesn’t paint anymore, she’s a REAL good artist and she’ll say “look-there’s not enough contrast on this cat” or whatever and I’ll see it and go yeah, yeah you’re right I’ll put more contrast and so forth. When I’ve got it more or less how I like it and one thing I do concentrate on is like every cat or animal, I’ll make sure the eyes are like the character of them. I say to everybody, that people will buy this because of the look in the eyes. They look in the animal’s eyes and it just melts them. Do you remember that painter, there was a film made about her called “Big Eyes” she made these children with big eyes?
Erin: Yes! Her name was Margaret Keane and her husband passed her work off as his own! Then there is the painter Mark Ryden with the big eyed girls who became quite popular as well. I’ve been to a few of his exhibitions.
Charlie: It’s all about the eyes.
Erin: I would agree with that. It can become your focal point, so that it’s the first thing you’re drawn into.
Charlie: I go onto the internet and I look at thousands of cat eyes.
Erin: What’s your most important creative tool?
Charlie: I’d like one of those great big “H” easels,
Erin: Oh an H-Frame easel?
Charlie: But it will block out light. There’s a wall of windows (pans camera and shows whole wall of windows overlooking gorgeous landscape and great natural lightening!) and I need that natural light. I’d love to have a studio where I can make bigger paintings. There you go. I just work with what I’ve got.
Erin: Is there a particular brand of paint you only use or a certain brush or is it whatever you can get your hands on?
Charlie: Because I’ve been selling a lot, I’ve had the money to buy better brushes. So I am gradually chucking out old, worn out brushes and replacing them. I use to buy a set of brushes for a fiver.
Erin: Were they like the ones, they call them Chinese Bristle Brushes in the U.S. where the hairs fall out into the painting and you have to pick them out with tweezers?!? (The interviewer unfortunately had to do this many times in her oil painting days.)
Charlie: No, no not that bad. That was a long time ago. (Laughs) There are certain brushes like England makes Rowney (Daler-Rowney) that are quite reliable. It’s exactly the same as music. You use cheap a cheap guitar, it makes strange sounds and you use cheap art materials the quality isn’t always there.
Erin: Winsor Newton makes some great quality brushes, I always liked using them.
Charlie: I don’t know if I have any but the next time I go to the art shop which will be within a week I’ll have a look.
Erin: Because acrylic dries so fast and you have to work within a certain amount of time, I found the synthetic hair brushes from Winsor Newton had the most snap and resilience.
Charlie: That’s a good tip. Thank you.
Erin: I know how fast you have to work in acrylics and you can’t let the paint sit in the brush too long, you have to have your water cup or your spritzer bottle which is hard to remember when you’re in what I call “the zone”. That’s the good thing about acrylics is they don’t smell and they dry fast.
Charlie: That’s right! I did actually love the smell of oils.
Erin: So did I. The combination of turpentine and linseed oil to me smells of creativity!
Charlie: If I had a studio I’d use oils. Acrylics, I don’t know-oils have lasted hundreds of years. I don’t know if acrylics will do that. They’re kind of like a rubber.
Erin: They make different varnishes, they even have oil based ones to varnish your acrylic paintings with, because if I remember correctly, the rule is you can put oil on top of acrylic but you can’t put acrylic on top of oil. Liquitex has made oil based varnishes that are supposed to seal the acrylics better so that they will last longer. They make water based varnishes as well to help keep them from fading. They even have ones that are meant to protect against UV light! Anyway, enough of my art material education. Between the two different artistic mediums you work in obviously music and visual art, which do you feel the most comfortable with?
Charlie: Well yeah as a singer or musician. I look at myself first as a writer, then a singer then a musician.
Erin: Do you think that the internet enhances or destroys the creativity of the mind?
Charlie: Oh my god! Well, I have a sort of set kind of answer for that question which is just a yin and yang. The internet is amazing. As an artist, for instance, I needed to paint some bubbles, ok? I was doing an album cover with a dog underwater and I went to the internet and I learnt how to paint bubbles! I had NO idea how to paint convincing bubbles and the internet taught me. There was something else recently I was asking Yuko because she is trained (in painting) she went to college and she was all, “oh I can teach you that,” so there are all these little things that are difficult.
Erin: Like before the internet, you would’ve had to either go to a library or art bookstore and research it or try and find someone with the time to teach you.
Charlie: It’s all on the internet; whatever you want to paint you can find the source material. Oh yeah! You know like Roman statues and the folds in the clothing and cloaks and everything? I did something like it before and I didn’t think it was great, it was ok, but I wanted to learn how to do folds in clothing. You just go to the internet and it taught me how to do it properly.
Erin: So you see the internet as more of a tool?
Charlie: There is a thing where when you’re driving along on tour and there’s a car in front of you and you go “oh shit!” and there’s a truck that passes dangerously right into the lane and you’re thinking “shit, let’s get past that guy quick” and you go past them and they’re on a cell phone. It does make dummies and dangerous drivers and stuff like that. So there is a kind of “death wish” or “death risk” being a dummy.
Erin: But you’re using it more as a tool, the positive aspect of it.
Charlie: We were on tour on a ferry and passing these big cliffs and I took these pictures from inside the ferry and because the windows were all like frosty the end result looked like an oil painting.
Erin: Oh wow because of the condensation on the windows.
Charlie: So I aim to do that. So you’ve got a layer of sky and a layer of green on top of cliffs and then you got the white chalk of the cliffs and you’ve got the blue sea. It was quite a bit stormy. As I was saying travelling does give you all these great ideas and then you can go look up on the internet how to learn how to do anything you want.
Erin: I think that’s about it Sir Charlie. I cannot thank you enough or convey what a fantastic conversation this has been, especially since you just got back from tour 3 days ago and you’ve got a bit of a cold! I will speak with you soon!
Charlie: You’re welcome!