Charles Williams was first elected Associate Member of the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS) in 2007 and became a Full Member a few years later. He has exhibited widely with the RWS since his election and has regularly shown his work in London, Europe and the USA. Mainly a painter, Charles works in oil, watercolour, bronze, ceramics and graphic mediums, and his interests are in the figurative, narrative tradition, although his work is informed by a fascination with formal elements of 2D and 3D design.
Having recently been elected the President of the RWS, we thought it was about time we got to know Charles a little bit better...
Photo credit: Ben Anker
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? What are your earliest memories of creativity?
I always knew I’d be some kind of artist. I thought perhaps a writer, as I spent most of my spare time reading, and at my school, being an artist was not particularly encouraged. My parents wanted me to go to Oxford, as they had done, and I failed to work out that I could have tried the Ruskin School.
What was your experience of art school like?
I went to Maidstone College of Art. It no longer exists. The teachers were very much affected by the St Martin’s philosophy, and tried to make a course that was very open and searching, rather than prescriptive. Unfortunately, I wanted to kick against something, and I ended up kicking against people who were essentially saying ‘there’s nothing to kick against!’ My favourite teacher, Arthur Neal, who I am still great friends with, recently said that I set about systematically taking apart everything he taught me. I think of this a huge compliment. Although there was no system.
I then went to the Royal Academy Schools, where Norman Adams was Keeper, mainly because it was a three-year course but also because I knew that they taught something called drawing, which I was interested to learn about. What they actually taught was tonal drawing – it wasn’t compulsory, and no one really cared if you didn’t do it. Tonal, or academic, drawing was originally designed to give the artist the skill to extemporise figures in spatial compositions – we drew from the nude and tried valiantly to ‘put the boots on the deck’ as Mike Biddolph, one of the tutors, used to say, so that theoretically, we could then go and paint History Paintings, battles perhaps, or scenes from the Classics. Obviously, no one was painting History Paintings anymore. But that was the idea, as opposed to planar drawing which they taught at the Slade, which was about something called visual truth. Anyway, I’ve thought about this for years. Developing skills inappropriate for contemporary life because it felt as if I should learn something concrete. But what skills would have been appropriate? I am not bitter at all, though, as many of my contemporaries are. I loved it all. Being an art student solved the big problem. It told me who I was.
Charles Williams PRWS, Three Faces
How do you go about determining your subject matter? When you start a painting, do you typically have an idea of how it might end up?
I have vague ideas about what I want in a painting, but often, the painting tells me otherwise. I work in series, but again, that sounds like I have more agency than I do. I follow these trains of thought, painting the same sort of thing over and again in different ways, each one more exciting than the last until, suddenly, it stops, as if the tap’s been turned off. Then I’m a bit lost, until something else occurs.
What inspires you? Is there something in particular that you seek to convey in your work?
I really don’t want to convey anything. Honestly. My work is, I think, a response to things I’ve seen, things that could be paintings, tv programmes, a friend’s story, anything really. It’s that, put through a kind of filter of the question ‘what is painting for?’
What is the greatest piece of advice you've received?
I’m not the sort of person people give advice to. I think it’s because I’m tall, male and a bit posh-sounding. People seem to think I know what I’m up to, even when I point out that I don’t.
One of my lecturers, the painter Roderic Barrett, specialised in excellent, gnomic statements. His best was ‘decide what you want and have as much of it as you like’. He was talking about painting, you understand. We weren’t at a buffet lunch.
Charles Williams PRWS, Teatime Boys
Do you listen to music while painting? What is your ideal working environment?
I used to insist on silence in the studio, because I didn’t want to be affected by anything other than my own impulses. I shared a space with a most eminent sculptor for a while and I even insisted that he turn his radio off. The poor fellow worked away, without demurral. I wish I could apologise to him, now. When I was on my own though, I would talk to myself. I talked and talked. Eventually I got so sick of the rubbish I came out with, chewing over old insults, replaying them, and saying what I should have said, that I had to get a radio. I listen to radio 4 – the ridiculous, middle-class drivel seems to provide enough of a background inanity to stop me talking.
What does a typical day look like for you? (If there is such a thing!)
There’s no typical day for me. There are too many different activities.
Charles Williams PRWS, Aunty Megan and Rosy
What are the best things about being an artist? As well as the most challenging…
The most challenging is earning a living. Just making enough to live. I’ve done all sorts of things, some of which I’m proud of, some less, just to carry on. Not having children helps. The best thing…now you’re asking!
RWS Elections are currently open! What would you say to someone considering applying? What are some of the benefits of being an RWS member?
Being a member of the RWS carries a sense of validation. We all want that, don’t we? You’re part of a continuum that goes back ages. It’s humbling, as well. It’s important to remember that the people who started the society were not themselves joining a society but making one, I think, and that we make the society too.
What is it that inspired you to take on the role of RWS President?
It’s a huge honour.
Charles Williams PRWS, If I Were A Sculptor and Had A Dog
As President of the RWS, what are your plans and ambitions for the future of the Society?
We’re going through an important time; we’re expanding and therefore changing. I don’t think that a society is the same as a business – we’re not a gallery, we’re a group of artists who respect each other’s work. That’s very different. We must also carry our history and show the world what a legacy British watercolour painting has and could have, not just as a tradition but as a living entity that responds to and in our culture.
And for yourself, as an artist - do you have any exciting plans or projects coming up?
Apart from being President, you mean? I’ve got three solo exhibitions this year! What was I thinking? They’re at the Table in Hay-On-Wye in July, Tim Williams in Lynton in Devon in August, and Bruce Williams in Whitstable in November. Tim and Bruce are not related to me, by the way. I’m also part of a three-person exhibition at my gallery, New Art Projects in East London, called ‘Citizens and Subjects’, with Phil King and Jesse Weidel. So, there you are. Busy.
Thank you, Charles!