The Necessity of Persistence

Sir Michael Craig-Martin may be the godfather of Young British art — but he thinks inspiration is over-rated.

Sir Michael Craig-Martin in front of one of his works, Untitled

Now aged 76, Sir Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA, holds a special place in the annals of great British art. A conceptual artist who fostered the Young British Art movement, one of Craig-Martin's most famous artworks is a glass of water (An Oak Tree). An influential professor at Goldsmiths, his former students read like a who’s who of the art world, including Damien Hirst, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas.

As part of Art Basel Hong Kong this year, a Craig-Martin sculpture will be installed at the Harbour Arts Sculpture Park until 11th April 2018. At last year's Art Basel Hong Kong, Craig-Martin was interviewed by Johann Jervoe of Swiss bank UBS, which in its 30,000-strong collection, owns several key pieces of the artist's work. Here is an excerpt of their conversation.

How do you keep that amount of motivation and keep going?
One thing they don’t tell you in art school is the necessity of persistence. It’s not so difficult to be an artist when you’re in your 20s and full of energy and optimism. But then you have your disappointments in your 30s and your mid-life crisis in your 40s, and you keep going. It is a challenge but, on the other hand, I am doing exactly what I set out to do when I was a teenager and I’ve had an amazing life that I would never have imagined I would have.

When you look at other artists of any kind, what inspires you?
Ah, the question of inspiration. A famous artist — it might have been Picasso — once said ‘I’m not interested in inspiration, it’s for amateurs’. I never feel like you can be clear-cut about how or why someone does something. I work in a continuum; the work creates the next work. Often, I’m working on five or six things at the same time. At the beginning, it used to make me nervous when I stopped. The way never to stop, was to finish one thing and be in the middle of something else.

What is the technique you use in your paintings, without giving away your secrets?
I don’t mind giving away secrets if it helps people. I spend my time making drawings and they become the basis of everything. I make the drawings of images separately and I build a vocabulary of images, there are hundreds of them. For the last 10-15 years I’ve drawn everything on a computer with a mouse, I never use paper anymore. The computer has been fantastic because for every painting I do there are maybe 50 studies, which with a computer you can do easily. The paintings have to be planned carefully because you can’t change very much. First, I paint the canvas completely black, then I project the drawings onto the canvas. I do the drawings by putting tape on the canvas, and that gets sealed. Then all the colours are put in. When the painting is completely finished being painted, then the tape is removed in 10 to 15 minutes. And the painting reveals itself. And frankly, until I take the tape off, I really don’t know quite what the painting will look like — it’s a surprise. Sometimes I’m happier than I expected to be, and sometimes the painting disappoints me.

Do you reflect on where a painting hangs?
I’m interested in everything about the visual world. I only draw fabricated mass-produced objects and I started out doing them because a lot of them, we don’t truly value, it’s too ordinary and too familiar. We don’t think of them as special things. What is interesting is how ubiquitous they are. I could use this image of a lightbulb in Nigeria, Hong Kong, Moscow, and everyone would know what it was. All of my work depends on the viewer knowing the object. If you have to speculate, I’ve lost you. What I want is to engage all the information that people are carrying with them about the object. My lightbulb does not tell you what it’s for, how to use it, whether it’s made of glass, what it’s for, if it’s round. And yet you know — you have that information already.

I find your images very happy, is that on purpose?
When people spoke about emotion with art, I never fully understood until I started to use what I call ‘Big Colour’ — very vibrant colour. Years ago, before I did paintings, I painted different rooms different colours. And I realised that people’s moods were transformed by going into rooms of different colours. When I think of the drawing I do, the drawing is very straight. They’re precise depictions of things. But when I do colour, I allow myself total freedom. I can change the mood, I can play with the colour, everything I don’t do with the drawing, I do with the colour.

For many creative people, there’s always a fear that when they unveil something new, people will say, ‘it’s not as good as what I saw yesterday’. Do you ever feel like that?
Yes, one of the mantras of the art world is, ‘I’m looking to see something new’. But every time people see something new, they don’t want it. And every time I do something new and show it, people say, ‘it’s not as good as the last thing’. And then the next time I show it they say, ‘hmm, it’s okay’. People are much more comfortable with things that are familiar. The whole idea of something new is that it doesn’t conform precisely to existing criteria. So naturally one wouldn’t know how to respond to it because one doesn’t have the criteria yet.

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Ideas Issue, March 2018. To subscribe contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.