Trek Lexington in conversation with Tomas Watson

1.Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up, and when did you decide to pursue a life as an artist?

I was born in Shoreham-by- Sea in Sussex in the U.K, but grew up in several different areas of England and Wales. I never really decided to be an artist, it just sort of happened. I was always a bit of a loner, enjoying my solitude. I had an absolute fear of boredom and three younger sisters to avoid and so would develop projects which would keep me alone and occupied for Months. When I was eleven this meant building miniature film sets and making articulated dinosaurs and spaceships for my stop-motion animation attempts . None were very successful but I never got bored. Later around the age of 14 I got quite serious about photography and would develop and print my own black and white photos …then I would draw them. It all came back to drawing. It was the only thing I was really good at and the only way I could successfully describe things in the way that I wanted . So it was natural that drawing led me to do a foundation course at Huddersfield Technical College and then a Fine Art degree at The Slade in London.

shoulder neck and torso study MID
“Shoulder, neck and Torso study”, Ink and charcoal on paper, 70cm x 50cm

2.Can you talk about your process, from inception to completion of a work? What inspires you, and how do you go about turning your inspiration into a finished painting?

For me it is always about discovery, about trying things out and seeing what will happen. As soon as I find a new process that I can work with on my own in my studio I have to try it out and exhaust it’s possibilities so that one day I will know when and how to incorporate it in my work. I can find inspiration anywhere and take photographs constantly. Often for me the subject is the least important part and this can be quite tricky when you are essentially a figurative artist!!! I try to minimize narrative as much as I can. I want my pictures to look inevitable and to work on their own without overtly referring to who or what is depicted.I want them to be about themselves. In some ways the figure is simply a means to formulate a shape or a colour and to help equilibrate the tension that is already existing between the physicality of the painting itself and the illusionistic part that exists within that.

Over the last few years I have been developing a way of painting which leaves open the possibility of incorporating different disciplines. I often start with dry materials such as charcoal ,pastel, conte etc and then move onto ink and acrylic . While it is at this stage I might attach cloth or paper, rip stuff off, glue stuff on and generally keep going until the basic form is found. After I have gone as far as I need to with these mediums, I seal the canvas and move onto oil paint initially by glazing the whole thing. Once I start with oil the painting begins to come together tonally and the surface starts to come alive. All my paintings end with oil.

“Untitled figure study”, oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm

There are obviously themes which keep returning in my work, the human body being the main theme. This is because there are certain areas in the body where the conjunctions of bone, muscle and tendons are quite visible and when these areas are put under stress in some way , the resulting tension not only resonates throughout the painting, bouncing off various colours , textures and forms but also stimulates a reaction within us. It is not necessary therefore to describe why this part of the body is stressed like that.

Often I take the biggest risks right at the end, drastically ruining it and then frantically trying to get it back together in a new way. The last day on a painting is often the most important for me because it is when I have to bridge the chasm which has developed between where I want the painting to be and where it actually is. This mad way of working, of building up slowly to destroy suddenly and then rebuild quickly is perhaps the closest thing I have to a process….I seem to do it a lot!! And it doesn’t always work! But when it does work this burst of energy at the end revitalizes the entire canvas..because you have to work on all of it…. and fast.

3.What are some of the highlights of your life as an artist? What are some of the low points? Did you ever want to give up on making art, and if so, what got you through the difficult times?

The highlights would be winning the BP award in 1998 , getting to meet and paint the Author John Fowles for the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery, all of my solo shows where I meet people who have understood intuitively what I have tried to communicate and basically this wonderful feeling you get when people come out especially to see what you have made. When I painted John Fowles in 2001 I stayed in his house where he wrote “The French Lieutenant’s woman”. During the sittings We talked a lot ..especially about hazard and chance and their importance to creativity…a very important discussion for me with regards to my own development and methods.

The low points happen always when sales are bad and there is little money left. Economic stress leads to emotional stress and all areas of my life get affected. At these points it can sometimes seem impossible to carry on and this downward feeling is the worst and last thing you need to be creative. You have to be excited, optimistic and full of good energy and that is almost impossible when times are hard. I have never thought of giving up though, quite simply…what else could I do? I am 45 years old , I have made pictures all my life…there is only this for me. When I got really bad a few years ago I came to the realization that everything comes from within , that if you believe in what you are doing , then that belief will resonate to others and they will believe in you too.

jg 001
“Combined Memories”, Diptych, combined size, 200cm x 300cm, oil on canvas, 2007

4.What artists, either past or present, are your biggest inspiration?

Over the years I have been inspired by many different artists from all sorts of disciplines but there are only a handful which have remained constant. These are Jacobo Pontormo (for his drawings(especially one drawing), Degas for his restless inquiry ,various draughtsmen in the Great British Etching revival at the turn of the last century, Francis Bacon for his bold colours and simple pictorial constructs and Robert Rauschenberg for his feeling for paint and use of found material. More recently the works of Berlinda de Bruyckere and Nicola Samori are working on me with a gut feeling of intuitive rightness.

5.If you had a time machine, and could travel back to the beginning of your career, what advice would you give your past self?

I would say this, ”Don’t be restricted by the limitations of others.”

Keep your options open for as long as possible when making a piece of work. Try to work out a way of working that allows you to incorporate different disciplines to solve the piece. Experiment with every medium to find out what it can do for you and keep your lines soft when drawing.

drawing painting unmade bed
“Drawingpainitng, Unmade Bed”, 190cm x 200cm, oil and charcoal on linen


  1. What a fascinating piece – I have to admit to owning an early work by Mr Watson and to still finding it mesmerising after all this time. .. an unusual experience for me; I own over a thousand paintings with limited space and normally find the novelty of a new acquisition will dictate display.
    With the Watson portrait, I’ve never actually hung it and treat it as a sculpture, moving it to suit my mood. Which it never fails to elevate.
    The incredible ‘depth’ and aptitude with which it has been executed, make sense,now I “hear” Mr Watson,explain his “process”, I am very aware there are a few artists working in a style evocative of some of his work,but,they are,unlike his ,very one dimensional and to be frank dull.
    Now I have a better understanding of work done and possibly not even seen at the finish,it explains the dynamism and power of one this great artist works.
    He’s young ,but,his work belies this fact;I would encourage a collector to aquire a work a soon as possible, before “the art world” and buyers realize what a ,quite and humble,genius is currently producing,with no great fanfare – which I believe he greatly deserves and will invariably achieve.
    Thank you for this interesting interview,please accept my very best wishes,to you both.


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