Brummie through and through, artist Reuben Colley has launched A Portrait of Birmingham, 22 paintings that capture our city in his unmistakable style. A style that was created by the very city he's captured...
How do you choose the locations you paint?
The whole ethos of this collection revolves around it being a portrait of Birmingham. As well as a reference to the format of the canvas [all paintings are portrait-shaped, none are landscape] it’s a nod to the identity of the city. I wanted to choose the areas that are individually and iconically Birmingham.
And that doesn’t necessarily mean most beautiful?
It never has for me. Beauty is subjective. I find beauty in where I feel most comfortable. Places I’m most familiar with. And that can be anything from St Paul’s Church to Aston Expressway.
The two express way paintings are my favourites of the entire collection. For me they say 'home'.
Yeah, I think whether you're coming back or leaving, it's a point of reference for every Brummie. One we all share.
Not exactly beautiful, is it?
Not traditionally beautiful, no. [Laughing] I'm not saying that this stretch of motorway is stunning! It’s about the light conditions. Motorways can be very boring places, but with winter light shed across it, or at night in the rain, it suddenly has a new life. But charm and beauty, for me, come out of the life that takes place in these spaces. Familiarity and home provide charm and Birmingham has that, for so many, in abundance.
I'm going to sounds like a right prat now, but you don’t stand in the middle of a motorway with an easel out?
No, thankfully not. They’re all painted from photographs so my wife was driving for this particular shot and I was snapping away.
They don’t look like paintings from photos.
There’s a lot of technique to that. I use under-paintings, and traditional techniques to take any sterility out of it. It’s a long, long process and the reality is you can’t sit in a city and paint for that long. In rural settings it’s rather a lot easier. In cities, groups of kids or over-zealous security guards tend to move you along in time.
How long is the process?
It varies. And for every painting that I put out, there’s usually one or more that doesn’t see the light of day. I can put months into a painting and then decide it’s just not working.
And you just get a feeling that it’s not sitting right, and that's that? Gone.
Yeah, essentially. There’s got to be that element of exploration in art. As soon as paintings become formulaic, stiff or static, they're no good. You see it in mass-produced, unimaginative stuff. With my work, I don’t know the exact route I’m going to take, from start to finish and hopefully that comes through. And every single artist in our gallery [Reuben Colley Fine Art represents nine artists] goes through that same struggle — asking themselves questions throughout the process. It’s a mindset. Sometimes I wish I'd stop asking myself questions when I'm at work. It can be a niggling nightmare, but the results of that internal debate are worth it.
Why dd you go for portrait shaped paintings this time and what does the portrait shape offer a painting that landscape doesn’t?
I’ve wanted to revisit St Paul’s [above] and St Phillip’s for a while and they naturally lend themselves to a portrait — their orientation and their spires. Cities often do lend themselves to vertical orientation, you know? Tall buildings, even a claustrophobic sort of quality — people from the countryside often feel city living is somewhat claustrophobic — and portrait shapes can convey some of that. Historically I’ve tried painting some of these spots in landscape and I just wasn’t happy with them. But they’ve resurfaced in this collection as portraits and worked perfectly. Also, the viewer reads a vertical differently to a horizontal. Rather than scan across a plain, you’re drawn to the middle. To a subject. Which brings the concept of identity back into the equation — the identity of Birmingham.
Do you ever cheat on Brum and paint other cities?
I’ve painted London but it didn’t feel comfortable. I found parts, like Tower Hamlets, that did resonate a little, but when it came to painting anything touristy, it’s almost like you’re doing it as technical exercise. Tower Bridge, say, has been "done" so many times that you catch yourself staying true to how it’s been represented in the past. In Birmingham, when I choose less recognisable locations, it leaves so much more open to interpretation. It’s more individual.
Your style sort of suits Birmingham. You have a gritty, almost industrial quality to your paintings. Is that something you've developed to match the city?
You can't force anything in art and you've got to be truthful. I imagine my style has come from Birmingham, I've not altered it to match the city, no. Not at all. I'm a Brummie. I grew up in Hodge Hill, next to the Bromford Estate. All my peers were factory workers around Washford Heath and Aston. These are the environments I grew up in. Birmingham contributed to my style. It's my personality on canvas.
Nine of the 22 paintings that make up Reuben's 'Portrait of Birmingham' are sold. See the remainder before they go at Reuben Colley Fine Art
Venue: Habanero At Home, your address, your postcode; Website Choice: DIY nacho kit (£8) Chooser: Me.
Mexican street food champs and one of the Digbeth Dining Club originals, Habanero, have launched their "At Home" kits and, having had almost a dozen of these DIY-style deliveries, this is without doubt the most pain-free and fun. I went for a mix of nachos (my god, so that's what nachos are meant to be like!), tacos and burritos and the smiles around the dinner table as small hands and big hands alike dived in, stacked and rolled their wraps was a joy. Spice levels on the slow-cooked pulled pork and chilli beef were warm but not bonkers, allowing the heat-heads to add jalapeño and Habanero's homemade hot sauce to taste. Freshly made guac, pico de gallo and lime for the squeezing all add to a zingy, zesty and buoyant banquet, while attempts to "out burrito" one-another at the wrapping stage raised all sorts of comedy one-upmanship. However, the real game-changers were the nachos. Ignore them at your peril. Giant, freshly fried tortilla is crisp on the outside, but somehow still soft on the in, condemning any bagged nacho you'll ever have again to dry, drab doom. Movie night, football night, any night will be improved with these. You can get same day delivery on all orders over £25 and they're doing Cuban sandwich kits too. Delivery is Tuesday to Thursday while collection from their Pigeon Park van is also available. Buy beer. Menu
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If you’re missing live music, join Surge Orchestra on Facebook at 7pm, October 22, for a unique and fiery fusion of folk, roots and groove with Chaunju Opera styles thrown in for good measure.
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