Felix Treadwell is a British artist based in London. You might recognise some of his work from Instagram — his paintings of unique, quirky characters catch your eye as you scroll through an otherwise uniform feed. While Felix’s style is no doubt memorable, his seemingly light-hearted approach hides a deeper concern with contemporary society and the identity crisis affecting today’s youth — due to his own experiences online, Felix is particularly passionate about exploring the vulnerability of young people on the internet.
After completing his BA at the Camberwell College of Arts, today Felix studies at the Royal College of Art, something he owes to his experience in Kyoto, Japan, where he spent a few months on a student exchange. Meeting with us to discuss his work, Felix tells us how his experience there enabled him to be confident in his practice, also explaining the detail of his artistic statement and sharing his projects for the future.
What do you do in life?
I’m an artist, hopefully. I mostly paint, but I also do sculptural and 3D work — anything which can work within my practice and which can help me advance. I also make music on the side; it’s nice to use the visual language from my art for a music concept. 1 I’m more focused on making a visual language through paintings though. I graduated last year from the Camberwell College of Arts 2 and now I’m studying in my first year of an MA at the Royal College of Art, 3 which I’m really enjoying.
Have you always been interested in art?
Drawing cartoons, creating storylines, making up characters and putting them in weird scenarios is something I’ve always enjoyed since I was a kid. I was watching TV every night after school, 4 playing games too from a young age. 5 I was subjected to large amounts of media and advertising, which stemmed some of the ideas in my work, especially in the beginning. I was always trying to escape, whether that was through drawing or playing games in an online world. The excitement of removing myself from everyday school life seemed to naturally transition into ideas and stories I could create for my own work. This started off as badly drawn comic strips, or even graffitied school books.
In school, I always enjoyed art more than anything. I tried to do graphic design first, but my whole process of working was very different, quite erratic and impatient. Soon I realised that my style was fitted more towards an independent art practice. Then, during my BA, I realised I can actually use those kind of methods and scenarios I have always been making as ideas for artworks. It opened up a whole new way of thinking for me, which goes beyond just painting.
Youth in Society
What do you intend to achieve through your paintings?
I want people to think about contemporary society and how it’s affecting the identity of young people, mostly in childhood or adolescence. I want to raise questions concerning our ideas around conformity and vulnerability. Not necessarily casting judgements of good or bad around this – I don’t mean to tell people what to do. It’s more about showing them the problems, or the scenarios that a kid or a teenager can be in.
I’m creating narratives and I want them to be quite open — we don’t really know what has happened before or after the scenario in the painting. I want people to think that these characters can be anybody, they’re not really gender-defined, they could be loosely based on anyone. I want them to think that these characters could be them or their children. I try to bring in humorous elements so there might be nostalgia, or some darkness playing between those two themes can be really interesting for me because I think it can emphasise my ideas.
Is there a specific reason behind your focus on this theme?
When I began studying art at secondary school, it started off being quite dull, focusing just on techniques, but then I started looking more and more at contemporary artists such as John Wesley, 6 Aya Takano 7 and KAWS 8. It made me realise that art could be anything. This allowed me to question the world around me and start to use ideas from my childhood. It seemed relevant to talk about my own experiences growing up in the internet age because people are still having these experiences, maybe even more so than ten years ago.
The tangibility, but also the transcendent qualities of our online identities is a fascinating concept to explore through painting.
Is the vulnerability aspect you just mentioned the reason why you also often touch on how the internet can affect young kids?
Yeah, definitely. It also partly comes from personal experience. I had weird experiences online. I met people online who I’m now friends with but it could be much worse, bad things could have happened – you’re trusting and getting close to people you’ve never seen before. 9 You know, you might be playing an online game and the people around you could be anyone. As a kid, you’re impressionable and naive, and more often than not you look up to those people, which can pose risks. The tangibility, but also the transcendent qualities of our online identities is a fascinating concept to explore through painting. 10
Does that link back to the larger theme we just talked about – addressing how contemporary society affects our lives?
I think they all somehow get back to there. I always am conscious, before I start painting, of what I’m trying to say. I’m worried that people might see through it and say “Ah, this guy is not genuine and is just taking the piss, just drawing whatever.” I am really conscious about how to create a narrative which is not too literal, in the sense of being obvious. I want people to challenge themselves and think about whether I’m hinting at my concerns or simply emphasising the humorous elements to the paintings, but, at the same time, I don’t want them to be random, or have no coherence to them. I think it’s important to understand and believe in the concepts in your work, without being too literal. It should allow for interpretation in a visual context. If I wanted to be literal, I’d just do writing instead — my writing is terrible though (laughs).
How do you come up with the subjects in the paintings?
Usually, I’ll be on my phone and looking through various photos I’ve taken over the past few days, and I’ll find interesting objects or subjects that I could take something from. The photos could be of anything, from food to signs or animals. I then spend a while staring at them and eventually draw shapes from them on my iPad, to see if I can construct a narrative between the objects and characters. If I think it’s worth it, I’ll transfer these iPad drawings to an actual painting to see how it works in terms of scale, then I paint and let the scenario in the work evolve as I paint. The original concept will develop more and more as I work, while I also try to be open to mistakes and go with what happens. It is crucial to enjoy your process on the painting, and to be prepared to take risks. This goes on until I am satisfied with it as a whole.
Do you think, in the near future, you might start addressing other types of themes and ideas through your work?
For now, I want to talk about contemporary society and things happening now that I can relate to as well as everyone else, but who knows in the future. Making a contemporary painting can be challenging, but at the moment, it is an interesting battle for me.
I think now I’m becoming more clear with what I want to show. When you start off, your work can be vague, perhaps because of purely focusing on the technical side of your art. After that, as you enter an art degree, I think you can allow yourself to really focus on the concept and harness this to your own ability.
Painting as a Medium
You’ve said that painting is your preferred medium. Did this happen organically?
Throughout school, I tried many mediums, and during my Foundation at Brighton 11 and my BA I tried animation 12 and sculpture, though I think my ideas resonated more within painting. I feel like what I wanted to show and say to people worked best on paintings than with any other medium. With other mediums than painting, people didn’t seem to understand what I was trying to show and I’d get frustrated.
What about the near future?
I think I would like to work with sculpture, woodwork or any 3D work. I think I’m open to that. 13 If I had the resources, the facilities, which I actually do at the RCA, I might try to create ideas through that. I think it’s possible to make them work but I’m not just gonna make something 3D for the sake of it, I’ll do it if it’s right. At the moment, painting is the right medium for me to compose and challenge my ideas.
Are there elements within the practical process that you tend to focus on?
The colours I use are very important to me. 14 Every colour you use would provoke a certain reaction so you have got to be careful about which colours you combine. Recently, I’ve been using a lot of very subtle and pastel colours, to allow the figures and objects to blend more seamlessly. If you can harness the use of colour well, your work can resonate in a room, can hypnotise any viewer. Look at Laura Owens 15 or Katherine Bernhardt’s 16 work.
The way we act and the way we navigate through society is speeding up every year and to express that through painting can be a difficult thing to do at times.
Isn’t a slow-paced medium like painting a bit of a disadvantage when you would like to address contemporary issues?
It can be a slow process at times. For me, it’s actually not that bad because I’ve transformed into a fast painter using new techniques and moving away from just using a brush. The way we act and the way we navigate through society is speeding up every year and to express that through painting can be a difficult thing to do at times. 17 I’ve found that by experimenting through mediums with acrylic paint 18 and an airbrush, I can create a working practice that somehow mimics the speed and accessibility of today’s society.
Influences from Japanese Culture
Your style seems to reference contemporary Japanese culture. How did your interest in Japan emerge?
I think everyone from the nineties really has an affection for the culture because of the influx of Japanese media at the time. It was something I experienced daily, through games, television and toys. It never actually really came into my artwork until I was a teenager, when I started to look at Japanese artists such as Aya Takano 19 and Yoshitomo Nara. 20 What I’ve noticed in Japanese art and culture is that everything is personified and characterised. As a kid, if everything is a cute character, you’re more likely to notice it or engage with it more. I think it’s starting to happen over here now more and more too – even if it’s a rubbish can, once it has a face on it, you look at it more. Applying that idea to art can be interesting.
You’ve spent some time at the Kyoto Seika University. 21 When did you go, and how was your experience?
I went for a year during my second year of university in 2013. It was a special experience, to work and learn from Japanese artists. It opened up new ways of working to me, such as Nihonga 22 classes. It was difficult to adjust to at first because of the language barrier and also learning new ways of painting from the art tutors. For example, in Nihonga, every brushstroke had to be in a certain gesture or sequence, which I sucked at. It was refreshing to work again on my technique and art style through the year, in comparison to UK teachings, which are more concept- and ideas-based. 23 It became a very special place to me for making art and friends. I would highly recommend studying abroad there.
Did your time over there affect your artistic practice?
I think it made me more confident to paint the way I do, because I felt like people in Japan accepted my work. I saw people who responded to my work in a positive way, instead of saying “Oh my god, why are you doing this?”, it was more like “This is very interesting! How come your paintings seem to be referencing some Japanese people?” which was quite unusual for them, I guess. What I gained from it was to be confident in my work, to not shy away from ideas I really believed in. 24
Do you think it’s an issue if people who look at your work directly notice your influences?
I think that’s fine. Maybe three years ago, I used to make more direct references. Now, I like to do that in subtler ways. When people pick up on them, that’s cool, but it’s not my intention to make them think “He’s been looking at so and so.” If it helps them to understand the narrative and concept I’m proposing then that’s really cool. Nowadays everyone is referencing someone else in their work and I think that’s fine as long as it makes sense, and there’s a reason why. People are smart enough to see through it when you just do it for the sake of it, to follow trends or whatever.
Future-wise, where would you like to go?
Generally speaking, I think I would like to take more risks with my work – looking at different ways I could portray these narratives and characters through different methods. While I’ve been sticking with the paintbrush, maybe it’s good to experiment with different tools. I recently bought an airbrush to create characters. I hope that my practice is always evolving, I think the characters will change gradually over time, adapting to my surroundings and the cultural references I like at the time.
- Felix Treadwell is part of a music group called Shinamo Moki, formed by Auryn Tate Waring, Sasha Vergolini and himself. They mainly play instrumental electronica influenced by anime, Asian folk music and video games. While the cover art of their previous EPs is created by other artists, Shinamo Moki’s visual identity is mostly directed by Felix, as is clear from their Instagram account. Watch Shinamo Moki performing ‘Reasoning’ here. ↩
- The Camberwell College of Arts is one of the six colleges of the University of the Arts London. It’s located in South London, between Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill stations. Artist and illustrator Charlotte Mei, who we’ve also interviewed, is a Camberwell graduate too. ↩
- The Royal College of Art, more commonly known as the RCA, is a university offering postgraduate degrees in art and design with two campuses in central London, at South Kensington and Battersea. It is considered one of the most prestigious institutions for art and design in the world, topping the QS World University Rankings tables for these subjects in 2015 and 2016. Notable RCA alumni are too many to count, ranging from David Hockney and Tracey Emin to industrial designer James Dyson, film directors Tony and Ridley Scott and the sound artist, designer and electronic musician Yuri Suzuki, a particularly interesting artist for us. See below for a 1999 BBC documentary showing how painting practice is developed at the RCA. ↩
- Felix added: “My favourite shows were Mona the Vampire, Rugrats, Oakie Doke, Yoho Ahoy, ZZZap!, Moomin, Digimon and Hey Arnold!”. In an interview with We Heart, he described his keen interest in American painters such as John Wesley, Philip Guston and Laylah Ali, explaining that he thinks he has been inspired by them because of growing up watching American cartoons. ↩
- Felix named Pokémon Snap, Pokémon Stadium, Resident Evil, Wario Land, Tomb Raider, PaRappa the Rapper, Age of Empires, World of Warcraft, Populous: The Beginning and Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast. ↩
- Born in 1928, John Wesley is an artist from the United States known for his iconic paintings that are often categorised as pop art. Below is The Liar’, from 1993. ↩
- Aya Takano, born in 1976, is a Japanese artist, illustrator and mangaka. Takano is a contributor to the Superflat postmodern art movement, founded and led by fellow artist Takashi Murakami who also established Kaikai Kiki, an art production and artist management group of which Takano is a member. Takano is particularly interested in depicting how the future will impact the role of the female heroine in society. Below is a short documentary by Hélène Sevaux exploring Takano’s work. ↩
- KAWS, born Brian Donnelly in 1974, is an American artist widely known for his paintings as well as his oversized toy-like sculptures. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York with a BA in Fine Arts and Illustration, he started his career as a freelance animator for Disney, before turning to graffiti art, subverting advertising imagery on billboards, in bus shelters or in phone booths, in work which is now sought-after by art collectors. More recently, he has collaborated with Pharrell Williams for his fragrance ‘GIRL’ in 2014, and with Uniqlo for a line of tees and accessories in 2016. See below for a short documentary exploring his art practice. ↩
- According to an article in The Nikkei from April 2016, in Japan in 2015, 1652 minors were victims of criminal offences, most often schoolgirl prostitution, which were enabled by internet activity – this figure is a record high. ↩
- Felix’s theme of online identity reminds us of artist Amalia Ulman’s practice. This Argentine-born Spanish artist, best known for her net art work, staged a four-month long performance piece on her Instagram account between April and September 2014 during which she fabricated an online character that she called ‘Instagram Girl’. Through well-constructed storytelling, she posted photos of her character moving to a new city, breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, doing drugs, having plastic surgery, apologising for her actions, and finding a new boyfriend. By the end of the project, she had amassed more than 100,000 followers. Ulman stated in Kaleidoscope magazine that “The idea was to bring fiction to a platform that has been designed for supposedly ‘authentic’ behavior, interactions and content. The intention was to prove how easily an audience can be manipulated through the use of mainstream archetypes and characters they’ve seen before." The performance was showcased at two major exhibitions in early 2016, at Whitechapel Gallery and the Tate Modern, and has received widespread attention for its manipulation of social media platforms and gender stereotypes. Source: BBC ↩
- Felix did his Foundation Diploma in Art & Design at the City College Brighton & Hove. ↩
- While not part of his art practice, see below for a music video for the Shinamo Moki song ‘Umi’ directed by Felix and Auryn Tate Waring. ↩
- In 2015, Felix produced an unusual mixed-media piece called ‘Actual Deflating Head’ (pictured below). As you can see, a recurring character from Felix’s artwork is painted with acrylic on PVC filled with children’s plastic pit balls. ↩
- We strongly recommend reading American artist and educator Josef Albers’ studies on colour, especially his book Interaction of Color, first published in 1963. It is considered as such an historic book that there is even an app version on iOS – available here. ↩
- Laura Owens, born in 1970, is a Los Angeles-based American painter. She is widely known for her large formats and for combining or superimposing different techniques, media and motifs, merging traditional painting methods with experimentation. Her work for Vienna-based gallery Secession in 2015 is a prime example. In the background, some digitally-edited sheets of the World War Two-era Los Angeles Times include both recent news and advertising, on which float some physical brushstrokes – she uses combined techniques to blur the temporal scale. See below for a short video of Owens explaining her work exhibited in 2013 at Ooga Booga in Los Angeles. Source: Secession ↩
- Katherine Bernhardt is a New York artist whose ‘pattern paintings’ illustrate banal consumer products and everyday objects such as toilet paper, Dorito chips and cigarettes. In the video below, you can listen to Katherine describing her artistic process and the meaning behind her paintings for the 2016 exhibition ‘Product Recall: New Pattern Paintings’. Source: Art Space ↩
- While traditional painting methods are increasingly challenged by high-speed, twenty-first century lifestyles, a new kind of artist using the internet as medium is emerging, in a movement commonly called 'internet art’. One example is New York-based Belgian artist Tom Galle. Defining himself as an internet artist, his work reflects modern-day group behaviour with online technologies. His recent artwork ‘Macbook Selfie’, a collaboration with Moises Sanabria (from Art404) and John Yuyi, touches on selfie culture. ↩
- Acrylic paint is a fast-drying medium. It is water-soluble, but becomes water-resistant when dry. ↩
- See the 7th footnote. ↩
- Yoshitomo Nara, born in 1959, is a Tokyo-based Japanese artist whose paintings with their iconic, cutesy characters are easily recognisable – and remind us of the characters featuring in Felix’s work. If you would like to know more about his practice, watch Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara below, a documentary released in 2007. ↩
- The Kyoto Seika University is a private university, located, as you might have guessed, in Kyoto. Founded in 1968, its manga and anime courses are widely admired. ↩
- Nihonga are paintings that have been made in accordance with traditional Japanese artistic conventions, techniques and materials. While they are based on traditions over a thousand years old, the term Nihonga was coined in the Meiji period (1868-1915) in Imperial Japan, to distinguish such works from Western-style paintings. ↩
- The East Asian education system is very much based on technique rather than concept, and entrance exams for art institutions in countries such as Japan, South Korea and China are extremely competitive. The 87th issue of Colors Magazine, ‘Looking at Art’, gives the example of the Chinese system, where “experimentation is preceded by practice; an emphasis on Bauhaus-style technical perfection and meticulous method is still essential to getting into Chinese art schools.” That’s why Chinese high-schoolers attend bootcamps that “usually last six long months, marked by twelve-hour days of memorizing and practicing past years’ drawing test subjects, which range from ‘a bee collecting pollen’ to ‘a furniture warehouse’.” ↩
- Artist and illustrator Charlotte Mei, who we’ve also interviewed, shared some similar thoughts, saying that her experience in Japan “gave some validity to the idea of showing emotion through my artwork because the imagery there is so emotive and there’s always characters. I’ve always been into that, but it’s not acceptable in Western artwork so for me seeing that, I was like ‘wow I can do this, I can make these references and that’s ok, I can draw faces on everything if I want’.” The similarity between these two might not be a coincidence: they both went to the Kyoto Seika University on a student exchange while studying at the Camberwell College of Arts. You can read Charlotte Mei’s interview here. ↩
This interview was posted on 10 December 2016.
Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Translation (English to Japanese):