Irish contemporary artist Robyn Ward on painting a global canvas

Being expelled from Belfast grammar school helped him develop as an artist

Artist with paint stained hands
Irish contemporary artist Robyn Ward

“I don’t think there’s one piece that comes out of my studio that doesn’t have some reflection of home,” says artist Robyn Ward. Born in Dublin and raised in Belfast from the age of four, he has gone on to win international critical acclaim for his large-scale abstract expressionist paintings.

His latest exhibition, Walking in the Dark, is partly inspired by his upbringing in Northern Ireland, as well as a personal reflection on his nomadic lifestyle and global themes of migration and global conflict.

Following shows in New York and London, Walking in the Dark opens this month in China in Shanghai’s prestigious Modern Art Museum. The exhibition features over 40 large-scale painted abstract canvases, six free-standing mixed media sculptures inspired by Ward’s own nomadic lifestyle, driven by a need for both escapism and avoidance. It raises questions such as “Why do people wander?” and “What are the consequences of constant movement?”

Robyn Ward standing beside one of his paintings from his exhibition Walking in the Dark
Robyn Ward with one of his paintings from his exhibition Walking in the Dark

There is also an immersive part to the exhibition where visitors explore Ward’s artwork in the darkness using miner’s headlamps, whilst listening to original music from Robbie Furze.

“Robbie has composed something beautiful which links the paintings and the music together in an incredible way. It is as if people are actually exploring my own subconscious in the darkness, which makes Robbie’s soundtrack such an important part of the experience. It really brings my emotions to life,” says Ward about the The Big Pink singer, whom he met through mutual friends when they both lived in LA.

Ward is currently taking the art world by storm, with the likes of Matt Smith, Daphne Guinness, Victoria Aspinall and Elena Ora amongst others who supported his star-studded viewing and charity dinner in London last October, which raised money for Cancer Research and the PAFF Foundation.

It was his early love of experimenting with art which contributed to him getting expelled from Campbell College after painting graffiti on the school roof.

Ultimately, he believes it was a blessing in disguise as a young Ward used his spare time to hone his craft.

The King of Pilar from artist Robyn Ward's Walking in the Dark exhibition
The King of Pilar from artist Robyn Ward's Walking in the Dark exhibition

“I was 15. All my friends were in school so I would always go to the same place and paint,” he says. That place was a derelict house just around the corner from his old school.

“I used old house paints and sprays from car shops and when I was finished, I would whitewash it and go again and repeat the process.

“When you’re in school you spend maybe an hour or two in your class. I was spending six to seven hours painting,” he enthuses.

“I never really was into graffiti in public places. I was happy with my wall - to me that was my development canvas.”

Robyn Ward's painting Indiscriminately Locked Up
Robyn Ward's painting Indiscriminately Locked Up

Ward left Belfast at the age of 18 and took to living a nomadic life, taking studios in London, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Berlin, Mexico City and New York.

The now 41-year-old says that travel and working in different locations is “key to his artistic process”.

“I’m always going to be Irish, but I don’t want to be a painter who paints about Ireland, or about London or New York. I want to be an artist who paints from experiences of the world.

“There’s something about experiencing a new culture, a new language, a new taste, a new language or a new religion, that is priceless in your development as a person and as an artist.

“When I go travelling in Asia after Shanghai, I will bring a bunch of charcoal and sketchpad and just sit and do a lot of development sketch work and experienced the Japanese culture.”

Robyn Ward pictured beside one of his large-scale paintings
Robyn Ward's loose and abstracted compositions reflect his own nomadic lifestyle and the breakdown of contemporary society

Walking in the Dark, which is curated by Shai Baitel, explores Ward’s need for escapism and avoidance. With distinctive markings on the oversized canvases, he tells his story through a nostalgic veil of innocence and naivety, revealing snapshots of the past while simultaneously obscuring or hiding others, with each layer depicting different fragments of time.

“I think these works reflect very much on my own experiences merged with chaos, governance and violence historically and in the modern day,” says Ward, who says it’s his most personal collection to date.

There’s something about experiencing a new culture, a new language, a new taste, a new language or a new religion, that is priceless in your development as a person and as an artist

—  Robyn Ward

“It’s as if you were sort of tunnelling through the caverns of my own memory banks or capturing my anxieties and depressions, my joy or happiness.

“Sometimes I can have up to 170 layers of paint on at a time, and quite often, I’ll even paint a figurative piece and then I’ll cover it up again.”

How does he know when he’s done?

“The nature and size of my work is physically exhausting, but they can also leave me completely depleted in a mental sense as I’m in a constant battle with them in terms of my thought process. That journey and battle can go on for weeks or months. I know when a piece is finished because I will feel at ease with a piece and be happy with it.”

Having explored social-political themes including racism and environmentalism in his previous exhibitions, Once Upon a Time and Plastic Nations, where he experimented with cartoon caricatures and realistic oil animal paintings, Walking in the Dark marks a return to his roots.

“I kind of started to play around with a cartoon series, a realism series and a figurative series, but abstract is very much how I grew up painting and was always my preferred style. It is always more personal to me as I can’t plan it. I like the freedom of expression and I don’t want to be constrained to a certain rule of thumb. The canvas dictates where I’m going.”

Artist Robyn Ward at work on his Plastic Nation series
Artist Robyn Ward at work on his Plastic Nation series

His biggest problem is that he “wants to paint larger”.

“I’ve got a 7000 square foot studio in New York and a very large studio in London, but I still don’t have the space to go as big as I want to,” says Ward, who Ward reveals he is toying with whether to acquire a new studio in Bangkok or Buenos Aires.

Ward can work on a single canvas over several years and his choice of art-making tools is varied. Amongst his favourites are an old iPhone case, his fingers, his hands, and a window wiper, he picked up from a downtown LA street.

Robyn Ward's New York studio
Robyn Ward's New York studio

“At the time I was in the middle of moving to Mexico City and I brought this window wiper on the plane with me down there. Now it’s in my studio in New York. There’s something about this window wiper I really enjoy.

“I use a lot of very strange objects. I can find a tennis ball and bring it to my studio and start playing around with the different strokes.”

When it comes to his inspirations, they are equally diverse – from 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch to street artist Banksy and American contemporary artist Mark Bradford.

After the spring showing at the Modern Art Museum Shanghai, Walking in the Dark will move to Gallery Rosenfeld in London’s Rathbone Street in September.

Next year he is hoping to bring the exhibition to Ireland, at The Yarn, a new arts and cultural centre, due to open in Ballycastle, Co Antrim.

“It’s always nice to do something at home, so I’m excited for that and there’ll be a few more pieces by then.”

For further information visit Robynwardart.com.