BY JAN PATIENCE
If I was trained in matters of the mind, which I’m not, I’d say it was obvious what attracts people to Frank To’s work and why, at the comparatively tender age of 25, he has attracted such a lot of attention at home, in London and in New York, where he already has an agent.
In April last year, Homes & Interiors Scotland selected Glasgow-based To as one of five young artists to watch and, in the intervening 18 months, demand for his paintings has soared, with a painting which would have cost £800 this time last year now sporting a £1700 price tag.
Aside from several not-so-famous notable collectors, the Shakespearian actor Patrick Stewart, best-known for his roles in Star trek and X-Men is a fan of his work, having first spotted him as a promising art student at the University of Huddersfield, where To completed his degree in Fine Art in 2004 and Stewart is still Chancellor.
Stewart contacted To by email a year later, when he was studying for a Masters at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone college, to say he wanted to buy one of his paintings. “I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke,” he laughs. “I actually went online to find his official fan website and sent an email to his office asking if it was a hoax. But it wasn’t. Patrick now has several of my paintings and I’ve been down to visit him at his house in London, where he has an amazing art collection.”
It is easy to see why an actor of the calibre of Stewart would be drawn to a Frank To painting. There is drama in a Frank To painting. A brooding mental energy that sucks you in and leaves you wondering what, why, where? There is always something or someone or even part of someone emerging from the depths of one of his paintings. This is probably because this engaging, highly focused artist stirs himself into the work in a way that many of his peers – of all ages – do not.
In putting himself into the work, the viewers put themselves into it, which offers them a reassuring connection with the painting.
When he talks about how his hero Michaelangelo considered marble for days on end before he teased out the figure within, setting it free from its solid mass, it sounds plausible when he explains that this is his preferred method of working too.
To’s modus operandi is to create in the first instance an abstract work which is a painting in its own right. He works quickly, layering the paint and fizzing his own energy onto the canvas in great sweeping gestures.
This is the conceptual part of the To artistic process. It continues when he drips turpentine on the surface to create a mottled textured layer and then uses whatever he has to hand – be it a discarded neon light strip or whatever – to work the surface into a state of readiness.
It is only at that point that To steps back, furrows his brow and looks for the figure within the canvas. His figures or body parts are drafted in with a rag soaked in turpentine and this is the traditionalist part of the process, for (despite the unconventional tool), To is a fine draughtsman, having spent long hours sitting in galleries round Europe sketching works of the Old Masters. One of his most prized possessions is a well-thumbed leather notebook with incredibly detailed handwritten sketches and notes taken during a four-month spell travelling in Europe and talking to artists he met along the way.
“I just disappeared for four months after I left Huddersfield University. I was recovering from a broken relationship and none of my family or friends knew where I went but I see the trip now as an important stage in my artistic development.”
Many of To’s figures pay homage to the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. He is also a prodigious reader and soaks up influence from all directions from the Greek philosophers to Dante and his box-like yet perfectly ordered studio in the WASPS building in Dennistoun, Glasgow, is packed with books of all description.
This sense of order is important to Frank To. “If you look around,” he explains, “you’ll see this is where I paint, this is where I keep books, this is where I display work and this is my office area. I think it’s important to approach being a professional artist in this way.”
One of the most sensitive pieces in his studio when we meet in late November is a painting destined for his forthcoming show at the Queen’s Gallery in Dundee entitled Time After Time, in which two clothed figures stand facing each other with a considerable gap between them. They are clad in medieval costume and, as is usual in one of To’s paintings, their features are obscured.
“This came out of a personal experience I had of having feelings for someone which were never realised although, as you probably can pick up, there is a sense of ‘what if?’” explains To.
It is this ability to place great depths of feeling within a painting that has won him many admirers in the three short years he has been working as a professional artist.
Incredibly, given his current popularity, To was rejected from Glasgow School of Art twice. The first time was when he left school and the second time, when he applied to do a Masters after completing his degree at Huddersfield.
Happily, he pitched up in Dundee, which has an international reputation for painting and suited him down to the ground.
“By the time I got to Dundee, I was thinking of myself as an artist,” he explains. “My year out after leaving Huddersfield was my real education.
“Dundee is renowned for the painting side of things. I had heard it was rated beside the Royal College in London and I knew many of the artists who had come from there by reputation.
“By chance I was teamed up with the artist Calum Colvin as my tutor, which was a bit overwhelming at first to be honest. It was great for me though. Calum thought I had the practical experience, but felt I lacked confidence.
“He instilled in me the need to be professional and the way he presented himself was a huge influence on me. At Huddersfield, the approach was very conceptual and it taught me how to think. In the years since then, I have learned how to paint.”
To’s work was picked up on quickly after he left Dundee, with all but one of the works in his degree show selling at London’s Affordable Art Fair.
“After my success there, I felt confident about approaching galleries. I felt I had an original concept and it seemed to work,” he says. “I also received help in the shape of a grant from the Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust. “I asked myself what would be the point of all that studying if I wasn’t going to give it a go and become a full time painter,” he reflects. He attributes his family background – his Chinese-born parents were in the catering trade – to instilling in him a sense of making his chosen career work for him.
Today, just two years on from leaving college, To is making real in-roads into his ambitions, chief among which is the desire to be made a member of the Royal Academy by the time he is 30. “Turner was admitted by the time he was my age, so I won’t be the youngest ever, but that is a real burning desire of mine,” he admits.
As well as being represented by the notable Albermarle Gallery in London, he is also moving towards making an impression in America, following in the footsteps of eminent Scots artists, such as the Scottish Colourists and the so-called New Glasgow Boys.
A collector of his work put him in touch with New York agent, Michel Witmer, who had admired a painting of his when he visited her home. “He represents mainly dead artists like Andy Warhol’, To says with a laugh. “I went over to New York, with a painting under my arm to meet him, which was a challenge when it came to Customs, and he now represents me over there.”
His next exhibition in Scotland is a mixed show at the Queen’s Gallery in Dundee, starting on 26 January.
As well as armfuls of talent and an ability to soak up influences from all around him, To is a resourceful young man, who knows he has to keep focused to stay ahead of the game.
- The story so far
- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on email@example.com (All work © Jan Patience)