The Big Painting Challenge: An Exclusive Interview with Richard Salter

The Big Painting Challenge: An Exclusive Interview with Richard Salter

Richard Salter, an army sergeant who has toured Afghanistan and was awarded runner-up as War Artist of the Year has won many fans among viewers with his ability to capture emotion and make a powerful statement with his work. Throughout the show the judges seemed impressed by Richard’s art but commented that his work could often be quite muted and void of colour. Richard proved them all wrong in the third challenge at Blenheim Palace last week with a painting of the building that was filled with warmth and colour. Lachlan said he “deserved a medal” for trying something new and for using colour in a way that he hadn’t before.

We caught up with Richard to find out more about his style of art and what it’s really like painting on the show.

Hi Richard! So tell us, why did you decide to apply for the show?

I was contacted by the Army Art Society and also the Armed Forces Art Society asking me to apply for the show. For me this was a really hard choice to make; I was already over 10 years into my journey as an artist and the show wanted the best amateurs…a title I didn’t want to be labelled with. However they explained it doesn’t reflect the quality of the work but just the fact that you’re not a full time artist. There were over 6,500 other applicants so I do feel very humbled and privileged to be in the top ten.

What or who was it that inspired your interest in art?

My Grandmother was a very talented portrait painter so I think the seed of creativity was planted very early on in my childhood. I first started painting seriously in my early 20’s, creating colourful abstract work. I had the urge to push colour around a canvas with yummy textures and balance each piece through natural instinct.

The Big Painting Challenge: An Exclusive Interview with Richard Salter

How have your experiences in the army influenced your art?

I think my best work comes when I tell my story derived from the Operational environment. My paintings have a journey that usually start with an initial thought, which could be as simple as an emotion I have felt following an event. So my paintings tend to tell my story through my experiences.

What’s the most interesting advice or skill that you’ve learnt on the TV series so far?

I think the challenges overall confirmed that I’m more comfortable with my own tried and tested processes. I’ve trained hard over the years to try every technique I can get my hands on and identified the ones that work for me; so painting on the judges terms although fun and challenging doesn’t create my best work. This also made taking the judges criticism easy as I knew the work created in the challenges weren’t a true reflection of what I can do.

How did you find painting with a time limit?

One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome in the challenges was the time factor. In my studio I take a lot of time to carefully develop the initial idea and then once the composition is in place I add layer after layer of thin oil paint with each layer taking a few days to dry. In the challenges we were hit with a subject, concept and materials we didn’t choose and were given little to time to create the painting. Although it was fun, I paint a marathon over weeks not a sprint where every minute counts.

The Big Painting Challenge: An Exclusive Interview with Richard Salter

Who would you say is your favourite artist and why?

I had the opportunity to meet Professor Ken Howard RA who presented me with a Serving War Artist award in 2013. Ken served with the Royal Marines and admits he was a better soldier than a painter. In a speech he gave after, he said “For me Art is about ‘Revelation’, a way of seeing, ‘Celebration’, saying something about one’s life and work and ‘Communication’, speaking to people directly in visual terms”. I found these words true and very inspiring!

Which painting do you consider to be your masterpiece and why?

There is one painting that I sold to a collector in Plymouth in 2012 that I wish I could buy back. It was entitled “Lost Moments” and was a self-portrait that hinted at those precious family moments I had missed whilst away on operations, really tugs on the heart strings. The owner kindly drove it across the country to display it in my 2013 exhibition, it was then I realised it was one of my favorites.

What is your favourite medium to work with and why? Do you have any tips for working with it?

I mainly work with thin layers of transparent oil paint, sometimes with up to 20 layers. I love the glow created when light bounces through the paint and back, which can make the painting have a different atmosphere under different lighting.

Do you prefer painting animals, people or places?

Definitely people. I love to explore human emotion.

If you could paint any person, who would it be?

Prince Harry, he attended my exhibition in Westminster last year and took a genuine interest in a painting of my daughter wearing my uniform.

What advice would you give to someone considering taking up art?

Enjoy the journey, stop when you’re not….and bounce back when you find the fun side of it again!


Don’t forget to take a look at the official Big Painting Challenge book for a guide to painting and drawing. We have all the art supplies you’ll need on our website to help you get started.