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Jack Vettriano on Forain

Telling the story

In the way that we might fantasise about Forain’s characters and their relationships, part of the appeal of your work is needing to know more, much more, about what’s going on between people - both visibly and under the surface.

Yeah. I think people identify with a lot of my work very easily, especially the dark interiors. I take the view that most people would like to enter these scenes, albeit just for a short time, to walk in and just see what it's like to exist in the heady atmosphere that I've tried to create. I've often said that I'm not at the cutting edge of modern art. I've never claimed to be, nor do I want to be. I'm just a storyteller - a film director who's got one shot, but it's a still. You yourself will start the story and finish it. I will just give you a section.

I think that wraps people in and they start to think, "Well, how did they get there? And what's going to happen to them afterwards? Are they all going to end up in the gutter or is it going to end well?" I love to create that sense of sort of mystery about the people, and I try hard to be a bit mysterious myself. (laughs)

We obviously don’t know the background to this drawing - but how do you begin the story-telling process?

(Looks at pictures around the studio). This isn't a bad example, I think. It's a painting called "Suddenly One Summer" and it's actually painted onto a door. I did that because I couldn't wait for a canvas to get made! Anyway, around 1980 I met this woman who I rather took to, and it was a sort of summer thing. I just got to thinking about how summer is the time for people to make big mistakes in relationships. The sun’s shining - people are a bit heady. So I put her standing on a promenade with bunting hanging between the lampposts. The idea was that she's got a lover who she meets there on a regular basis and suddenly he's gone. It's the end of the summer, the skies are grey and angry looking and, suddenly one summer, you fall into love and you get your heart broken. And there's the car too - I still own that car, it's a wee Mercedes Sports, 1966, which I just love.

But she’s not wearing modern dress - or at least it’s not what women wore in the 1980s. Why does this additional twist of nostalgia for fashion run through almost all of your work?

Well I think that modern costume doesn't really do a lot for me. It's too androgynous. I was walking around Oxford yesterday afternoon and there was hardly a woman with a skirt on! You know, I'm trying not to be old fashioned here, or sexist but I just happen to like feminine women and of course the golden age of cinema, the forties and fifties, when women were terribly feminine. Actually it was the model who suggested the look for this particular painting. She said to me, "Why don't we do a sort of Audrey Hepburn thing?" And I thought, "That'd be great, that'd be great!"

As far as my nostalgia for fashion goes I guess we’re all attracted to what is being worn when we’re in our prime. My personal theory is that the things that turned me on as I became aware of sex have never ever left me - never! They haunt me to this day. But then people much younger than me are drawn to the same things, so you needn’t have actually lived through it to have a longing for it.

To return to the story-telling process, when you have an idea do you write it down, or just start sketching?

No, I always have a title running around in my head - one that I've picked from a book or lyrics from a song, or the name of a film, and I start to think, what does that suggest to me? Perhaps I just love the grouping of the words, for instance "Suddenly One Summer". But nothing's ever formally committed to paper - I'm not the kind of person who keeps a pad by his bed, but I have from time to time written something down on a scrap piece of paper and stuck it in my pocket, and I keep a book where I shove all these bits. The next thing I'll do is try and just define it - there have been situations where I haven't been quite clear but what I'll do is phone a model and say, "Look, I've got this idea ...."

For example here's a fairly recent picture called "Baby Bye Bye". I imagined a woman who's looking out of a window - she's got a robe on, slightly sexy, you know - the red bra, decent bust, drinking coffee so it's morning - I'm using these devices to help people work out the story, and of course the title also helps. Anyway, I phoned the model - this was in my place in Scotland - and said, "Look, I've got this idea - have you got a robe - sort of satiny and stuff?" and she said, "No, but I'll get one". My feeling was one of "I don't quite know what it is I'm going to do here but I'll know it when I see it" so I just got her to pose against the window and I got behind my wee Olympus - it's not a terribly expensive camera - and took maybe ten shots.

The rest of the process is more or less how I work every time - the best photograph gets pinned on the easel and I make a small study - just to see how it's looking, where she should be on the canvas. I like my paintings to look balanced - for them to please your eye instantly, like everything's where it should be. There's nothing in it that makes you go, "What’s that there for?" And to return to what I said earlier - if for some reason I haven't got a title when I start, I'll be thinking of one while I work.

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