Painter and photographer Frank Gray recreated six “Lowry’s” for the film Mrs Lowry & Son, starring Timothy Spall as the artist LS Lowry and Vanessa Redgrave as his mother.
The film starts in 1934, when Lowry was in his late 40s – a rent collector by day and an attic painter by night, still living with his class-obsessed, bed-bound, unappreciative mum in a terraced house in Pendlebury, Lancashire.
Frank painted some of Lowry’s most famous works for the movie, including Coming From The Mill and Woman With A Beard. I asked Frank about taking on that challenge, working with Timothy Spall and what happened to his paintings after the shoot…
Sarah: How did you get involved in Mrs Lowry & Son?
Frank Gray: I’m married to Debbie Gray, the film’s producer. As I am an artist, Debbie asked me if I thought I could do copies of three of Lowry’s paintings and on time. (A further three were added during production.) I learnt to paint in oils about 40 years ago by copying various artists I liked. I‘ve worked in acrylic for the last 30 years mostly, but was reasonably confident I could produce acceptable facsimiles.
Time was going to be tricky though as the film was green lit just a few weeks before filming. As the paintings were required at different times in the shooting script, I produced them in the matching sequence.
Do you find it quite easy to mimic other artists’ styles or did you have to do lots of research and practice? How long did you have and did you ever wonder why you’d agreed to it!
I decided to use acrylic paint to replicate Lowry’s thick ground layers of flake white as it would dry quicker. I also opted to use alkyd paints which look and handle the same as oil but again dry much quicker. This compromised the results as it was difficult to achieve Lowry’s “wet into wet” technique.
Depending on the artist, it can be difficult to nail their style. Sometimes it feels quite natural. Monet just flows, Cezanne I have to concentrate.
Doing a copy is different and more difficult as it has to match the original. It is a constraint. A good way to think about it is to consider the task of restoring a painting. Accuracy is paramount. The artist’s hand is contrived at best.
So long as you have an understanding of oil painting, the best research is simply looking at the paintings. Sadly I didn’t have that luxury until I was well into the work. Google Arts and Culture is also a brilliant resource but can’t convey the feel of a painting. But when you zoom into Coming From The Mill the complexity is intimidating.
I was working on Woman With A Beard with very little time left still trying to work out how Lowry had painted the hair. I only had a low resolution photo to go off. Plucked up the courage to attack it with a 4” nail and it seemed to work.
I finished at 2:30am and drove it up to the studios in Stockport the same day. That was tough.
Did you get to choose any of the pictures to copy or were they all specifically related to the story?
The paintings were determined by the script.
I heard that you taught Timothy Spall, who plays the artist, how to paint like Lowry.
I chatted with Tim during the shoot. Although we didn’t discuss it, he had taken tuition in oil painting for his role as Turner. We ended up just talking about Lowry which was lovely. He seemed completely absorbed into the character and had taken on Lowry’s inner constancy. You can feel his dedication and appreciate the delightful man.
You actually had to sign your paintings as Lowry for the film. What happens to them afterwards, to make sure they don’t end up in circulation as Lowrys?
The Lowry Estate advised that they would normally ask for the copies to be destroyed but allowed us to keep hold of them for film publicity.
Do you think anyone can learn how to paint?
Yes. You have to split it into two processes, learning to see and learning to paint.
Seeing is more important. If you don’t visually “understand” what you’re looking at, it’s difficult to represent or interpret. When painting, you constantly evaluate and critically assess every brushstroke. It’s tuning those processes to a particular skill. Break it down, start simple, incrementally increase. Your eyes learn, your brain learns, your hands learn.