In the studio: David Spiller, painter

'I leave bits of canvas lying around, so they gain a bit of history'

Karen Wright
Thursday 17 October 2013 16:05 BST
Clash of colours: David Spiller in his south London studio
Clash of colours: David Spiller in his south London studio (Richard Mildenhall)

ADavid Spiller painting is instantly recognisable. Poppy, bright and sometimes with a central cartoon character – Mickey Mouse, George Herriman's Krazy Kat, among others – it is hard not to smile upon seeing one. Spiller himself is engaging: tall, rangy and softly spoken.

Spiller's studio in Elephant and Castle, south London, is filled with objects that he collects; tin telephones, African flints, plastic cartoon characters lined up next to American toy ovens of all shapes and sizes. He had this studio built 20 years ago: "I was moving around trying to find a good studio, and in the end it was easier just to build one. I would have liked a bigger one." Spiller is happiest when he is working and is there all day, every day.

Having recently turned 70, he is finding some of the painstaking techniques he uses to make his canvases harder to achieve. He likes to work flat, he says, pointing to the large tables, working with the canvases around the wrong way and then re-stretching them prior to their shipping out to the gallery. "I think that painting of Krazy Kat has bits of other paintings in it – some handprints from the late '80s," he says. "Bits of canvas are left lying around, and get walked on and painted on – they gain a bit of history, then I sew them together to make a single canvas."

He doesn't want to show that they are a collage of different materials, proud that the technique is a secret. He never knows what will appear in a work. "All the pieces of canvas are in a box and I keep moving them around on the floor until I find a combination I am happy with". Spiller also draws and writs on the surface, often in pencil and (he admits) misquoting lyrics of pop music .

Spiller was born in Dartford, Kent, in 1942. He drew all the time "as an escape. I had something that took me somewhere – somewhere I did not know." When pressed, he admits he doesn't remember what he drew, "I just remember sitting drawing and no one shouted at me for doing it – so I had a bit of peace and quiet. I liked looking at illustrations in books and seeing if I could draw like that."

Spiller has never wanted to do anything other then paint. Older than the current generation of career artists, he took his paintings to art fairs himself early on and often sold them from the back of his car. His ambitions are simple, he says. "I really want to make paintings that put some magic on the wall. Some of them are straightforward things. Some are wild things. But underneath, it says I love you".

David Spiller: Walk on the Wild Side, Portland Gallery, London SW1 ( to 21 October

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