This is a transcription of a talk I delivered at Salisbury Museum on September 11th  2015.  It gives a good description of my work on 'Mr Turner'.

'Teaching Mr Turner'

I worked as the Painting Consultant to the film 'Mr Turner', directed by Mike Leigh and starring Timothy Spall as the great, British painter.

My chief responsibility was to teach Tim to paint in order to prepare for his role. I also taught the other actors who play artists and worked on set with Tim to create the painting scenes in the film.

This all started in April 2011.

I knew Mike Leigh, the director, from his long association with The Motley Theatre Design School, based in The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where I had been teaching painting and drawing to the students for a number of years.

Mike contacted me and said he had a 'secret' project that I might be able to help him with. We had a meeting, where he introduced me to Timothy Spall. He said ' Timothy Spall is going to play Turner and you are going to teach him to paint. You've got two years.

Tim and I regarded each other suspiciously.

This was an interesting and challenging project which I could not turn down.

How to go about it?
Where to start?
What was Tim like?
What was his experience?
Would we get on?

A week or so later Tim and I got together and after a bit of discussion I thought the best thing to do was to start with the basics, not worry about Turner and devise a foundation course in Fine Art for Tim to follow.

Tim was very interested in Art and especially Turner, but he had little or no formal training.

This was an advantage because it was clear what we needed to do - everything.

However, he had no preconceptions or bad habits.

So we organised a timetable. He would attend my studio twice a week for day long sessions. Obviously this was disrupted by his many other film and acting commitments, but we managed to see each other pretty regularly over the following two years.

One of a number of strange coincidences associated with 'Mr Turner', was the fact that Tim lived at the end of my street, he at 'x' and me at 'y'.

I thought this augured well.

We took a thorough approach to his tuition.

We started with drawing, in all its forms, and focussed on working from observation. Our subjects ranged form the life model ( considering how hard it is, it was always a popular option for some reason ), natural forms and still life, the cast- a life size classical statue called 'Vecchio', ( actually made form polystyrene and hired from a prop house )- Turner and his contemporaries would have drawn extensively from the cast before they were allowed to study the live figure. We drew architecture and landscape, we had several regular drawing sites around the City of London.

Along the way we covered colour theory and perspective and looked at the uses and handling of all the various media, such as ink, watercolour, and oil paint and their methods of application.

This thorough grounding in process and Tim's enthusiastic dedication all led to him feeling comfortable and confident in the studio. All the time I was concerned to give Tim a familiarity with technique and a sense of fluency with his tools and materials that was almost unconsciously expressed. You can't really act this. It only develops from repeated study and practice.

Eventually, when Tim had mastered the basic processes of observational drawing and painting, we decided to tackle Turner. Tim and I had both made extensive study of his paintings and watercolours. We found his unfinished works particularly useful. In them we could decipher something of his method, the physicality of how he applied his paint, which brush he used, the pace and pressure of the mark he was making. This was quite important for Tim, it gave him an insight to the physicality, the material presence of the man.

The brush marks are evidence of friction, his contact with the material.

Painting is a physical process. It engages the body. The body has to move to make a mark, to achieve an effect.

As an actor Tim was very aware of this.

We decided to make same-scale copies of two Turners:

'Helvoetsluys' and 'Steamboat in a Snowstorm'

This was a daunting prospect.

Nevertheless Tim got stuck in and pulled off a very powerful and expressive piece in 'Steamboat…' He learnt a lot about the nature of oil paint, the use of gesture with the brush and an understanding of painting in layers to create a spatial and atmospheric effect. He felt he was getting to know the mind of someone like Turner.

We noted the evidence of how he painted.

There were delicate, carefully drawn passages, made with small brushes, broad, bold areas made with sweeping movements of a large brush loaded with liquid paint, waxy spatterings of thicker paint made by flicking the brush, scratches in the surface made with a thumbnail or stick, areas where paint had been smeared on or off with a rag. We could detect fingermarks and impressions made with the heel of the hand.  ( For the film, Tim was supplied with a prosthetic thumbnail, which he puts to good use in the 'Varnishing Day' scene).

All this information, gleaned by studying and copying 'Steamboat…' Tim deployed when painting on film.  Again, coincidentally, Tim knew the piece of Kent coast intimately, having sailed his barge there.

He pointed out that Turner's viewpoint was from a boat, out at sea experiencing the same snowstorm as the subject.

I thought Tim was starting to inhabit the mind of an artist.

At this point, approximately two years in, we progressed to the next stage, that of 'Rehearsals'.

Tim would no longer be working alongside me in our private studio, with only a life model or stuffed rabbit for company.

He was now improvising with his fellow actors in a mock up of Turner's house and studio. This was sited in the old Central School of Art building in Southampton Row.  (Coincidentally, where I had one of my first jobs as a workshop technician in the sculpture school ).

Now Tim had his own studio where he went everyday to paint, think, research and work with the director and cast. This is where the basic structure of the film was created.

This, most importantly, was the space within which Tim made and refined the character you see in the film.

My role now was to visit Tim from time to time to view his paintings and advise on the studio set up, that is, work out the physical space of Turner's studio, where everything would go, what would be its equipment ? where would his easel be ? how would the light come into the space? etc. 

This was then translated into the fantastically evocative set you see in the film. Because of his time in the rehearsal space Tim was completely familiar with the studio before it was even built. The famous revolving painting table, designed by Turner, had been one of the first items deemed essential for the studio. This spatial awareness was very important, Tim had to appear at ease in his creative space and be completely familiar with its contents. He had to be able to stretch his arm out unthinkingly and put his hand to a palette, brush or rag, or occasionally, as it turned out, his housekeeper Hannah Danby.

From the beginning of the project TS engaged in very thorough research. He could tell you where Turner was and what he was doing at any stage of his life. He thought carefully about the nature of the man and we discussed him a lot.

Obviously there is some documentary evidence, provided by his contemporaries and commentators, about Turner's personality and behaviour, but a lot of it is contradictory. He is described as sociable and good company by one, and taciturn and gruff by another. This is only to be expected, he was quite a combative character and as a hugely successful man could pretty much please himself. Overall, what emerges is a very driven, ambitious, single-minded and competitive individual.

A practical aspect of our research was looking into the kind of materials and studio paraphernalia available to Turner. There was a sophisticated network of artists' colour-men and suppliers. Turner's materials were pretty similar to those available today, with the exception of certain modern pigments. Much in his studio would be recognisable to an artist today, with a few small differences.

Watercolour came in ready prepared blocks from suppliers like 'Reeves' and 'Winsor and Newton', companies that are still around today. Oil paint would be prepared by a studio assistant from oil and pigment, (we see Turner's father doing this in the film), but it was also available, ready prepared in 'bladders' or even, later on, in metal tubes. Oil paint was thinned and thickened with various oil, resin, turpentine and waxy mediums, much as it is today. Brushes were made by fitting bristles into a quill, which was, in turn, attached to a wooden handle. The size of brush was determined by the feather the quill came from. For example, goose, duck or even lark. The biggest size was eagle. 

'Synthesis' - creating the character.

The aim of all this research and tuition was for TS to create an 'expression' of Turner not an 'impression'. This was to be a discrete creation, an informed interpretation of the painter.
TS certainly had some physical similarity to the documented Turner, his stature, gait and accent. Tim had to assimilate his artistic studies and historical research with his physicality and appearance to make a believable version of the real man.

Why teach him to paint?

Because, in order to create and play the role, TS had to inhabit the psychological and physical space of an artist.

The only way to understand it was to do it.

We wanted the painting activity to come naturally, it is tough enough, acting the role, let alone coping with the business of painting at the same time. Tim needed to be painting without thinking.

On Set.

All this was very well, but the film had yet to be made.

The theory had to be tested by the practicalities of film-making.

So we come to the third stage in my involvement.

Working with TS and the other 'artists' on set.

This was an exciting prospect, to see how a film is made , and to be involved in making it.
What was it going to look like?
What were the sets and costumes like?
What paintings would featured?
How much painting would you see?
Would it be any good?

The art and costume departments had done a brilliant job.

There are many great, evocative settings in the film, but for me the recreation of The Royal Academy on varnishing day and the party at Petworth House stand out.

At this point I have to mention the elephant in the room.

Turner's Paintings.

The audience have to see Turner in the act of painting.
They also have to see what he is painting, that is, the picture itself.
We had to have 'Turners' for Turner to paint.
Quite a responsibility.

The artist Charlie Cobb was commissioned to produce the Turner 'prop' paintings for the film.

He did a great job. He made a profound study of Turner's methods. (Again the unfinished Turners were an invaluable resource.) What you see in the film are convincing simulations of the unfinished Turner paintings.

It is a testimony to CC's skill that these pictures have a freshness and vitality essential to creating the illusion.

CC had to make several versions of each work.  So we might require a 'just started' 'Fighting Temeraire' or a 'half finished' 'Rain, Steam and Speed'

Turner's Method.

How did he paint and how did TS paint?

The great challenge for a film about a great artist.

What you see has to be believable as real.

TS has to be seen applying paint to the canvas in a coherent and convincing manner. So, in order to create the illusion, we had to have 'real' paintings and 'real' acts of paintings.

On Set.

Practice-how it worked.

Any scene where Turner was painting, or in his studio, or where painting was going on, required me, and often CC, to be on set.

I would have to work with ML and TS to devise a painting sequence for a scene. TS and I would work out and rehearse what he would be doing to the painting. Would he be using brushes or rags for example?

Would he be engaged in some delicate, painstaking work ?

Or would he be vigorously sweeping the brush across the canvas ?

It may have been that he was simply looking at the painting or motif.

After all a lot of the painting process involves looking and analysing. There is as much seeing as painting.

This is where TS's training paid off. I always stressed to him the importance of looking at his subject and not taking its appearance for granted.

TS realised the value of the intense and reflective gaze.

Royal Academy.

It is particularly interesting to look at the 'varnishing day' scene.

It is based on a real event, much remarked on at the time,

which took place over the varnishing days prior to the 1832 exhibition.

After the work was hung and before the public were admitted, it was traditional for the Royal Academicians to come to into the gallery to varnish their pictures.

By the date of this scene, this meant that artists were often still painting their pictures or adding finishing touches. It was something of a social occasion. The exhibiting artists were very aware of their status, which was evidenced by the hierarchy of the 'hang'. Turner often used varnishing days as an opportunity to assert himself and do a bit of grandstanding, to the extent that his fellow artists would gather around to watch him at work.

This year Turner was hung next to Constable.

T's painting 'Helvoetsluys…' was a rather sober seascape.

Constable's 'The Opening Of Waterloo Bridge' was more colourful. In particular it had flecks of bright red in it.

Famously T strode into the room and placed a blob of bright red on his own painting and walked out without a word, much to everyone's consternation. He later returned and fashioned the blob into a buoy. He had managed to upstage Constable, who said ' He has come in here and fired a gun'

This was quite typical of Turner. He wasn't going to be overshadowed by anyone and was very quick to assert his status.

Obviously this was a difficult scene to choreograph.

It required a sequence of careful and accurate painting events. The transformation of blob to buoy had to happen before your eyes.We couldn't cheat it. This had to be a demonstration of Turner's skill.

We rehearsed with TS to develop a sequence of concise movements.

Nevertheless, when filming this required a lot of takes.

The blob had to be delivered bang on target, without hesitation and be the right shape and consistency.

You cannot imagine how hard this was to do.

There was a prop painting off set covered in scores of practice blobs.

It is a mark of TS's acting skill that he achieved this sequence so effectively.

Finally he deployed brush, rag, thumbnail and a knowing look to resolve the scene.

Paint : 'It's soap not paint'.

All the paint had to be reversable, that is, when you had to do another take, the paint would have to be wiped off the painting to return it to its original condition.

'Helvoetsluys' had to be reset about 20 times.

You couldn't do this with real paint.

CC invented 'prop paint'- a secret mixture of soap, glycerine and pigment which looked and behaved like oil paint.

A contemporary critic remarked that later Turners looked as if they had been painted with 'soapsuds' which, in our case, proved not far off the mark.


I think the film is a very effective evocation of Turner's life and personality.

I would suggest that TS's performance is pretty definitive.

He has lodged his particular interpretation in the public imagination.

It is a tribute to ML's method of comprehensive preparation, research and immersion in the character.

I was very lucky to work with TS, who was obsessed with Turner and his world and was willing to commit himself to a two year programme of tuition and investigation.

He proved himself to be somewhat accomplished as an artist. Earlier this year we mounted an exhibiton of TS's work as a adjunct to a Turner show at Petworth House. We showed Tim's pieces in the library where Turner used to paint.
However, when I asked Tim the other day if he wanted to join a life class he replied. ' I never want to see a paintbrush again'.

I repeat.

TS's performance is an expression of the man, not an impression. It is a creation, a fiction, an interpretation which tells us some real truths about the great Artist and his profession. This was a hard won performance, and I was glad to be involved.


TS transforms to T in restaurant.

I look at TS over the remains of lunch, for a moment he has suddenly become Turner, looking remarkably like his famous, early self portrait. I am amazed. How has he done it?
ML's scathing response. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's called acting'.


© 2024, all text and images are the property of Tim Wright.