Recently a beautifully executed watercolour caught my eye on Twitter. I had to find out more and discovered that Greig Leach is a well established and much exhibited artist who, unsurprisingly, was a former amateur cyclist, remains a keen fan and makes for a fascinating interview subject.
Sheree: You gave up cycling to become an artist. How did that come about?
Greig: Two things I have always done: ride bikes and make art. I got into racing aged 15, racing at club level in the Washington DC area. When I moved to Richmond to study art at Virginia Commonwealth University, I continued to race until a wreck made me realise I had more talent as an artist than I did as a cyclist. Additionally, in the 1970s, there weren’t a lot of American role models in the European peloton to help me believe I could become a professional cyclist.
Sheree: Who or what provided you with inspiration when you were starting out? Is there anyone or anything that particularly inspires you now?
Greig: As an artist, or as a cyclist? I have always been a Francophile (another reason to combine art and cycling) and first discovered Eddy Merckx on a visit to Paris in 1976. But it wasn’t until cycling began to appear on American television – and with it Greg Lemond, the first American to win the Tour – that I had opportunity to see what the pro tour was about. And, while it may still be unpopular, I am a Lance Armstrong fan.
As for the arts, it is hard to say which artist provided inspiration as I started out. The artist who has had the largest influence on me is Wayne Thiebaud, but he is not the only one. The French Impressionists, the Fauvists (particularly Henri Matisse), then the American Ash Can school, with Francis Bacon and Thomas Hart Benton, have been the strongest influences. The main thing at the very core of my being is the need to make art. I draw daily, work from the figure, I approach the whole world visually.
Sheree: Do you still ride?
Greig: I usually manage 70-100 miles (110–160km) a week. Ironically, that is pretty tough to achieve during the grand tours. I don’t regard it as exercise – it’s my reward for getting things done. I still have the same feeling of freedom I first did as a kid. I can go anywhere I want and get there under my own power.
Sheree: When did you do your first cycling picture?
Greig: I still have a chalk pastel on black velvet paper that I did when I was around 15 years old. But the contemporary work started with the 2012 Tour de France when my wife, actress Bridget Gethins, suggested I paint the race and post the work up on Facebook. Her brilliant idea is what got this new ball rolling. But then all of my great ideas are hers!
Sheree: Do you have a favourite race?
Greig: I enjoy them all, but the Giro is my favourite of the grand tours because I was so taken with a particular moment in one stage. A single rider rode out ahead of the peloton as the race went through his home town on his birthday. Family and friends had gathered on the roadside with cake and pastries. He joined the celebration until the peloton arrived and they too stopped to join in passing around the trays of baked goods before getting back to the business at hand.
Of the spring classics, how could one not be a fan of Paris-Roubaix? And the Tour de France has always held a warm place in my heart, again because of my love of all things French, and it is where I learnt about the profession of cycling.
Sheree: What provides you with ideas during a race?
Greig: I look for what tells the story of the day’s racing, the stresses of the peloton, the mechanics, all of it. The images jump out at me as I am watching the race unfold. Sometimes I know when things will happen just by watching the roll of someone’s shoulders, or the sudden grouping of a particular team, but usually I see a move go, or a stunning moment of movement or colour. It all feeds into what I select. I watch with my finger perched over the pause button, be it the keyboard or the TV remote. It goes without saying that it’s the athletes, what they are capable of doing and the sacrifices of the team that are my real inspiration.
Sheree: How do you decide what medium to use for your work?
Greig: Mainly it is a question of scale, or need for speed. The Shiva Paintstiks (www.richesonart.com) are best for larger scale works (from 16”x20” up to 6’x10’). I have worked with them for a long time and create each work using only seven different colours, mixing them right on the surface of the work (Arches Tout en Cas 100% rag paper). The media is opaque and the work is created building layers of colour, manipulating the surface, almost sculpting the final image into existence. The method I use to apply the colour is just shy of finger-painting, think drawing meets painting mixed in with a little bit of (literally) hands-on contact with the paint and the paper.
The watercolours are best for smaller works (9”x12” and smaller). It’s transparent, fast, loose and almost instantaneous: no re-working, no correcting, no overworking. If you make a mistake you either live with it, or you throw the piece away. And believe me I have thrown a number away.
All of the work shares the narrative, the story-telling. All of the images are created from moments that have caught my interest. So the painting ‘Encounter Tops’ is from a sketch and memory from sitting in a café in East Berlin.
‘Children of the Gods’ was a scene I saw the first night I was cycling around Rome and saw lovers outside a bar.
My approach to the work is the same as for the WorldTour paintings.
Sheree: Your work hangs in a number of museums as well as private, public and corporate collections. How did that come about?
Greig: I have always believed that I need to paint what I want to paint, how I want to paint it and then figure out how to get the work out there. The exhibitions, collections, sales all grew out of taking advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. I hesitate to use the work lucky, certainly chance encounters have played a part, but then I acted on the meeting, had the drive to do something with the opportunity and the art in the studio to back up what I had to say.
To illustrate what I am saying, I worked as a waiter when I first started out and, as I approached a table, one customer was telling the other how much she liked a particular artist’s painting. I couldn’t help myself and told them how much I admired the artist (Philip Pearlstein). She replied that she owned the gallery his work was hanging in. Well in for a dime in for a dollar, so I told her I was an artist. She politely told me to bring some work by some time. I was there the next morning with an armful of art. That led to a long association with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, each step building on the previous one.
Sheree: You’ve kicked off 2014 with the Tour Down Under. What’s next?
Greig: I plan to capture the Sochi Winter Olympics in watercolour before returning to cycling with some of the spring classics followed by the Giro, the Tour, one of the US races and the Worlds. I’m also working with Shadetree Sports (the group responsible for the start of the Giro in Northern Ireland). We will be offering five different T-shirts that include my paintings; three that focus on the landmarks featured in the Irish stages and two that integrate my art and the Big Start logo. In addition we will be selling packs of ten printed postcards from my paintings of the 2013 Giro – one different pack for each week of the race.
Sheree: We always ask photographers/illustrators/painters to pick out five of their favourite pieces – what are yours?
Greig: Oh jeez. That is hard. Each painting teaches me, both what I know and what I have yet to learn. ‘Rocking and Rolling’, ‘It’s All in the Touch’, ‘Take Five’ are three of the Shiva Paintstiks works that I am fond of.
The watercolours … how about ‘Bringing Home the Jersey’ from the Tour Down Under and ‘One K to Go’ from the 2013 Tour de France.
I really like all of the cycling watercolours, so that selection was almost random.
Sheree: Of course, you have the Road World Championships in 2015 to look forward to in your home town of Richmond, Virginia. Have you been involved in any way with that whole event?
Greig: There are a number of projects in the works for 2015 Worlds. Most recently I created an original watercolour that was used for their 2013 Christmas card and we’re talking about a number of other ways that the image will be used. I have created the cover for a book about cycling in Richmond to be released during the Worlds. Naturally, I plan to be the artist of the 2015 Worlds, painting from both live and video feeds. With the racing a year-and-a-half out, there’s still a lot to explore.
Sheree: Greig, thank you for your time. It’s been a fascinating insight into the creative process and we’ll be looking out for further examples of your work in the run up to the 2015 Road World Championships.
All works copyright Greig Leach.