Work ethic

He committed to painting two paintings a week, despite working at a full-time job on the side.
Sun Above Nant Peris, Sir Kyffin Williams, RA (courtesy Rowles Fine Art)

Sir John “Kyffin” Williams was a landscape painter who lived at Pwllfanogl, Llanfairpwll, on the island of Anglesey. He is widely regarded as the greatest Welsh artist of the 20th century. (If you’re like me, this is the moment where you first come to grips with the idea that there is a Welsh school of painting at all.)

His painting looks a great deal like the lunchtime noodling of my young friend Zac Retz. Zac is a video developer at Sony Pictures Animation. He has a brother, Tad, who’s equally talented as a painter. However, Tad’s work in the ‘real’ medium of paint doesn’t look quite as much like Sir Kyffin’s paintings as Zac’s electronic paintings do.
Fedw Fawr, Sir Kyffin Williams, RA (courtesy Thompson’s Galleries)
That has something to do with their toolkits. Zac’s electronic brush works more like a palette knife than a real-world brush. Sir Kyffin relied heavily on black, which is frowned upon in contemporary painting but not in electronic art. Sir Kyffin’s work looks very contemporary to modern eyes.
It’s not just the technical side of Sir Kyffin’s paintings that compels, but his attitude toward the craft of painting.
Sir Kyffin was born on Anglesey in May of 1918. He joined the 6th Battalion Royal Welsh in 1937, intending to make a career in the military. He failed his medical examination of 1941 due to epilepsy and was forced to retire.
Morfa Conwy, Sir Kyffin Williams, RA (courtesy Christies)
His doctors advised that he take up art for his health, intending it as a hobby. Instead, Kyffin scraped his way into London’s Slade School of Fine Art, despite an indifferent academic record. He went on to be senior art master at Highgate School from 1944 until 1973, at which point he was famous as a painter. Sir Kyffin died on Anglesey at age 88, leaving his entire fortune of £6m in paintings and other assets to Welsh arts organizations.
Knighted in 1999, Sir Kyffin was a Royal Academician and Honorary Fellow of the University of Wales Colleges, Swansea, Bangor and Aberystwyth.
Sir Kyffin was a highly-disciplined painter, setting himself up a target of completing two paintings a week while teaching at Highgate. He kept this rate of production up through his lifetime.
Mount Snowdon from Nantlle, Sir Kyffin Williams, RA
“I never had to think what shall I paint,” he said. “I don’t think how I should paint it. The whole thing to me somehow is far too natural a thing. It is there and I am the vehicle for expressing it.”
He was a self-described depressive and obsessive. “I paint for kicks rather like Van Gogh painted for kicks—excitement. Maybe if you’re an epileptic you crave excitement,” he said. “And I wanted the excitement of a strong dark against the bright light. It does something for me like other people take alcohol.”
David Wynn Meredith was interviewed by the BBClast week about Sir Kyffin. “He believed that you had to love your subject matter, and if you don’t love anything you can’t communicate,” he said.
“And Kyffin certainly did love. He loved people, he loved the mountains, he loved the seascapes. He was totally committed to his craft as a painter. Painting was his life. And he viewed it not in any emotional way at all. As he often said, ‘it’s my job.’”