Lancashire-born Michael Ashcroft has won a slew of awards over the years for his paintings of the landscapes and cities of the North West, establishing him as one of the most successful artists in the region.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of his work. His bold use of colour and knack for capturing light bring the streets of the city to life, elevating everyday situations to scenes worth celebrating. In the Instagram age of hyper-stylised photography, it’s a rare thrill to see familiar sights depicted on canvas.

Michael’s latest exhibition, This is Manchester, is a selection of paintings from three series: ‘Painting my Favourite Pubs’, ‘Manchester From Afar’ and ‘After the Rain’. We caught up with him to learn about what inspires him, his love for the city and what to expect next.

Why Manchester?

I was always fascinated with Manchester as a child – the bright lights of the big city, as it were – but we very rarely went as a family, so if we did go it was always a big occasion.

It became more prominent in my life when I was diagnosed with a large tumour behind my left ear and I was referred to Manchester Royal Infirmary for the operation. I spent two weeks in hospital, which was the longest time I had spent in Manchester. I used to enjoy watching the cars and people go about their business outside and just wanted to be back out there.

The year was 1998 and it wasn’t long after the bomb had hit Manchester, so the city was going through a regeneration period and building itself back up, and so was I.

I thought I would have turned away from Manchester, what with the operation and all the hospital visits, but I actually grew to love it more and more. I always visited the Whitworth Art Gallery whenever I was there for a check-up, so I always left the city with a good feeling. It was there my passion for art grew stronger as did my love for this great city.

What’s your favourite piece in this exhibition?

It’s difficult to say which is my favourite piece, but if I had to choose one I would say the small Gas Lamp painting. I really wanted to paint this pub as it reminded me of afternoons with mates having a pint or two. It was tricky though, as it is just a front fascia and quite grey walls. The painting needed some colour, so I decided to put a pint on the pavement – was it enticing people in or had somebody left it there? It was a bit quirky, but I like the mystery and it added the splash of colour I needed!

 

 

How do you select what to paint?

I always carry a camera and sketch pad around with me, so whenever something catches my eye I can make a record of what I have seen. I keep a list of good painting places too, so when I am out I can head there straight away without any hesitation.

What draws you to painting cities?

As a young kid I always had a fascination for lights and the hustle and bustle of a city. I used to love people watching (and still do), and whenever I’m driving into a city now I still get those same feelings as youngster growing up. The thing about Manchester is that it has never stood still. It’s always changing, and I love that. I am recording what I see at the time, in the present day, and that’s what my work is about. I’m sure it will look completely different in another 100 years and there will be another artist hopefully doing the same thing.

Your paintings are often compared to those of Edward Hopper. Does this resonate with you?

Yes, Edward Hopper has had a big influence on my work. One of my favourite paintings of all time is Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, and I always wanted to replicate my own version one day. I was always looking out for a similar building with the right lighting and then one day I saw it. It was the Pret a Manger building on Cross Street, so I painted it and called it Sleepless Nights.

If you could offer one piece of advice to budding local artists, what would it be?

The one piece of advice I always give to artists is to try to paint from life whenever possible. After my operation in 1998, I started life drawing on a regular basis which I still do today. I use all kinds of media now to help my work, but you must paint from life, even if it’s just once a week. You will definitely see an improvement in your work if you achieve this.

What’s next for you?

The next project I’m going to work on is a large series of New York paintings. It’s a city that I connect with and I think it will suit my style of painting. It has a similar vibe to Manchester, especially around the Meatpacking District, which reminds me of the Northern Quarter. I have already started the work and it’s coming on nicely. I’m planning another trip early next year to do some small oil studies which I can bring back to the studio and work up to bigger paintings. It’s very exciting and I consider myself very lucky to be doing a job that I love.

This is Manchester runs at Contemporary Six Gallery from 1-14 November 2018.

Jane Walton