Oi Polloi

Interview: Clay Whitter

Published: Tue Jan 06 2015

Anyone who’s eagerly turned the pages of our latest Pica~Post opus will probably have noticed some mighty fine pencil drawings by a man named Clay Whitter. Not your usual twiddly illustrator, Clay is a master of photorealism, and can often be found plying his trade slap-bang in the middle of Manchester’s busiest street. You could say that the streets are his studio, but he also has a studio — so technically his studio is his studio.

Anyway, we casually interrogated him and here’s what he had to say for himself…

How long have you been drawing.

Always — I was screened for autism as a toddler because of it — because I used to kick off if someone interrupted me when I was trying to draw. It was little things, like they’d tell me to draw a car, and I’d start drawing the road, whereas most kids would just draw the car.

I was put into art classes after school. Because we lived on quite a rough estate my dad made sure we had something to do every night. We did boxing on Monday, running on Tuesday and art on Wednesday. This made us very competitive.

Where abouts is this?

I grew up in Little Hulton. By nine I was doing oil paintings and when I was 10 I was in an exhibition in Swinton town hall. I painted men on a yacht in bad weather, which is maybe not something you’d think a 10 year old would paint.

Was this something you just thought up or did you use photos?

I’ve always worked from photographs. Most kids can’t read an image, but I was doing it from a young age. Being a good copy artist isn’t in the actual laying down of marks, it’s in the reading of the marks and breaking down how to lay them down.

It’s like taking a novel written in Greek and translating it to English. You’ve not got a single pencil line within you, but if I was to draw you it would be in pencil — how do you create a mark to represent that?

Do you do that Tony Hart thing where you split people up into circles and triangles and that?

The ‘can you tell what it is yet’ kind of thing? Sometimes I’ll do that; it’ll depend on the piece. I do that for effect when I’m out on the street. I can physically see how big something is, but for show I exaggerate.

How I draw on the street is not how I draw in the studio. You’d never draw like that in a million years, but if you just sat there it would be boring to watch — you exaggerate, you make bold strokes, you dance around. There’s a lot of measuring but it’s just part of the performance.

How long have you been drawing in the street?

I had friends who’d done it for years and they said, “Go out, you’ll earn a fortune.” But I couldn’t stand people looking at me in the street, never mind going out and having crowds looking at me — I was quite antisocial when I was younger. But the acting made it possible. And then going out on the street has helped me no end with stage work. Everyone who’s going out on the stage in the plays I’m in is full of nerves, but because I’m out in front of an audience so much I just feel at home.

I started acting in 2008 and it was about 18 months later that I realised that if I could go out on a stage and be stared at, then I could go out on the street and be stared at.

You’re usually on Market Street aren’t you?

Yeah, Market Street and Liverpool. The poorer the area, the more you’ll earn. Poorer people emphasise with poverty more so they’ll chip up and donate. Money brings a lack of empathy. You do get the odd rich person who’ll throw in a tenner, but the looser pockets are usually on the poorer people. I’ve had recovering heroin addicts put a tenner in the pot and then I’ve got posh people pulling out five pence in coppers.

How long would you go out on a day?

I go at peak times. You earn more midday to later in the day then you do in the morning. People have already bought what they came into town to buy, they know what they’ve spent and they know what they’ve got left. In the morning they’ve not yet got the coat they come to town for.

That makes sense, once you’ve got change you can throw a few quid in. Do you get much hassle at all?

No, I’m quite capable of looking after myself. I’ve had a couple of incidents — the first time I was in Liverpool I was surrounded by 30 football fans. I gripped one of them by the throat and he went limp in my hand.

What was he doing?

He picked my money up. He wasn’t expecting me to do anything but I just jumped up and grabbed him. The next thing I’ve got thirty odd football fans running at me, but then a hen do came from behind me and laid in to the football fans. I’ve never had a problem since. This was the first day so I was thinking, “Liverpool is out of the question.” But that day I earned 95 quid in two hours, which is a lot more then I get in Manchester, so even if I had to fend the odd dickhead off, it would be worth it. Ever since it’s been okay though.

Market Street has definitely got a lot busier with buskers and that sort of thing. Do you feel that you’ve got to compete with everyone else out there?

Now I do, yeah. I’ve had people come up and quiz me about how much I earn and then the next day they’ll come up, and lay work that’s very similar to mine, next to mine. These middle class posh birds who you think are just asking out of interest and they’re really thinking, “I’ll have your patch.”

Yeah it does seem like it’s got a lot more intense down there.

They’ve seen me and Tony do it and now every man and his dog is having a go.

When you’re in the street do you have to change your style a bit for the crowd? What sort of paintings do you do?

Popular culture. Anything more and I’d have to explain it every few minutes. The worst thing about doing that job is the questions.

Why, what are they saying? Give us some examples.

The best one I get is, “Are you an artist?” That is the number one stupid question. You’re there doing art work with tonnes of art work around you and they’re asking if you’re an artist. I just say that I’m an actor and carry on, because first and foremost, I am an actor. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer, even if my stupid answer is actually correct.

Do you find drawing relaxing?

Yeah. I always have. Even as a child it was my escape. I think I’m quite lucky, because a lot of people I grew up with ended up with problems, and I would have been the one you would have put money on ending up with the worst problem of all, but having things to put my energy into definitely helped.

You’ve just had an exhibition in town. What do you think you’ll do next?

I’ve just gone and bought a tattoo studio. Within the next year that’s what I’m hopefully going to pursue. I’ve got a fair few guinea pigs lined up. That’s what everyone got for Christmas. I’ve done a few before and I don’t think swapping from pencil to gun should be too hard. Give me a year and I should be up there.

See Clay’s drawings in Pica~Post No.8

Photos courtesy of Mike Sallabank