Naomi Tomkys is compelled to paint with a passion. Her fast-paced conversation exudes joy, and is peppered with sensory words (like ‘delicious’ to describe her subjects) and analogies to tasty food and rich smells. It's hard not to smile, which is exactly what she wants us to do. ‘I want people to feel happy when they see my work’ she says. 'I’m not interested in self-reflection; things can get dark and bad for all of us, but painting for me is about finding the best moments, such as a couple on a first date. That warm rush is what I want to share, and what I want to spend my time doing’.
Tomkys grew up in London where she attended Central St. Martins School of Art. She now lives and works in Cambridgeshire and her inspiration comes from small day-to-day moments that make her happy. Her exhibition at the Granary includes paintings of tourists, punters, festival-goers, art-viewers and circus performers. There are pictures of queues at food vans, people chatting, dancing, drinking, looking at their phones. Life is recalled with relish and empathy for the human race through comforting images of things that we already know. ‘There are marvellous spots in Cambridge for people watching’ says Tomkys. ‘King’s Parade is excellent, the Fitzwilliam Museum, fairs… I take photos and I’m constantly sketching.'
She cites the cinematic style and the love-of-the-everyday of Edward Hopper as inspiration. Hopper eschewed statements like New York’s world-famous skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge, favouring overlooked vistas more familiar to those who live and work in the City. Tomkys also finds inspiration in the local, the ordinary and the habitual. But where Hopper made solitude his life’s work, Tomkys is drawn to the idea of people having a good time and enjoying one another's company. Tomkys replaces the psychological anxiety of Hopper - the sense of repressed stories - with subjects who appear relaxed and fully living in the present. It's a believable world: one you could step into, and the characters are painted in a realist style which suggests they have thoughts, self-awareness and inner lives.
These stories of people are a driving creative force in Tomkys’ paintings. ‘Mostly, I don’t know my subjects’. she explains, ‘so I constantly make up backstories for the people I paint. This ‘people-watching’ game and the making up of stories is something I've done all my life. I create characters from my sketches but I do move them around quite a bit. They become like toys. I paint the scene and then bring the characters into it. I started off working in production design for film and TV so I guess there’s a shorthand in play which I’ve picked up’.
Painting the scene is a question of finding the right colours and textures, a process Tomkys likens to an overlapping of the senses. ‘The punting paintings feel like chocolates in a little box on the water, and the Fitzwilliam paintings have the muted pastel colours of Party Ring biscuits’ she says. ‘The most important part is the background colours. The Fitz has a beautiful Victorian continuity about it. The colours in these pictures had to be strong, flat and opaque in contrast to the old gilt frames which have a sort of rich ‘Sunday Roast’ flavour to them. When all the paintings are hung together it makes total sense and I hope that the viewer experiences what I did in the museum’.
What's the most rewarding part of painting? I ask. ‘It’s the process’ she says, after some thought. ‘Not so much the actual completion, but knowing when it is complete; when to stop waffling. I was teaching sketching to a group of children recently and showed them how to capture a character in 10 seconds. When they had finished, they asked if I wanted to see their work. No, you can throw it away, I told them. Whatever you have learned from it has already taken place. That’s what painting is. When I believe that I have said what I wanted to say, that's such a good feeling. And then I move on.'
Exhibition runs 1 September - 11 November 2023