Liam Nunan

Self-portrait by artist Liam Nunan

Growing up in a television-free home encouraged Liam Nunan to seek out alternate forms of entertainment. “I got pretty good at drawing at a young age and gravitated towards the more creative subjects at school,” he recalls. “But while I loved studying art, by the end of Year 12 I couldn’t really see myself pursuing it as a career.

In any case, Liam had discovered theatre: “I had been pushed into a school production of West Side Story by a music teacher and, as far as I was concerned, this was it!”

After spending a couple of years acting in Brisbane, Liam moved to Sydney in 2010 to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). A decade later, he was feeling creatively unfulfilled in the long periods between acting jobs, so bought some pencils and a sketch pad, and went to his first life drawing class.

“I was obsessed – I was going to classes once, then twice, then three times a week,” says Liam. “Pretty soon I was experimenting with paints and pastels and going to various short courses, but it was difficult to find space enough to work in my share house, and the living room was beginning to smelt like turps.”

In late 2019, Liam reached out to Lennox Street Studios, in the Sydney suburb of Newtown, and decided to take a space on a three-month trial basis – the idea being to see how productive he would be.
A month later, Liam had completed his first painting and entered the Lester Prize for portraiture, which he won. “With the financial benefit of that prize, I suddenly had the time and resources to really immerse myself in painting,” he adds. “Also, Covid happened, so what else was I going to do!”

Liam has been painting from Lennox Street Studios ever since. Here he reveals how much time he spends at the easel, the advantages of being surrounded by a community of artists, and what winning his first art prize meant in practical terms.

Interview by Lisa Doust

Has your acting career had any influence on your art?

As well as discipline, the biggest lesson I learned as an actor is how to adapt my creative process. Every show comes with a whole new team of artists with their own preferred way of working. The process that gets you from day one of rehearsals to closing night is always different from the last show you did, and to be able to embrace each show’s unique process, you need a sense of play. I think that has helped inform how I paint.

Describe your painting style and favourite subject matter.

My style still wavers and people often comment that a lot of my work doesn’t look like it’s by the same artist. I don’t think of this as an issue – I love jumping around and trying new things, and I love being surprised at how something turns out.

In terms of subject matter, that wavers as well. I’ll often be obsessed with a particular subject for a while and then move on to a new obsession. I jump around from landscape to still life to portraits and figurative work.

Have you had any formal art training?

I haven’t done any long periods of training, but I’ve done some short courses at NAS (National Art School) and Julian Ashton Art School. I like to do one or two courses at the beginning of the year and highly recommend them.

What are the benefits of being surrounded by a large collective of artists?

Lennox Street Studios is an old school building that is now a community of about 40 artists. When I first joined, being still so new to painting it was great to have people around. Painting is quite solitary compared to the collaborative nature of acting, so it was really helpful having other artists close by that I could learn and receive feedback from.

We have an Open Studio weekend every November, which is a great opportunity to exhibit and sell work.

When did you sell your first painting, and how long did it take you to get to this point?

I was selling the odd piece quite early into my art journey, but it was mostly to close friends and family and making just enough to buy some new materials. I started to sell work outside of my support circle at the Open Studio weekends, and then more frequently over Instagram.

What is the primary way you sell and promote your work now?

I sell through group and solo shows, but mainly through Instagram. Early on, when I started life drawing, I would post all my favourite sketches right after the session and every now and then a friend would ask to buy one. I continued to post my work as I began painting. As my follower base grew, I’d get more people contacting me to buy work.

I tend to sell during two points of the year – one is the Open Studio weekend in November and the other is around May. I also promote my work over Instagram leading up to these events. Then, scattered over the year, I may have pieces in group shows and art prizes.

Art prizes are a great way to help accumulate a following and legitimise your work in the eyes of potential buyers. I’ll often get inquiries through Instagram about purchasing my finalist pieces.

So, what were the additional benefits of winning your first art prize?

I think it’s fair to acknowledge that I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for that win so early in my career. I was pretty frugal with my winnings, but I did allow myself the luxury of buying the best materials and using them with total abandon.

Prior to the prize I was very hesitant in my painting, all too aware of how much each mistake was costing me. Being able to let go of that worry allowed me to relax into my work and be more playful and gestural, and less afraid of failure.

Roughly how many hours a week do you paint?

I try to keep my practice Monday to Friday. I tend to get to the studio at about midday and work until 6 or 7pm, and I listen to music and podcasts while I’m painting. My brain starts to fog over after about six hours, although some days it’s just working for some reason, so it turns into an all-nighter.

What do you find to be the biggest challenges of being an artist?

My biggest challenge is surrendering to viewers’ want for explanations. Artist statements and any sort of residency or grant application present the most difficulty. I really struggle breaking down and analysing exactly how and why I came to paint a particular subject.

One reason is that I often don’t know why I’ve painted something until a long time after, or sometimes never at all. Other times I know full well the reasoning but may not be all that comfortable sharing something so personal.

I totally understand this is something I have to get over, so I try to think of artist statements as part of the marketing side of my job rather than the creative side.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given about advancing your art career?

Care less about appeasing others. Stay true to yourself and your practice. Paint what you want and what you are drawn to, not what you think you should be painting. I would also extend that to art prizes – try not to predict what people will want to see.

Also, be extremely selective as to who you ask for feedback from. Take negative feedback with a grain of salt and positive feedback with a grain of pepper!

Follow Liam via @liam_nunan or visit