Chrissie Hynde always thought she would get into painting, but, as she writes in the introduction to Adding the Blue, a new book of her oil paintings, ‘I got waylaid by rock’n’roll’.
Painting requires solitude and space, she notes, a luxury that she has only recently acquired, now that her children have grown up and she has moved to a flat with its own studio. ‘That’s when the floodgates opened.’
Music has consumed some four decades of Hynde’s life. As singer with the Pretenders, she has enjoyed worldwide hits including ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ and ‘I’ll Stand by You’, performed with Frank Sinatra, U2 and Cher, and filled stadiums around the world.
But today she is in repose; the guitar sits in its stand. Her home is full of sunshine and smells of the rich medley of oil paints that are smeared over a large palette board. On her coffee table are books on the artists of fin-de-siècle Paris and Vincent van Gogh’s time in Arles. And her studio is stacked with canvases, a body of work produced in the past few years.
Sitting barefoot in an armchair, Hynde brings her trademark take on rock chic to the traditional image of the amateur painter. She wears black jeans, black T-shirt, black eyeliner. But, in the stacks around us, her works glow with vibrant shades of orange, yellow, purple and green: still lifes of flowers and pots, stylised portraits and nudes, and bold abstract forms.
Does she ever turn her eye to the rattle and hum of the city streets outside her windows? ‘I did paint those buses one day.’ She points out the passing double-deckers. ‘I gave it to my grandson, because he loves buses.’
Born in Ohio in 1951, Hynde studied fine and professional arts at Kent State University. ‘I don’t think I ever went to a class,’ she says. ‘I took a lot of drugs and dropped out.’ Moving to London in the late 1970s, she modelled for life-drawing classes at St Martin’s School of Art, turning to her own works between sittings. ‘No offence to them, they were fashion students, but none of them could draw.’
For most of her career, however, thoughts of art were little more than a flicker on the back burner. ‘Once in a while I’d do a sketch of someone,’ she says. ‘Over the years I might have sketched an engineer or someone.’ But it wasn’t as if she was on the tour bus with her easel and oils.
‘I'm very aware of people who’ve been in a barn painting for 20 years thinking, “Where's my piece of the action?” I’m not trying to make a name for myself as a painter’
There is, however, a long tradition of rock’n’roll artists that has included Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Ronnie Wood, David Bowie, Cat Stevens and Miles Davis. ‘I’ve seen Dylan’s work, he showed me some sketches once,’ says Hynde.
She acknowledges that the publication of Adding the Blue is down to her fame, rather than a reputation in the visual arts: ‘I’m very aware of people who’ve been in a barn painting for 20 years thinking, “Where’s my piece of the action?” I’m not trying to make a name for myself as a painter. I just started doing it and then I couldn’t stop.’
Her walls are largely whitewashed and bare — a striking Aboriginal painting of tobacco fields is a rare exception — and she doesn’t socialise in the art world. ‘Those guys in Montmartre, Picasso and all those, they really were hanging out,’ she remarks. ‘That’s because they didn’t have rock’n’roll. I reckon that if you put them in the Sixties they’d have all been in bands.’
The celebrated musician and record producer Brian Eno says that Hynde’s autodidactic approach to painting — ‘I’m just finding my way with it,’ she says — is entirely in keeping with the rock ethos. ‘Here’s brilliant, fully awake Chrissie making her outsider paintings in much the same way she makes her outsider music,’ says Eno. ‘With no formal training, but a volcano of enthusiasm.’
Van Gogh personifies the changeable value — cultural and financial — of art, says Hynde. ‘The people who wouldn’t have sat down with him at a dinner party when he was painting — which was everybody — they would now sell their wife to own one of his paintings.’
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Performing in a rock group, she says, is a little like being in a pack of dogs as it pulls a sled over a hill. It delivers a collaborative kick. Whereas each painting is guided by her own singular impulse. ‘Sometimes I don’t really know what it’s about until it’s finished. That’s how painting works,’ she says. ‘If you don’t want to look at it every day, it doesn’t mean anything. I look at a lot of people who say they’re artists and I think they’re phonies. But then I think that about a lot of musicians, too.’
Adding the Blue by Chrissie Hynde, the signed, limited-edition book and print set, is now available from Genesis Publications at www.addingtheblue.com