Positioning Art for the Real World

By Grace Kirk/ Visual Arts
British born Lincoln Townley is a world-recognised contemporary artist that has been referred to as the next Andy Warhol by Sir Michael Cain. Townley visited QUT Creative Industries as part of his past trip to Brisbane to promote his first ever Australian exhibition, held at Brisbane Powerhouse.

At QUT he delivered an intimate presentation to Visual Arts students, giving them insights into his life as an artist and advice on how to make a livelihood from a creative career.

The pop-culture artist shared with students his fascinating success story; the importance of determination and self belief; his business approach to selling art; and the disconnect between his commercial and personal work.

Lincoln Townley in discussion with QUT academic Charles Robb

About Lincoln Townley

Finding success in the world of modern art is a challenge familiar to Townley, who lacks traditional artistic training. Despite this, he has built a lucrative art career out of sheer determination and self-belief.

According to his biography, it is “persistence in the face of uncertainty” that defines him.

The story of his success has been built from constant rejection. In a relaxed and approachable classroom setting, Townley shared with QUT Visual Arts students his fascinating story. He revealed how in the space of six years he went from being a club promoter with alcohol and drug addictions, to a world famous artist.

As a child, Townley was introduced to art by his grandfather, who would teach him how to paint on the weekends and discuss with him the methodology and practice of art.

As a young teen, Townley had every intention of studying art at college. The unexpected death of his father changed the trajectory of his life. Instead of sitting his final exams for school, Townley instead had the responsibility of working and making an income. That was the beginning of his career in sales, something that has, in many ways, defined his approach to art.

That was the beginning of his career in sales, something that has, in many ways, defined his approach to art.

In his twenties Townley began working in the night club scene of Soho in London, a place which he describes as “toxic”. He worked in marketing and promotional roles for several years before he was fired. It was this moment that defined his future, as he decided to pursue art full time. He wrote a memoir, The Hunger, which is about the underworld of Soho and his problems with addiction. The book was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014 and the advance from them gave Townley the luxury to dedicate eight months to making a livelihood out of art.

Townley believes that if he had started another job in that eight-month time frame he would not have become an artist. He had to fully embrace his art practice.

He found himself a studio in Manchester and began considering how he could make a living from art. Building off his background in sales, Townley was strategic in his approach to make commercially viable art by reaching out to public spaces and hotels.

His first traction as an artist began in late 2014 when he was commissioned by his friend Russell Brand to paint a portrait that would be auctioned off for charity. Proceeds of the $20,000 sale went to addiction charity the Abstinence-Based Recovery Trust, a cause familiar to both him and Russell Brand.

This one celebrity portrait set off a sequence of celebrity portraits of A-listers, including, Sir Michael Caine, Charlie Sheen, Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. Townley found that making this artwork elevated his own status to that of the associated famous actor he was painting.

He had created himself a market to exist in and he was making a name for himself as one this generation’s popular culture artists.

While it sounds like a seamless transition to artistic fame, Townley’s story is firstly one of rejection, determination and self-belief. He describes the whole process as a “mind over matter numbers games”.

Lincoln Townley Workshop at QUT

Charles Robb introduces Lincoln Townley to students

 When asked by one of the students if constantly being rejected made him begin to doubt himself, he replied philosophically “you look forward to a no, because that is bringing you closer to a yes.”

At the time, he was making a documentary called 93 No’s, which tells the story of his initial rejection from the art world. When he first decided to pursue art he mapped out 93 art galleries in London and went to visit them in person with three paintings in his suitcase. He often wouldn’t make it past the front door, and when he did, the first question asked would be about his formal training, of which he had none.

Townley believes that a key insight artists can’t get from formal training is the ability to position their work in the real world. He believes that artists often believe in their work, but not themselves.

“You can have all the training, but if you don’t have the belief that you can promote yourself, then forget it,” Townley told the QUT students.

According to Townley the art world is changing for the better, and thanks to technology, artists are now more empowered than ever. The nature of exclusive agreements with galleries is changing as the internet allows artists to sell directly to their buyers.

Townley is consistently drawing on his background in business. He has a database of his buyers of both his commercial and more personal artworks, and actively contacts them and keeps them updated about his story and his works.

The Surprise Collection at Brisbane Powerhouse

Work from Lincoln Townley’s The Surprise Collection


Most well known for his celebrity portraits, Townley also paints a series of what he describes as his personal work. It is Townley’s commercial success from his celebrity portraits which has afforded him the luxury to also pursue his ‘personal work’ he told QUT students.

Townley views his commercial work and his personal work, including The Surprise Collection, currently exhibited at Brisbane Powerhouse, as very different. He even has two separate studios to be able to embrace the different creative processes.

His personal work is a natural expression of himself. The works are about human desire to consume, whether it is alcohol, drugs, sex or money. The Surprise Collection, which he describes as “dark”, is a reflection of his own career path as an artist, which is about not taking no for an answer and about taking control of our lives.

In this YouTube video Lincoln explains that surprise, by definition, is about a lack of control.