The fine art of Wood's work

Ron Wood is excited about his upcoming Irish show - and then there is the small matter of that Slane thing to deal with

Ron Wood is excited about his upcoming Irish show - and then there is the small matter of that Slane thing to deal with. He talks paint, portraits and ballerinas to Kevin Courtney

It's Wednesday, and Ronnie Wood can hardly contain his excitement. There's just a couple of days to go before his big Irish show, and he's really getting fired up for it. No, it's not Saturday's Rolling Stones gig at Slane Castle that has him dizzy with anticipation - it's the opening of his new exhibition of paintings in Dublin the day before. Rock'n'roll? Sure, that's a doddle - Wood's played so many gigs now he could do it in his sleep. But it's not every day that he gets to open a major exhibition of his own work - and in his adopted home country.

"I'm here in Hamburg with the band at the moment, and we've got one more show tonight," the geezer voice comes affably down the phone line. "And then I'm coming back to dear old Ireland with some of the guys. I'll be hitting my house [ near Prosperous in Co Kildare] in the early hours of tomorrow morning, and then I'm gonna spend the day at my ranch with the horses. And on Friday I hit it for the exhibition, and on Saturday I hit it again for the concert in Slane."

Most rock fans will be aware of Ron Wood's sideline as an artist, and many will have seen his paintings of famous friends such as Jimi Hendrix, Jack Nicholson, Keith Moon, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, fellow Rolling Stones, horses, tigers and elephants - every species of rock'n'roll animal. Long before he learnt to play guitar, Wood was painting and drawing; such is his passion for it, he'll probably still be picking up the paintbrush long after he's put down the guitar for good.


Wood's exhibition opens today at the Project Office in Dublin's Temple Bar, and the man himself was there to see his babies going up on the wall. Among the works on display are recently completed portraits of the Rolling Stones in action on their current Bigger Bang tour. With such a gruelling tour schedule, you'd think he wouldn't have time to scribble a set-list, let alone produce a whole series of studies of the band in concert and in repose.

"We had a break around my 60th birthday in June. I had 10 days at home, and I managed to finish 20 new works - some ballet studies, studies of Mick, Keith, Charlie, Darryl and Bernard [ bassist Darryl Jones and backing vocalist Bernard Fowler, who play in the Stones' touring band] and some horses down in the Curragh around the time of the Irish derby. So I got a really good warm-up for this exhibition."

At first glance, Wood's work seems like pretty standard stuff - straightforward representations of people and creatures. He say he's influenced by the impressionists, but there are few abstract or impressionistic touches in these simple, almost naively uncomplicated paintings. Don't know how an art critic would respond, but a rock critic might say they're more Status Quo than Led Zeppelin; but though Wood will hardly oust the established artists of the day, he's still a dab hand with the paintbrush, and he's well capable of catching a ballerina in full flight, a horse in full gallop, and a Mick or a Keef in full flow. "I love movement - every species of animal has their own way of moving, and I try to capture that."

LIKE MANY ENGLISH rockers from the 1960s, the Middlesex-born Wood has art-school roots - he studied at Ealing College of Art in London. When he joined the Jeff Beck Group as bassist along with Rod Stewart, he kept on painting and drawing - many of his portraits are frozen cameos of a golden age in rock history. He starts many of his works by simply sketching band members while they relax between tour dates.

"They didn't like it at first when I started sketching them.Sometimes they'd agree to sit for it, but mostly I would draw them during rehearsals when they'd be sitting still for a few hours, or maybe I'd catch them in repose, reading a book or just crashed out. I don't plan it - I'll just see something and get out the sketchbook. I've always wanted to get a painting into the National Portrait Gallery, so I asked Jagger if I could do him and he said yes. So after this tour is over I'm gonna hold him to it."

Since he can't be physically in the audience at a Rolling Stones gig, painting his own band in action is probably the nearest Wood will get to recreating the feeling of watching The Rolling Stones performing on stage - in this respect, such paintings as Bigger Bang could be termed impressionist.

"I get reports from people in the audience as to how it all looked - I can't see the stuff projected behind me cos I'm busy playing the guitar, but I get an idea of what it looked like from talking to people.

"I also freeze-frame bits from film footage of the concert, or look at a bunch of photos taken at the concert - in recent ones I've been doing it almost like a collage, with all the elements on stage in there, and maybe a big-screen detail of a guitar, as it might look projected on the backdrop."

The exhibition may only attract a fraction of the fans who are heading to Slane tomorrow, but if a few of them go home with their own unique tour picture, reasonably priced, it'll be a good week's work for Wood. Collectors can get a head-and-shoulders of Mick for £675 (€998) , or Mick with a harmonica for £2,950 (€4,362). If you want to really splash out, there's a special edition portrait of the Stones in sepia for a cool £5,000 (€7,393).

Since the day job is going so well, Wood hardly needs the money; in fact, he's sometimes sorry to see some of his paintings go. "I get an air of disappointment when one of them sells," he admits. "It's great that someone likes it enough to buy it, but it's like losing a friend. I'd hear about a painting being sold and I'd go, f*** the money - my lovely painting's gone. It's never been about the money for me. Even when I was a kid I used to paint signs for the pet shop or the fete or the local radio and TV shop. I'd be painting these massive letters on the front of the shop and I'd feel like Michelangelo doing the Sistine chapel. It was the satisfaction of doing the work that really excited me."

The most money he's ever received for a painting was $1,000,000, for his Beggars' Banquet; I'll bet that made him feel like Michelangelo. "That's not bad, to sell a painting for a million in your lifetime," he agrees. "I had all these people bidding against each other, including an American doctor who's my biggest collector. It's a huge compliment when people bid for your work. I also get a lot of people offering me commissions - recently someone asked me to do a portrait of Queen [ the rock band, not the British monarch].

"But I need to be inspired - I need to do what I want to do, not what someone else wants me to do. With painting, you never reach a point when it gets tiresome or unsatisfying - I never feel I'll ever do a painting and say, that's it, I can't improve on that, and that's what keeps it interesting for me. It's the same with music. Even after 30 years playing with the Stones, you're still learning every time you go out on stage. You should see us backstage putting together the set-list, and one of us will go, 'shit, I haven't played that song in 20 years, how does it go again?' Sometimes we have to go right back to the drawing board."

WHEN HE GETS TIME, Wood plans to "do a Michelangelo" on the domed ceiling of the music room in his house, although angels and biblical figures probably won't feature. "I might do the band looking down as if from a balcony - that'd be cool," he laughs. "I got inspired when I saw some ceilings done by Goya in Madrid - they're not quite as involved as the Sistine chapel."

He's also planning to add some contemporary rock'n'roll names to his portfolio. "I'd love to do Pete Doherty again - I did him before as a pirate, around the time I did Charlie as a jazzman and Mick as a king's man, dressed in all the finery. And Jack White would be a good subject to do." He'd also like to catch Prince before he loses his impish sexuality, and he'd like to do some nudes, "although I'd have to get permission from the wife [ Jo Wood] to do that. She lets me paint her, though, so that's alright."

Meanwhile, he's got a commission from the Royal Ballet to keep him busy - he'll be painting all the dancers for a proposed major exhibition. Now sober after some much-publicised battles with booze (he checked into rehab last year during a break in the A Bigger Bang tour), Wood is looking into his 60s with a bigger helping of hope.

"I'm looking after myself - 60 is a big landmark. I can't believe I'm 60. I still feel like a young geezer. I've just bought a 1947 truck - same year I was born - and had it fitted out with a new Chevy engine, though I haven't repainted it. I'm gonna drive it around Ireland and paint landscapes. So if you see me out in the Irish countryside, don't forget to say hello."

A private showing of Artworks: Originals and Screenprints by Ronnie Wood opens at Project Office, Temple Bar at 5-8pm today. The exhibition continues until Aug 22