Jo Ward talks to local artist Karl Ullger about his work as a teacher and artist and where he gets his creative inspiration from.
There is no doubt that Karl Ullger was born with an innate talent but it wasn’t until his last year at Leeds University where he was studying Graphics, Art and Design, that he became serious about painting. “I got a commission from Leeds Opera House to produce a poster for Handel’s Radamisto,” Karl explains. “I enjoyed working on that commission, which I created in a fine art style, and it was then that I realised that I wanted to create paintings.”
Karl juggles his passion for art with teaching, something he does as an Art and Design secondary school teacher here in Gibraltar, teaching art at GCE and A levels. “I try to stay current and fresh and every three or four years I will do an exhibition of my work, interspersed with taking part in group exhibitions and events,” he says.
It is in the nature of most artists to investigate, explore and experiment, and there is no doubt that Karl likes to do just that. “My favourite artist of all time is Joaquín Sorolla (known as the painter of light), followed closely by Velázquez, but I also like the work of John Singer Sargent,” Karl states, going on to say that lately he has been doing a lot of limited four colour palette work in the style of the famous Swedish painter Anders Zorn.
“I always tell my students that like them I am learning all the time and there are periods when I concentrate on painting landscapes, but then I may jump to doing portraits or a little bit of still life – so it is what you have the most hunger or drive towards, perhaps focusing on that topic or genre and then combining the contemporary with the traditional.”
In 2015 Karl’s landscape entitled ‘Bayview Clock Tower’ was selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. “That piece was the first in my scrap metal series titled ‘Raw’,” Karl explains. “I found the piece of metal and was using it to clean my brushes, and because I loved the texture of it and the effects that it generated, I decided to paint something on it and look what happened to that painting!” The last time a Gibraltarian had a piece exhibited at the Royal Academy was in 1913 when Gustavo Bacarisas was invited to show his work there. “That is probably when Gibraltar started to recognise me as a household name as an artist,” he says proudly.
Other moments of note in Karl’s artistic career have been to have his paintings of four schools featured on a set of stamps issued by the Gibraltar Philatelic Bureau and the Government of Gibraltar, meaning that his art will have gone around the world! “I was also one of forty eight artists who took part in the Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year television programme in 2016,” he says. “Unfortunately, I got knocked out in the quarter final.”
Locally, Karl is better known for his landscapes than his portraits. “I would say that I have more of an expressionistic approach as opposed to abstract, and I like the exploration of materials in my landscapes, whether that is metal or wood,” he comments. “Currently I am painting a patio with broken shutters where I have used actual plaster from the walls in some sections, added to which there are hyper realistic parts of the slate from the rooves.”
“My portraits are more influenced by the work of Sorolla or Sergeant, but of course both genres have one link and that is the exploration of light, so I try and emphasise light and dark tones quite a lot whether it be landscape or portrait.” At the moment his dominant medium is oils but if you had asked him six years ago Karl says that he would most probably have said plaster and resin.
Last year was a particularly successful period of time for Karl who not only won quite a few local prizes, but also published a book ‘Lockdown with Cane-Yo’. For many artists and creatives, technology provided a lifeline during the coronavirus pandemic. “Lockdown was very hard for so many people, with the limitations and restrictions in place causing mental anxiety and depression, because they weren’t able to go out and meet up with family and friends, but I was fortunate that I had my art that I could fall back on.”
“Creating art definitely helped me to carry on through lockdown,” Karl says. “I would wake up in the morning and play with my daughter during the day, then when she went to bed I was able to go straight into the studio in my basement and start painting, and that was a way for me not only to interact with other people but also to keep my brain safe and active.”
Karl was churning out paintings every two or three days, mainly portraits or figure work, based on people that had connected with him via his Instagram or Facebook pages. “It just blew up” he says. “People started to react with me and send me photographs, to the extent that they were even painting portraits of me!”
This online interaction between creatives, including dancers, actors and musicians, kept lockdown more interesting and Karl’s book is the result of his reaction to photos that they had taken of themselves in lockdown showing the frustration of their daily routines – maybe someone sitting outside their house, having a coffee, or someone cutting their hair or doing their makeup – displaying the emotional connections that he made with those individuals. “It was because I knew what a difficult year it had been that I donated £10 from every sale of the book to GibSams, an admirable charity who had received an unprecedented amount of calls from people during lockdown.” Alongside the publication of the book Karl held an exhibition of his work, including paintings from the book and a series of landscapes, at the Fine Arts Gallery.
Yet another accolade for Karl in 2021 was the news that he had made it through to the 1st Round of the Jackson Painting Prize Competition in the UK, with his painting ‘Los Glacis’ having been whittled down to the top 400 from 8674 entries. He was also one of the nominees for the 2021 Gibraltar Cultural Awards in the senior category. “That was a privilege in itself just being nominated amongst people like Richard Garcia who won it and who, to my mind, was a deserved winner,” Karl states. “I hope to be in his position in thirty years’ time, but I have still got a lot to do in my career – a lot in my future to still conquer – and I think it is exciting to go on to the next challenge.”
What about those unfulfilled ambitions and, having achieved so much already, is turning professional something that Karl would like to do? “Well, I didn’t think I was ever going to publish a book, but I have learnt to never say never!” Something that Karl would like to do in the future is to have a retrospective of his work. “Before that happens there are still a lot of things to do,” he laughs. “As for turning professional, although I have exhibited in London a couple of times it is very hard to sustain if you don’t have the backing of a gallery or to have someone to represent you in the art world nowadays,” Karl explains. “There is an exciting project coming up in the UK in September and also something in Belgium – so there are little pockets of things happening that will get my name out there.”
Karl’s light is shining bright and his fame as an artist is spreading. “I am very grateful because through lockdown I connected with a lot of famous artists because we were all going through the same thing at the same time, and they message me now to talk about casual stuff, not necessarily art, and through this connection I can safely say that I can call them friends.”
Karl Ullger’s art is available to purchase from his online shop:
Instagram /Twitter: @ullger_art