Artists and Illustrators Magazine – Summer 2009 – issue 276
It is an unedited transcript of the interview which I did with the magazine which is in the shops now.
1. What prompted or inspired your self portrait ?
I was 39 and fast approaching 40 and I thought that it was a good time to make a series of self portraits. I’ve always been equally as interested in photography as I have in painting and drawing and it is a strong element to my work. I took series of around 200 photographs under various lighting conditions , poses and states of dress to see which would work best. This was a very spontaneous one, I saw my wife’s winter “Pixie” hat and just grabbed it and our dog, Max, came into the kitchen sniffing around and jumping up , wanting to get in on the act, and forced his way into the composition.
2. Do you approach a self portrait differently to a standard portrait ? And are you self critical ?
In some ways I approach self portraiture in the same way that HG. Well’s “Invisible Man” experimented upon himself in the laboratory. I think when you work with yourself you’ve got cart blanch to do what you like and push it in whatever direction you like which is why self portraiture is so liberating artistically.
I have previously pretended to be Jesus at the age of 33 ( Pretending to be Jesus – 33- 2003) when he / I was entombed and resurrected ( both “dead and risen”) in a diptych self portrait. In 1994 I did another diptych called “The Obscurity and Revelation of Andrew” where I was depicted with naked torso and soap on my face. Certainly my commissioned portraiture is more conservative , unless the client is particularly open minded. I am also a stickler for detail and I would never try to flatter myself in any way , so every one of my 40 years is in this latest self portrait which I hope gives it an honesty and realism which really is the whole point of doing a portrait at 40.
3.What are your first memories of art or painting ? And did any of your family have artistic leanings ?
When I was young I just drew with half running out felt tip pens in old diaries like any children would. I attached no significance to it other than it was something to do and allowed my imagination to run loose drawing monsters and World War 2 battle scenes. Around the age of 13 I felt that I would quite like to be and artist though I was very average at school and to this day I don’t know how that thought materialised , there was certainly little conviction behind it at that time. My uncle was a graphic designer and I remember visiting his design studio around the same time and thought it was a great set up, though I had little interest in designing boxes for Boots or Marks and Spencers. My father worked in the steel industry for most of his life and my mother was a doctors receptionist so there was no clear lineage.
4. Looking back, do you think your background in illustration has been a help or a hindrance in your art career ?
At the age of 18 I still wanted a career in art but I suppose I had my sensible head on and after careers advice felt that Illustration would be a more commercially viable option than an “artist” so initially I went down that path. Towards the end of my degree at Birmingham I knew that I hated the idea of commercial Illustration and waiting around for an agent to call me to paint a sterile picture which I had absolutely no interest in. I did my MA at Birmingham, mascaraeding as “Illustration” it was, in fact a social documentary project which examined the “De-Industrialisation of the West Midlands Steel Industry”, visiting the last foundries, chain makers and hot press rolling mills in the Black Country and making a series of portraits of the steelworkers. It was exactly what I wanted to do. In some ways I’m glad that I did Illustration because at this time, the early 90’s, Conceptual art was high on the agenda , to the point of indoctrination in some art colleges and I knew that I didn’t feel comfortable with way of working either. It’s always been figurative art and portraiture which I’ve been interested win and has proved endlessly enduring and stimulating for me for the past 17 years or so. There is endless potential in portraiture because – “people are interesting“. It’s a simple premise but as each year goes by this feeling becomes stronger within me and I know that it will always be that way.
5. Who has been your most interesting sitter and is it important to establish a rapport with each of them or identify with them in some way ? For example , would you read Cormac McCarthy’s book before painting him ?
I have been fortunate to have painted some very significant figures in my career so far but to me it is always “ordinary” people who are the most interesting; Old steelworkers and shipbuilders, pigeon racers, people on allotments, Tokyo fish market traders , Hells Angels, Native American Indians, Vietnam veterans, First World War veterans, grandparents, my wife. The people that you can’t google or research – you just meet them and build up a rapport and the resulting work is the product of conversation and blind faith.
6. Did you enjoy your time in New Mexico and did it alter your perspective in any way ?
New Mexico is such an inspiring place for portraiture because it has such an authentic, and bohemian feel and is full of interesting characters like the Native American Indians, original hippies who first settled there in the 60’s, Vietnam veterans who dropped out there, cowboys, artists, authors, scientists and musicians.
For me the best thing about my New Mexico project was the re discovery of drawing. I started to make portraits in charcoal and felt that I could produce work reasonably quickly, which, most importantly, I was very pleased with. It was a liberation because I have spent up to 12 months on one painting in the past and I had suddenly found a way of putting down ideas and portraits which passed my “quality control” in a more immediate way.
7. You recently returned to Japan too, will you be working on a project similar to your one in 1995 ?
When I won the BP Travel Award in 1994 and went to Japan and loved it so much that I always wanted to return so last November I went back on an inspirational trip to find new portraiture based subject matter. My project will focus on “Tokyo Portraits” depicting a whole cross section of Japanese society including; the Buddhist monks of Kamakura, Tsukiji Fish Market Traders, the homeless population of Ueno- Koen, the incredibly flamboyant Harajuku Punks and Rockabilly Greasers of Yoyogi Park, market traders from Asakusa, café and sushi restaurant culture of Tokyo, the nightlife of Shinjuku and the Golden Gai, Musicians that I met in underground Jazz and rock clubs, children and women in traditional Kimomo dress, street performers and the wealth of people that I just met in the street. I’m just quietly and very enthusiastically developing this work at the moment alongside my commissions.
8. Many portrait painters concentrate on the sitter alone, though you seem keen to bring in wider concerns . Would you agree and if so , do you think that is part of your responsibility as an artist ?
In terms of my portraiture and “wider concerns” I like to define a series of portraits loosely within a kind of social documentary project - like “The de-industrialisation of the West Midlands steel industry” or “The cradle to grave work ethics of the Japanese car manufacturing industry” and explore portraiture within a specific framework. I look for situations where the effects of daily life impact on people and attempt to portray my findings in an accurate, narrative and sympathetic way through portraiture.
Objects are also important in my portraits, I like the way that objects reflect and reinforce the sitters identity. For example the objects which surround Tony Benn and Neil and Glenys Kinnock in my portraits of them hold some intrinsic narrative or memory or sentiment. I have always loved Holbein’s - Ambassadors and saw both Neil and Glenys as Ambassadorial figures taking that painting as a big influence on my portrait. Sometimes the sitter alone is fine too, objects can look a little staged and formal if you are not careful and the power of a single head can be extremely profound in the right hands. When my grandparents died I did a large diptych, on one side was an empty room from their house and on the other were 26 banal objects which used to be in that room. It was about the way objects and spaces provoke memories and suddenly become very significant. Even though there were no people in the painting I still saw it as a portrait.
9.Were you an admirer of Lucian Freud before you painted Kitty Godley and were you nervous given the connections ?
I was an admirer of Freud but certainly not an obsessive which people might think , given my interest in Kitty. I remember seeing his show at the Whitechapel gallery around 1992 with those wonderful portraits of Leigh Bowery and loving them but knowing that I would never paint as spontaneously has him.
Kitty’s father was Jacob Epstein and their family left their art collection to Walsall Museum and Art Gallery , ( my local gallery) in 1972, having lived locally. There is a wonderful portrait of Kitty in the collection by Freud, painted in 1948 soon after they married. I had always admired it and wondered if she was still alive. As the years went on it was always at the back of my mind to try and catch up with her if she was still alive so I thought if I’m going to do this I’ll have to do it soon so I contacted her through the gallery and arranged a sitting. I think really the project was more about both mine and Kitty’s links to Walsall than it was about Freud. Looking back I should have been so much more concerned with treading the same path as a giant like Freud but it honestly never crossed my mind. I just had an idea and once I focus on something everything else just goes out of the window.
10.Apart from art, what is your greatest talent ?
I do dislike the term “talent”, (I’ve noticed that politicians have appropriated it to their trade more recently) It cunjours up some kind of shamanistic, mystical qualities when I honestly believe it’s in us all if we can tap it out in some way. If I were to pinpoint something then, for me, I think that it would have to be “optimism” . If you hope to have any career as an artist you have to look on the bright side of life and have blind faith in what you are doing. I’m also good dog walker.
11. What do you think your studio would say about you as a person and do you have any rituals or routines when you work ?
I have to listen to the radio all day, primarily radio 5 during the daytime with its current affairs style shows, ( not the sport which I hate) . I also like radio 4, 6 and 7 and am constantly flicking around all day. Studio practice is quite isolating and the radio is a great companion. I generally paint on auto pilot so it never intrudes. I tend to think of myself as being quite ordered and organised but looking at my studio at the moment it’s more Steptoe and son than Bang and Olufsen.
12.Who or what is currently exciting you artistically ?
At the moment , personally it’s drawing, painting in monochrome and Japan and always portraiture.
13. Do you still find art difficult and if so why ?
It sounds rather arrogant but I’ve never found painting and drawing difficult. Maybe it’s because I have certain ways of working which I have fine tuned over the years and I know instinctively how to work now and get the results that I’m after… just experience really I guess. Ideas come flowing daily while I’m walking Max or out and about, (rarely in the studio), and I record them onto a dictaphone and jot them in my sketchbook when I get back. I give them the 6 months fermentation process and decide if they are still good ideas half a year later.
14. What ambitions do you have ?
For about 14 years my ambition was to win the BP Portrait Award and I chased it year after year. It’s the only competition that I have been obsessed with , probably because it is so uniquely linked to the kind of work that I do and also because the National Portrait Gallery is such a splendid institution. Once you’ve won you can’t enter again and I must admit I do miss that. It encouraged me to do one piece of personal work each year that I hoped was a little more edgy and special and anything which encourages that must be a good thing.
I’d like to find more of a comfortable balance where my personal work outweighed my commissioned work because there is so much that I want to do. I’d also like to spend 6 sunny weeks on a narrow boat slowly travelling around Britain with my wife and our dog just working on smaller scale pictures as we drift along.
July 9th, 2009