BEWARE: Nudity, Jazz And Toby Mulligan

by Cass Art

BEWARE: The above video includes nudity - suitable only for 18+. 

Watch as award-winning artist Toby Mulligan draws at speed with both hands in our video, and read on for an exclusive interview.


A young girl stares evenly out of the canvas at the viewer, her hair tied back in two brown tufts, her face cast slightly in shadow. It’s the portrait that stole the hearts of many in the BP Portrait Award 2012, and was painted by the artist – and father of the subject – Toby Mulligan.

Known for his rapid drawing technique where he uses both hands at once, Toby provided the illustrations for our Sketch Your Summer campaign and is hosting several workshops for us this season - read more about the individual ones here.

A largely self-taught artist, Toby has been painting portraits for people since the age of 15. The painting of his daughter, About Time, featured in the BP Portrait Award 2012 and currently hangs in The National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. 

We wanted to know more about his paintings, his process and his need to create, so read on for our exclusive interview.  

Toby Mulligan

You say that your work is about process, perhaps more so than actual painting. Can you talk a little bit about this?

I love to wander, both physically and imaginatively. I often go out for long walks with no idea where I'm going, because in the Mark Twain way, it's not the destination but the journey that counts. Walking is brilliant for thinking; ideas come and go, and you take in what's going on all around you in a way that's not possible when driving or cycling. 

And as for the actual process of drawing and painting, I often use both hands at once when I’m drawing from life. It's sort of impossible as my eyes and brain need to observe and interpret four different areas at once, but it forces me to take an overview as I'm drawing, to see the whole thing and almost watch it as though someone else was doing it.

That way the fear and criticisms, all that distracting stuff that goes on in our heads all the time about whether you’re any good or how pleased you are with something – it all goes away because I'm too busy concentrating.  

Toby Mulligan drawing with two hands 

Your artwork consists of portraiture, landscape and the human figure – but what is it that draws you to a subject?

I've always been drawn to painting people, especially the nude because it's us stripped bare, and I love drawing hands and feet because so much can be expressed through them. But I also feel the need to get out and paint landscape: big skies and billowing clouds, approaching storms, winds, rain and strong sunlight.

Then it's more about feeling the heat, the sun, the smell of stone and wet grass – and if I feel it all, smell it, see it, sense it,  then I can convey it better in my painting.  

Your paintings are so involved with the process of making – the quick application of paint, the dexterity of a brush pen – but your work is so much more than pure experimentation with art materials. What really motivates your painting?

I think that is what motivates me to paint, though there are many factors. I see paintings and drawings that I love and want to emulate, and certain things capture my eye, like shadows in doorways or the angle of someone's hand resting on a chair...But the driving force is more of a spiritual one, to connect and be one with the world. I paint to empathise, embody and express without the distracting thoughts that clog up my mind and stop life from happening. 

Toby Mulligan life drawing  

Which art supplies couldn’t you live without?

Well paper of course! And I love the Pentel Artist brush pens.

But when it comes to paint, I love oil paint the best - acrylic has never quite done it for me unless I can mess it around and pour resin all over it, and then maybe paint with oils over the top as well! Watercolour is also one of my favourite mediums, requiring a whole discipline of its own. I have one of those Winsor & Newton metal box sets with 24 colours, and the blues always tend to go first.

My favourite drawing tool is probably plain old charcoal, or the compressed charcoal pencils, because I use them so much.

You also paint on the iPad – do you enjoy the digital process of art-making as much as traditional painting?

Painting on the iPad is nothing like using paper and paint and canvas - all that gooey messy stuff that I love. I've made some animated illustrations for websites using the iPad but I have to say I've sort of lost interest in it. It's just useful when you don't have the materials to work with.

Toby Mulligan drawings 

Who are your art heroes?

The first painting I ever copied was The Water Bearer by Velasquez, and I also copied lots of Rembrant and da Vinci – all the Renaissance masters. I love Vermeer and sometimes include copies of his work in my own paintings. I find he has something akin to Rothko - who is also Dutch so maybe that has something to do with it! There are very few paintings that can really command my attention and compel me to sit and look at them for hours, but those two definitely do it for me.

Toby Mulligan drawings 

Why are you an artist?

I’ve touched on why already, because I want to connect with the world and be at one with everything – but that could be achieved by meditating I suppose! The reason I make things is that I think with my hands; they know things my voice doesn't. 

But it's also about a desire to animate. We are all part of one energy field, and by making things we can transfer energy through those things. I believe it's possible to invest a thing with energy, like a painting, so that it’s no longer like any other object. And not just in terms of its aesthetic but in terms of the energy pulsating within it.

I don’t want to pin down and define it – it’s a feeling, and I’m happy to leave it at that. It’s what we are, within and beyond the muscle and bones.

 Toby Mulligan Artist

Toby has completed a number of filmed portrait demonstrations for Cass Art, Winsor & Newton and Liquitex. He has also been commissioned by Samsung to demonstrate digital painting with their new tablet.

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