Exclusive Interview With BP Portrait Award Artists

by Cass Art

The BP Portrait Award 2014 was a success once more. To celebrate another year of quality portrait making, we've conducted exclusive interviews with several of this year’s exhibiting artists.

On Tuesday 12th August, we hosted an art talk with painters Robert Neil, Tim Wright, Yanko Tihov and John Williams in conversation with oil-maker Michael Harding at our Islington Flagship store. In case you missed it, we've pulled together some behind-the-scenes information on the BP Portrait Award artists. 

Find out what makes them tick, where their inspiration comes from, and which colours and materials fuel their paintings.

Lead Image: Yanko Tihov in his studio (left) and Brick Lane Girl, John Williams (right)

Tim Wright

Wright grew up and studied in London, after always knowing he wanted to be an artist. He has recently worked as the painting advisor for the upcoming film, ‘Mr Turner’, in which actor Timothy Spall portrays the artist JMW Turner.

Tim Wright's painting of Timothy Spall  

His exhibited painting, Timothy Spall, is a result of this professional relationship and shows the actor standing full-length, his body slightly tilted as he gazes evenly out of the canvas.

Can you tell us about your practice?

I have been painting the figure for a long while, but portraiture has become more important to me in the last few years. I am currently working on some portraits in which the subject adopts a persona.

What painting materials and colours do you use?

I use drawing media, watercolour and oil paint, as well as rags, paper and white spirit. My colours include White Lead, Raw Umber, Brown Ochre, Paynes Grey, Venetian red and Crimson – I can’t paint flesh without them.

Tim Wright Studio Shot 

Which product is essential to your practice and why?

Michael Harding oil paint –  specifically white lead in walnut oil. I use it to paint flesh and it has a fantastic texture.

Yanko Tihov

Tihov grew up in Bulgaria and studied painting at N.Raynov College of Fine Art and print-making at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia, before moving to London. His painting, MF Husain, hangs in the BP Portrait Award this year, and shows a man all in white, with matching white hair and beard, reclining in a chair and clutching a long handle brush in both hands.

Yanko Tihov's exhibited painting 
MF Husain, Yanko Tihov 

Was there a defining moment when you decided you wanted to be an artist?

I don’t remember a defining day or moment. It was always something I felt I needed to do.

Where do you look for inspiration?

I often visit galleries or museums, but not to spend hours viewing hundreds of works. I choose one or two and try to observe and understand certain elements, like how a certain colour works in combination with others. Travelling is also very productive, as it makes me see myself from a distance.

Yanko Tihov building a canvas in his studio 

What are the vital tools in your studio?

I love Schmincke Mussini oil paints, but also Michael Harding and Old Holland oils. They give me the different body that I need and are very consistent. Graphite pencils and good paper are also essential.

John Williams

Williams grew up in a farming community in the United States where he attended many after-school art classes before studying Graphic Design at university. His painting of Edward Lucie-Smith is a photo-realistic depiction of a man’s face and shoulders, his glasses hanging around his neck. His mouth is closed in a serious line but his eyes, beneath bushy grey eyebrows, are warm and blue.

John Williams photorealistic portraiture 
Edward Lucie-Smith, John Williams 

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I remember the moment clearly. I was having a pint outside the Chandos pub across the street from the National Portrait Gallery. I had just been in Trafalgar Square taking photos of a friend who agreed to pose for one of my very first portraits. As we were chatting I looked up and saw a banner hanging outside the gallery – and then it clicked. I wanted to be in that show – the BP Portrait Award. I thought, ‘it’s time to take this seriously from now on.’

Who or what has influenced your work most? 

I responded to a flyer hanging in the canteen of the Heatherly’s School of Fine Art which read ‘Professional Portrait Artist requires assistant, must be interested in Photo Realism.’ I jumped on the phone and the artist on the other end happened to be Edward Sutcliffe. I got the gig and he taught me the techniques that I use today and was a great, great mentor. We worked every Saturday for over three years and I will be eternally grateful for his help and support.

Robert Neil's painting process 

What draws you to portraiture?

The enjoyment is in painting people and somehow trying to capture an essence of life or even a split second on canvas. It is like a puzzle; and the puzzle is to somehow bring the person or object to life. My task is to capture the quiet intensity of the subject while caught in a single moment. To me people are endlessly fascinating, complex creatures. I just wouldn’t have the same level of interest in painting anything else.

Robert Neil

Neil attended classes at the London Atelier of Representational Art over three years to hone his portraiture skills, though he is a largely self-taught artist.

Neil’s painting, Jeweller, sees a bearded young man leaning causally against the wall, one hand in his pocket, the other looped with his thumb as he stares pleasantly at the viewer. 

Robert Neil, Jeweller, Painting from BP Portrait Award 
Jeweller, Robert Neil 

Could you tell us about your method and process?

I paint from life and photographs. Each approach has its advantages but I like the fact that photography allows great flexibility when arranging and composing a sitter before committing paint to canvas. When working from life I use the sight size method.

How has your practice evolved?

I must not allow myself to be constrained by the notion of producing everything in a particular style. I’m fortunate that I do not rely on painting for all of my income and so I try to experiment, which has led to a fuller understanding of my medium. I’m currently revising a subject I have painted throughout my life – my father.

Robert Neil's studio, paint palette and palettke knife 

What painting materials do you use?

Generally – thought not exclusively – Michael Harding oils, and various hog, sable and synthetic brushes and palette knives. I have recently started to use a coarser canvas weave, and generally put one coat of oil primer over the pre-prepared gesso. Most recently I’ve started painting directly onto white canvas instead of toning first.

Feeling inspired?

You can visit the individual artist’s websites by clicking on their names below.

Tim Wright, Yanko Tihov, John Williams, Robert Neil.

You can visit Michael Harding's website here

The BP Portrait Award 2014 closed on  21st September at The National Portrait Gallery.

Read our other exclusive interviews with further BP Portrait Award artists here.  

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