Interviews with BP Portrait Award Artists 2015: Part 2

by Cass Art

To celebrate the 36th year of the BP Portrait Award we are offering you the unique chance to meet several of this year's exhibiting artists.

We are hosting BP Workshops and Meet The Artist Events in several of our shops. You can book your place on our workshops page

What's more, we've interviewed some of the portrait painters from this year's exhibition, so you can find out a bit more about their paintings, their techniques and what inspires them to paint people. 

Pictured above: How Soon is Now? (Self) by Alan McGowan, 2014, Oil on panel

I believe you paint solely from life – what do you think are the benefits of painting from life instead of a photo?

I do work solely from life. In the past I have worked from photos sometimes but for the past seven or eight years I have made a point of working exclusively from life. I actually try to avoid looking at photographs these days. I think first and foremost that looking at a person and looking at a photograph are very different experiences. I don't think I see the world in the way that a camera does. For a start the photographic image is static and represents a fraction of a second, whereas perception, living in and experiencing the world is an event that unfolds over time - so to me that is the reality that I am interested in trying to capture in paint. I find the life situation much richer, more stimulating and challenging, and also more difficult, and it is through trying to meet these challenges and difficulties that the painting emerges. 

My painting isn't a statement of an exact fact, I see it more as a negotiation or an attempt to tell the story of something elusive, but real.

Your painting style is so expressive and captures so much movement; which materials do you use to capture this kind of energy?

I think the expressiveness comes more from an approach towards painting and drawing than the materials per se, but it is important to get the materials which will maximise the effect of my intentions. I use fairly straightforward materials - artist's oil paint, usually Winsor and Newton, I am very conscious of the relationship of transparent to opaque pigments which is important to me; Robersons glaze medium; pastels and oilbars. I tend to work on board rather than canvas as I like the resistance of the harder surface.

Who did you paint for your BP Portrait?

The BP Portrait painting is a self portrait which comes with it's own challenges when working from life. I worked from a large mirror set up in my studio - I thought the sitter was quite good, but every time I went to paint he moved!

Lee Simmonds
A portrait of Ben the Masseur by Lee Myles Simmonds, 2015, Oil on canvas 

I understand you’re only 18 – congratulations on already featuring in a major national show! How long have you been painting?

I actually had my birthday a few days ago on the 15th, so I've just turned 19. But the painting was obviously entered and chosen when I was 18 - so yes, it's all quite exciting! 

My earliest memory of oil paint was doing a self-portrait using a mirror, head cupped in hand - my first piece for the GCSE project Identity. It's a gem of a painting to look back upon now! I carried on studying art throughout my GCSEs and A-levels and our school was quite unique in their traditionalism; zealously encouraging the use of oil paints on canvas - something that's quite rare these days, as I've heard. My studies very naturally erred to the side of portraiture - you'll find on my website that I've had a history of professional child acting experience, and so from a young age I've had an acute fascination with human beings. So all-in-all, I have been painting people for about 5 years now since the age of 13, but was never taught how to use oil paints or any drawing techniques - it's been a series of experiments, wonky-eyed caricatures of people and, eventually, ever-increasing success! 

What do you think about before deciding to start a portrait?

Having left school I am enjoying the freedom of finding my own interests as an artist rather than being dictated by a mildly enigmatic title such as Identity, or even Covert and Obscured. As someone quite young, I am still finding my footing and exactly what bothers me as an artist - but I would say I get the impetus to spend at least a month on a work of portraiture from a few sources. It often goes through a 3-step procedure:  

1) I find something fascinating about the physical/personal appearance of someone. This can range from a very angular-shaped head, a skin texture that appears particularly intricate (such as freckled skin or tough skin) or even a larger-than-life personality. The inspiration for A Portrait of Ben the Masseur certainly started here - his hair cut particularly accentuates the angularity of his head, which in turn make his facial features very prominent which holds one's gaze. Furthermore, his vibrant personality interested me more and more and finally I settled I had to paint him!

2) I then go about contextualizing. I often go back to a great quote by DH Lawrence, who said: "The business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his environment."  I therefore don't usually like to focus solely on a detailed portrait - however if wanting to experiment with a new technique I often eliminate the background. Usually though, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the sitter's environment reflects or illuminates a part of their personality. For the BP Award Portrait, Ben actually sat in my room - simply because the muted green of my walls and the clear plastic IKEA chair I thought brilliantly represented his extremely modern appearance. I will normally only paint someone if I know how their context in the work is a part of who they are. As a consequence, preparatory sketches, if any, are focused on the setting, rather than the sitter; I enjoy the challenge of encountering them for the first time on the canvas. 

3) Finally, before putting paint onto canvas I like to make sure the piece does something more than just be a painting. As I mature in my practice, my work is becoming as important conceptually as it is engaging visually. I don't however seek to justify the piece completely with words - otherwise it would be a book. I like to paint something that people can also simply look at and enjoy. For my one of Ben, it is a largely conversational piece that hopefully reflects our mutual passions as people whom use their hands for their vocation. As Christians, we had a lot of theological discussion during the sittings which birthed the idea to include a Bible verse. On his hands, I wrote "Eph 4:28" which refers to Paul's writing in Ephesians: "Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their hands, that they may have something to share with those in need." [NIV] As a result, I have had the pleasure of engaging in more theological discussion with people in the gallery, and the painting has touched other people from different churches and I've heard even non-church goers have engaged with this on some level. Painting, for me, goes back to its roots, where it served a purpose for the illiterate - so that we may engage with something completely visual and glean a story of a person from it, that it may stir something within us. 

But I wouldn't say this procedure happens for every painting. In fact, I can often wake up in the morning with an exact image of my next piece - setting and all - and it's then just a question of  getting it done! 

Do you have plans to study art at university? If not what do you think the future holds?

In September I will be undertaking a Foundation course at UCA Farnham. I look forward to a year of experimentation and fun to see where that may lead my current interests and practice; maybe even down to the medium that I use. I then hope to go to study Fine Art at University; exactly where I'm not sure yet! 

Nathalie Beauvillian Scott
F**k Mondays by Nathalie Beauvillain Scott, 2015, Oil on canvas 

Your BP portrait is of musician Bob Geldof – did you meet him? I know you usually require 2-3 sittings to complete a portrait.

I met Bob Geldof backstage at Guilfest, a music festival. It was going to be my only opportunity to meet him, speak to him, and take photos which would later help me to create my portrait. A portrait in my view is almost entirely about getting the personality of the sitter right which explains why I usually need a minimum of 2 or 3 sittings. In Bob's case, unfortunately, I didn t have enough time to be able to do this fully. I had to use my instinct and how I felt while meeting him to make a decision on what direction to take for the portrait. I deceided I didn't want to paint him as a pop star as there are already thousands of images already of him in that way. I wanted to concentrate on the person. The emotions expressed in the portrait are a mixture of pain, strength and perseverance.

What art materials and painting techniques do you use to achieve your highly detailed portraits?

My portraits are always in oil. I find oil suits perfectly the type of shading I do as I need the paint to dry slowly while I work. I work in a lot of thin layers of paint. I will sketch and then do a first layer of oil. I will then let it dry and work again by layers until the final result when I feel happy with the texture and the tones. Needless to say the paintbrushes need to be very small for the fine details.

Your paintings have featured in the BP Portrait Award more than once – congratulations! What advice would you give to someone wanting to submit a piece?

Entering a competition can be very challenging. I feel that as an artist, having your work judged by strangers can be emotionally draining. You need to be brave. The important elements, I think, for any portrait, whether you enter it to the BP Portrait Award or not, are the choices you make about your sitter, the composition and the technique. Because the judges are changing every year it stays pretty impossible to know which paintings will be picked for the exhibition. I have found that entering competitions has made me grow as an artist and pushed me to get out of my comfort zone on many occasions!

Back to blog