Emma Hopkins RP discusses her path from prosthetics school to portrait painting, capturing the duality of human emotion and the journey we go on with our bodies.

Emma Hopkins has been the name on everyone’s lips since she was shortlisted for the prestigious BP Portrait Award 2019 earlier this month. The striking portrait for which she has been nominated depicts the photographer Sophie Mayanne posing naked alongside her pet dog Carla. The painting’s power lies in the candour of the subject: Mayanne's presence is palpable, her self-respect matter of fact. The vulnerability we often associate with nakedness comes as an afterthought. Mayanne is known for her project Behind the Scars, a campaign which celebrates and explores people’s scars and the stories behind them. Much like her subject, Hopkins uses portraiture as a means of examining the skin and looking beyond it.

Hopkins has been “one to watch” at Mall Galleries ever since she first exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP) in 2012. Born in Brighton in 1989, the artist first earned a degree in Make-up and Prosthetics for Performance at the University of the Arts London, before realising painting was her true calling. Initially, she exhibited her work at the Chelsea Arts Club when she was working behind the bar. From there, she began showing with the RP and was elected as a member in 2017, aged 27 – one of the youngest members ever.

Sophie & Carla by Emma Hopkins – shortlisted for BP Portrait Award 2019

Like many artists, Emma was discouraged from pursuing fine art, although she continued to paint alongside her studies in prosthetics. “It was something I’d always really wanted to do but had been advised against – fine art or painting – but I knew my heart wasn’t in the [prosthetics] industry. So once I graduated, I just focused as much as I could on painting. I got a job in an art supply shop and just took it from there.”

It’s quite shocking that Hopkins is “entirely self-taught”, given the level of skill and flair her portraits possess. Though it is perhaps this lack of formal art education that has given her such a distinctive style – free from the stifling effects of an increasingly didactic art school system which places more value on an MFA than creative risk or spontaneity. Then again, her education in prosthetics has undoubtedly informed her paintings which possess a fine-tuned level of anatomical meticulousness.

Emma Hopkins in her studio

Hopkins recalls her fascination with the body as something that was always present. “Two subjects that have been a theme throughout my life are art and science – human biology and people.” Portraiture perfectly combines these two passions. While Hopkins self-admittedly has “ quite a scientific mind”, her paintings are as much a study of the human anatomy as they are the human psyche. Her portraits are often nude studies, but Hopkins stresses that this is never the defining factor of the work. “I don’t really see them as being naked, I see them as a person in their bodies. The thing we use to navigate through life instead of the clothes we put on top of it.”

The complexity of human emotions is something Hopkins is keenly aware of. Her paintings rarely portray one single mood. Often her subjects are imbued with a duality of emotions, appearing simultaneously happy and sad, brave and vulnerable, wistful and content. “My work will show vulnerability but it’s also very important to have strength there too. You know with emotions, you scale between these opposites. To get that middle ground I think is very important. It’s not just about sadness. It’s also about there being a peacefulness there and mixing the two.”

Study of Worry by Emma Hopkins

A number of Hopkins' works exhibited in the recent Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2019 illustrate this distinct ability to translate the inner life on paper. ‘Study of Worry’ is a haunting self-portrait from which the anguish almost lurches off the page. It’s a rousing portrayal of the overwhelming, engulfing, inflammatory feeling that anxiety can fester. The piece came out of a period of unshakeable tension in Hopkins' own life. “I was waiting for test results. I could barely concentrate on anything. You know when you have to wait for something that could consume your entire life.” When Hopkins returned to finish the piece, she decided to leave it unfinished. “I just thought that it felt very wrong to do anything to it because that period of time has passed.”

'Robert and Martha' is a raw depiction of a father and child. The man in the portrait is Hopkins’ friend. “I’d known Rob for years already so I didn’t have to investigate him as a person, I already knew him,” she shares. He is shown naked, holding his newborn baby. His expression is one of comfort but one which also appears to be tinged with concern or perhaps relief. Rob’s stomach is scarred as a result of a kidney transplant. He and his wife took part in a scheme in which she donated a kidney to another couple who then donated Rob a kidney in return. “It was a beautiful thing that happened to keep him alive,” Hopkins recalls. Following a successful operation, his partner fell pregnant with their first child. Painting her friend as a father held particular resonance for the artist. “It was actually at a time when I was painting my own father, so it kind of became this exploration of the relationship between a father and his daughter.”

Robert and Martha by Emma Hopkins

Today, our relationships with our bodies are changing. In this digital world, we spend more and more time online. And when we are connected to this alternative reality, we are less alive to the sensations, feelings and bodies that surround us in the real world. With the rise of AI and VR, this is only set to increase. What does Hopkins think about these shifts? "For me, I am my most peaceful when I’m connected to what’s around me, connected to my body, connected to people around me and I think being disconnected to another world, yeah, I think it’s quite detrimental."

At the same time, she believes the internet has brought about greater awareness of the diversity of bodies out there. "There's this amazing movement happening where people are understanding that bodies are all completely different. People are accepting their bodies for what they are and not wanting them to be something else now." It is this idea of bodily acceptance that is at the core of Hopkins' art. Her nude portraits have a way of communicating that our bodies are not against us, revealing the beauty in the pain, scars, aging and transformations our bodies carry with them. Hopkins' doesn't just paint skin, she tells stories – or as the artist likes to call it, “the journey we go on with our bodies.”