Artists Interviews with members of the Federation of British Artists and exhibitors at Mall Galleries. Featuring essays, Questions and Answers and lists of artists recent work.

John Scott Martin RSMA on the Value of Sketchbooks | Part 3

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Continued from Part 2 - John Scott Martin RSMA PPRBSA FRSA shares more pages from his sketchbooks

St Malo

Two sketches from under the walls of the port. I was off the boat for a couple of days.  While I was having a beer, a few marker pen sketches were produced.  Again rarely miss the chance of quick drawing plein air.

Pittenweem, Fife

These sketches were produced as a teaching aid, prior to a month long cruise in the Med.  I was to show students how a location sketch  could be developed. Changing medium, composition, tone, colour and even the time of day. Drawing techniques were also to be discussed. Teaching on a cruise requires as much flexibility of style as possible, allowing for very variable levels of ability.

View John's works in the Royal Society of Marine Artists Annual Exhibition

The Royal Society of Marine Artists Annual Exhibition runs until 10 October.

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John Scott Martin RSMA PPRBSA FRSA , St Malo sketch

Plein air to studio with John Walsom ROI ARSMA

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Although John Walsom ROI ARSMA has not always been a plein air painter, he says "it's become the centre of my working life. It's a tricky business, and the results don't always match our expectations. They do usually have the immediate look of something done on-the-hoof (at least, mine do), but without repeat trips they can't have huge amounts of detail or re-working (mine again)."

"Lockdown forced a lot of us into different work practices, especially if we were used to going out to find our subjects. Making bigger pictures from my plein air studies was a way for me to keep happy working in the studio, and I'm doing it more, even now that (for the moment) I don't have to.

My most common plein air size is 12 x 16", I work on gessoed boards, with a mid tone pre-applied. Recently I've been carrying bigger canvases, usually 24 x 30", in pairs with spacers, but for marine subjects, the wind is very often a real problem with work of this size. My painting of Flushing in Cornwall, which is showing in this year's RSMA show, was almost completed on the spot, but I was standing at the edge of the quay, and a wind from my back got so strong that I was having real trouble stopping the canvas (with me attached) flying off over the water. It was my last day in Cornwall so I took a photo and finished it off in the studio.

Flushing, Cornwall Oil 61 x 76 (76 x 91 cm framed) £3,200 - Buy Now

My plein air painting of two historic oyster dredgers at Mylor, the Six Brothers and Boy Willie, was only 10 x 12". I wanted to work at sight-size, because the shapes of the boats from this angle can be really challenging if you can't easily do measuring with your brush. I needed to be quite close because of the road behind me, and couldn't fit both the hulls into the composition, so I cropped off a bit of the one on the left, which I thought looked ok. I just managed to include enough of the sky to suggest the cloudy sky in the distance. I was working hard on getting the shapes and tones right, and thought much less about atmosphere or mood.

It was accepted for the RSMA exhibition in 2017, and I thought it was strong enough to be worked up into a bigger painting, so in the studio I used a 24 x 36" canvas. I widened the view slightly, to include both hulls, some more sky, and the bottoms of the prows, so the boats are more visibly sitting in the water. I think the extra sky and water has allowed me to show the atmosphere of the day better, so it's more than a factual record of what was there. Although there's more detail in the marina boats in the background, most of it is just made-up patterns of boaty shapes and shadow. This painting was shown at the RSMA show in 2018.

Boats at Mylor Harbour Oil 76 x 91 cm

On a rainy Sunday in 2017 I did a little 10 x 12" painting of Hammersmith Bridge at low tide. There were some nice bits of bright red on the barges sitting in the mud, and I liked the contrast with the dull green of the bridge.

Searching for lockdown projects in April this year, I dug this one out, and thought I could make a bigger version. I had a 20 x 24" board, and because the proportions were the same as the original, I did a basic squaring-up (just into quarters) to copy the shapes at double the size, as I quite liked the composition as it was. It's difficult to keep the immediacy of a hurried sketch in the rain, when you've got all the time in the world and a cup of tea on the side, but with the help of bigger brushes and a self-imposed ban on Radio 4, I got a result that, I think, keeps the feeling of a grey London day. A strict no-fiddling, alla prima only rule also helps at times like these.

I was going to Cornwall most years, long before I started to paint there. Last September, on a return trip to Mylor, on the South coast near Falmouth, I was at the marina, very close to the location of the Seven Brothers and Boy Willie painting above, but at low tide, while I waited for my kids and their friends to come back from kayaking around the creeks. I clambered around in the mud for a while, and got very interested in the sun reflecting from the coloured lines between the oyster dredgers and the shore. It was helped by a strong contre-jour light, with the sun above the right hand corner of the view (always carry a peaked/wide brimmed hat). I really wanted to get it finished before they got back and demanded lunch, and that urgency helped me to keep it fresh, I think. A yacht was out of the water being cleaned on the harbour-side, and I could see some activity between the masts and rigging of the fishing boats. The profiles of the hulls were very elegant, especially the way the black one was just gently touching the ground, with sunlight shining underneath. Amost the best bit for me though, was the surface of the mud, and the sun glinting on the bits of shell and rock.

It was only a couple of months later that I decided I had to make this into a bigger painting. The canvas I used is 70 x 100cm (about 28 x 39"), so a bit wider in shape than the original. I didn't want to lose any of the top or bottom, so just extended both sides, to see a bit more of the stone bank on the right, and the boats and blue tarpaulin on the left. Both of these help, I think, to locate the view and make it clear what's going on. Otherwise the composition is pretty much identical. I always work on a toned surface, and covered the canvas in something like the same colour which shows through in places on the original board - a purply mix of ultramarine and cadmium red. I made a bit more of the reflections in the mud, and highlights on some of the lines and bright edges, to bring out the contre-jour feel.

Mylor Yacht Harbour, Low Tide Oil 69 x 99 (84 x 114 cm framed) £3,400 Winner of The Baltic Exchange Award 2020 - Buy Now

I knew there had to be a reason why I kept hundreds of old plein air studies, often of dubious quality. It's good to know that, if the world keeps me stuck inside for a while, I've got plenty of material to work on, without having to get the photo album out."

John Walsom's Mylor Yacht Harbour, Low Tide was awarded The Baltic Exchange Award on 30 September 2020.

It can be viewed, along with the rest of the Prize Winners, as part of the Royal Society of Marine Artists Annual Exhibition in the gallery until 10 October. 

Book your ticket to visit the Exhibition

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John Walsom ROI ARSMA, Mylor Yacht Harbour, Low Tide

Cheryl Culver PPPS RBA - Art in Lockdown

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Cheryl Culver PPPS RBA speaks about her life and work from her home studio during lockdown.

Cheryl currently has work in The Figurative Art Fair, the only exclusively online art fair for the finest contemporary representational art.

Cheryl Culver PPPS RBA Sunflowers (2018) Pastel, 85 x 48 cm, £950

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Cheryl Culver PPPS RBA, Sunflowers (detail)

Reception Selection: Lucy McKie Q&A

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Our Reception Selection is a seasonally rotating selection of works on view at our reception space at 17 Carlton House Terrace, curated by Depa Miah. The latest exhibition displays the work of still life and portrait painter Lucy McKie ROI.

Lucy McKie has been a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters since 2011 and has won several awards for her works exhibited at Mall Galleries over the years. We spoke to Lucy about her artistic upbringing, her fascination with painting still lifes and her longstanding relationship with the gallery.

Lucy McKie ROI, Seville Oranges in July Light, 51 x 56 cm, Oil - £2,400

Your website says that you were born into an artistic family. Can you tell me a bit about that and how it influenced you becoming an artist?

My dad was an illustrator and my mum a writer. Because I grew up around illustration, I spent a lot of time drawing and was always interested in observing and capturing detail. I began painting quite late as I was happy drawing and working in pencil initially. I think that led me to develop a “tight” style of painting that focuses on my attempt to record what I see. At first I wondered if I should try to loosen up my work, but eventually it dawned on me that it’s better to paint with your own natural style, whatever that is.

Before I start a painting, I always plan compositions carefully, spending time drawing and working through ideas and looking for interesting details. Sometimes people who have collected my paintings have said that they enjoy noticing new little elements over the years as they live with them, which I love.

Lucy McKie ROI, Early Light, 36 x 36 cm, Oil - £1,650

For those unfamiliar with your work, what are your main influences and how do you approach your subject matter and colour palette?

When painting still life I’m influenced by the subjects themselves. Quite often I’ll notice something that I’ve had for years in a particular light and realise that it would be great to paint. I also like finding random objects when I’m out that can end up being the perfect beginning for a painting. It’s funny how something can really grow in interest the more you look at it – a weird and wonderful item you find unexpectedly can end up transforming a composition.

My palette changes over time, but it’s always pretty limited. I tend to use a lot of grey tones within my paintings, especially in the background and foreground to contrast against the brighter focal points of the composition. When possible I try to use quite a chilly light as I think this helps me to attempt capturing quiet and stillness.

What attracts you to the genre of still life in particular? What do you hope to capture and convey in these paintings?

I spent many years working on commissioned portraits so developing an interest in still life has been a suprising but fascinating change of direction. Initially, I started to paint still life just now and then, but slowly it has become my main focus, although I still love portraiture.

I really enjoy painting everyday items and paying attention to small aspects that are beautiful but often go unnoticed. I’ve grown to appreciate this more and more over the years. There is a calm simplicity to that kind of focus, and I wonder if that’s part of what appeals to people who enjoy and buy still life art. The sense of time being almost “paused” is also interesting to try and paint.

Lucy McKie ROI, Peonies, Early June, 36 x 36 cm, Oil - £2,350

You first began exhibiting at Mall Galleries in 2005. What attracted you to the gallery and what role has it played in the development of your work and artistic career?

I was in my late teens when I first became aware of the Mall Galleries and started to make trips from Yorkshire. I would visit a few times a year and always looked forward to seeing what people were creating. In those pre-social media days, it was the main chance for me to see a mix of painters all in one place. I think things would have been very different for me without the Mall Galleries and all its exhibitions - it has had a huge impact on me.

When I eventually started to submit paintings I was lucky enough to get a few accepted and also won some awards. The member artists I spoke to at the previews were very friendly and encouraging. This helped me to feel less intimidated by the process of submitting paintings generally, which I think can be quite daunting for many people at first.

As the years have gone on, getting to know lots of artists through Mall Galleries and the Federation of British Artists (FBA) and all the friendships have been lovely. It’s great to spend time with other painters who are a really broad range of ages and career stages, but share the similar experiences of being an artist. I think Mall Galleries is pretty unique in the way it acts as a focal point for art and a community of artists.

Lucy McKie ROI, Stoneware Jar with Irises, 46 x 46 cm, Oil - £2,150

You exhibit often and have won many awards. How do such accolades impact your practice?

Awards can be very encouraging, and this is particularly true when you are starting out. It’s not always easy to maintain focus and belief, especially in the early days (and when you are getting plenty of rejections!) If you are lucky enough to receive an award, it can really help and knowing that other artists support your work means a lot and spurs you on. I think prizes aimed specifically at young artists are vital for this reason. All of us can remember how it felt to begin our careers as painters and the associated challenges, so the awards can be very positive.

How did you find creating new works for the Reception Selection?

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Luckily for me, I was working on the paintings throughout summer so I tried to bring in a lot of the light and colour that I was seeing at the time.

Shop Lucy McKie's Reception Selection


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Lucy McKie ROI

Q&A with In the Studio's Maddie Exton

Southwark Foodbank 2, Claire Anscomb

Maddie Exton is a conceptual artist from East Anglia and one of 22 artists from Mall Galleries' In the Studio initiative. During In the Studio's group exhibition in August, Maddie Exton ran a workshop with Central Southwark Community Hub, inviting participants to respond to the artworks. Using recordings of these conversations, Maddie has created a short film: All Philosophy Starts With Wonder. Here Maddie discusses how the project came to be and her thoughts around the accessibility of art.

Tell me about the idea. How did it come about?

I write a lot of exhibition reviews, casually, and for myself mostly. Even as I write them with no intention of sharing, I worry about writing negative things about art, it's like I unconsciously try to write positively even when I don't like the work. I think it is a difficult thing to properly talk about art, there's a lot of psuedo intellect and a lot of passivity. It got me thinking about what would make art easier to talk about and I started thinking about how candid and genuinely children speak about almost everything, really. Children are too young to worry about the social script around art, the connotations of a gallery are much less of a focus, the work is the only thing that interests (or doesn't interest) them.

The title "All Philosophy Starts With Wonder" comes from the idea that a passing thought can grow to be a whole philosophy. In this project, some of the most poignant lines are delivered completely absentmindedly.


Can you give some background on your practice and how this project relates to it?

I'm a conceptual artist which is a blessing because I get to work in so many different ways, but a curse because questions like this are hard to answer both professionally, at times like this, but also when asked by extended family. Sometimes I appropriate materials as sculpture, sometimes I make text drawings and sometimes I run around a gallery with 35 children and £1000 worth of loaned recording equipment telling them to "talk about the paintings please, not dinosaurs".

This project has led me down roads of Tascam recording equipment usage, subtitle formatting and teaching. It relates to my practice because despite my inconsistent style, I am consistently interested in other people.

Workshop participants exploring the In the Studio exhibition

How did you find working with the participants? Were you surprised by any of the responses? 

There was a huge age range from ages 6-16, so it was interesting to see how literally the younger kids worked, trying to copy paintings image for image, and how experimental the older kids were. At one point when testing a pen I scribbled on 16-year-old Barclay's paper and he came back and showed me it boxed off and underneath he had written "Maddie Exton's signature". At that point I thought, hey I've got some competition here.

I was surprised by how equally abstract and realist works ranked for the kids. It makes you wonder at what age do people stand in front of abstract art and say "a 6-year-old could have done that", because to a 6-year-old abstract work is wonderful and very much something they want to do.

Workshop participants drawing beside Celeste C. da Luz's artwork

What equipment did you use to record and edit the piece?

I used 5 Tascam dr-40's loaned by my university (Norwich Uni of The Arts) and Premiere Pro to edit, along with some subtitling software.

What did you learn from this project?

I'm 21 and this is the first time I've really "taught art" which I never thought I'd be interested in, but I found it so interesting. The whole workshop was like research. I feel really lucky to have worked with the team at Mall Galleries, especially Elli Koumousi (Head of Education & Cultural Strategy and Founder of In the Studio) who takes this kind of workshop in her stride.

Do you hope to continue this project, if so where?

I originally proposed this project for The Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, but I didn't have enough time to create the work before a deadline so kept it on a slow burner. This project isn't site-specific, it's about kids thinking about art so it's very malleable. I think the Tate might be a bit exhausting with 35 kids, but degree shows would be really interesting.

Maybe I can start some alternative gallery tours where you're led around by a 6-year-old with a microphone?

What do hope people take away from the film?

I hope people can see that there's no right or wrong way to talk about art. That critique is supportive and not inherently negative. And that the best thing to do in a gallery is to pretend you're not in a gallery and see how your behaviour changes. Just don't touch any paintings.


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Southwark Foodbank 2, Claire Anscomb

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Maddie Exton

The Perceptive Portraiture of Kelvin Okafor

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Kelvin Okafor reflects on the milestone moments of his ten-year career so far, ahead of his first ever retrospective exhibiting at Mall Galleries, 11 to 15 September.

It's easy to mistake one of Kelvin Okafor's meticulous pencil drawings for a photograph. So detailed are they, that each and every pore, eyelash and wrinkle is visible on the page. Despite their impressive specificity, the real force of Okafor’s portraits lies in their perceptiveness. Whether it is Naomi Campbell, Adele or Okafor’s friends and family, the essence of the person is always palpable. Each and every one packs a distinct and powerful emotional punch. This ability has won the artist much critical acclaim. Art critic Estelle Lovatt has dubbed his incisive style as “emotional realism”, while The Guardian's art critic Jonathan Jones deemed Okafor “a miraculous artist.”

This month, Okafor will host his first ever retrospective at Mall Galleries. The focus of the exhibition is the unveiling of a specially commissioned portrait of John Lennon, based on a photograph by the famous rock ‘n’ roll photographer Bob Greun. At 215 hours, this is Okafor’s most ambitious portrait yet. Alongside this landmark piece, the exhibition will feature a series of milestone works created over the last ten years.

Kelvin Okafor Timeless, Graphite and Charcoal Pencils on Archival Paper, 42 x 59 cm & Melvin, Graphite and Charcoal Pencils, 43 x 61 cm

Two beloved portraits of Okafor’s relatives will be on view. ‘Timeless’ depicts Okafor’s cousin Jamal. In Jamal's thoughtful expression, Okafor aimed to capture a sense of stillness and presence, something he felt reflects the gracious personality of the subject. This drawing was awarded the 2013 Runner Up Best of Show Prize at Cork Street Open Exhibition.

‘Melvin’ was awarded the prestigious de Laszlo Foundation award for the most outstanding portrait by an artist aged 35 years or under at the 2013 Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition. This portrait invites the viewer to see Melvin through Okafor's eyes, as someone who the artist perceives to be “wise beyond his years.” These early works are indicative of a perceptiveness that would endure and evolve throughout Okafor’s practice.

Kelvin Okafor Maya's Interlude, Black Coloured Pencil on Archival Paper, 72 x 67 cm

More recently, Okafor's ability and desire to imbue his drawings with a contemplative stillness has developed into a series titled ‘Interludes’. In these portraits, all of the models have their eyes closed. “The meaning behind ‘Interludes’ for me,” Okafor shares, “is a meditative reflective state. It’s about all the possibilities we have within us.”

The collection began with a piece titled ‘Mia’s Interlude’. Okafor has been drawing his friend’s daughter Mia every two years since he first met her in 2009 when she was just three-years-old. He recalls feeling a sense of awe the first time he met her: “I just saw a beaming light proliferating from her and I was like, dude, I need to draw her.” Since then, he has captured her at the ages of three, seven, nine and eleven. This retrospective is the first time that all of the portraits will be shown chronologically together.

Kelvin Okafor Mia I, Graphite Pencil on Archival Paper, 29 x 40 cm & Sensitivity, Graphite Pencil on Archival Paper, 42 x 59 cm

Okafor's portrait of the late British Labour Party politician Bernie Grant is a source of great pride for the artist, having been commissioned by Parliament to create it in 2017. This piece was important to Okafor not only because of his admiration for the radical figurehead but also for the sense of validation it provided. “It gave me a recognition that felt very integral as an artist, to be commissioned by Parliament and to be recognised on that kind of scale.”

His depiction of Mother Teresa holds particular resonance for Okafor as it signifies a turning point in his artistic journey. “This drawing, on so many levels, but on a deeper emotional level, is very dear to me,” he explains. It was created in 2011, two years after Okafor graduated from university at a time when he had hit a plateau. “I was at a place where it was just really difficult, financially, emotionally, mentally,” he recalls, “my family and society was just showing me that this thing that I'm doing is not proving to be lucrative.”

Kelvin Okafor Mother Teresa, Graphite Pencil on Archival Paper, 41 x 28 cm

During this period of creative block, Okafor was desperately searching for inspiration to start drawing again. It was during a conversation with a close friend when Mother Teresa was mentioned. Okafor, a deeply spiritual person, recalls this moment as a pivotal one. “Before putting pen to paper, I was in quite a depressed state. When I had the inspiration to draw her it felt like it was bigger than me, this thing that I'm doing, it's not just for me,” Okafor explains. Immortalising Mother Teresa in this way prompted a period of reflection for the artist. “I had to go back into myself and really understand why I'm doing what I'm doing in the first place and what is it I truly want to gain out of it,” he reflects, “Ultimately at that time it was to share work, whether it was bringing in income or not.”

Kelvin Okafor Lucid, Graphite & Charcoal Pencils on Archival Paper, 65 x 52cm

Self-admittedly, Okafor has come a long way since then. "I would never have expected myself to be someone who is doing interviews and seminars," he reflects, "I was extremely introverted. It was hard to begin with because it was so out of my comfort zone." He adds, "I want people to feel encouraged to come out of their comfort zone and to do something that they truly love and embrace it."

“I draw not just to enjoy the aesthetics of it, I want to capture something that's in all of us and connect people together,” he explains. What does he hope visitors will take away from the exhibition? "It hasn't just been a smooth sailing journey since graduating university. There has been a lot of trials where there was a real test of faith to see whether this is truly what I want to do." Okafor concludes, "I would really love for artists and people, in general, to be honest with their expression and to keep going, regardless of the resistances we have and the obstacles we have in life."

Kelvin Okafor: Retrospective is on view at Mall Galleries 11 to 15 September

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Kelvin Okafor

David Cobley Reflects on Painting, People and Portraiture

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Ahead of his upcoming retrospective, David Cobley reflects on his thirty-year career and his unlikely path into portraiture.

Many will know David Cobley as a portrait painter. Throughout his thirty-year career, he has painted actors, performers, comedians, lawyers, judges, politicians, professors and princesses. It is unsurprising then, that the focus of Cobley’s upcoming exhibition is people. “I'm absolutely fascinated by people, the human race, what makes people tick," Cobley explains.

While it is portraiture for which the artist is most widely known, his oeuvre spans still lifes, landscapes, some abstract pieces and many surrealist twists – all of which explore humanity in unique ways. The full spectrum of Cobley’s work will be displayed together like never before in All By Himself, a retrospective of over 200 paintings and works on paper, opening at Mall Galleries, 10 to 15 September. The exhibition coincides with the launch of a new book by the same name, written by Cobley’s longtime friend, the artist and art critic, Peter Davies.

David Cobley Portrait of and Artist (Pool with Three Figures), Oil on linen, 122 x 172.5 cm – to be sold at auction

The works in the show date as far back as 1971. The earliest work is a self-portrait painted when the artist was just 17. More recent works include ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Three Figures)’, a large painting that many will recognise as being based on David Hockney’s record-breaking ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ which uses the motif of a swimming pool to explore the complexity of human relationships. The original was created by a heartbroken Hockney in the 1970s. The man in the pink jacket, Peter Schlesinger – the apparent love of Hockney’s life – looks on at someone in the pool (who isn’t Hockney). 

David Cobley Summer ’71, Oil on Board, 91.5 x 61 cm – NFS

Cobley’s painting was also inspired by the breakdown of a relationship, though in his version, it is he who stands on the edge of the pool observing the figure of his ex-wife submerged below. “In this painting, I am looking on in bewilderment at her new-found faith. Perhaps also with some nostalgia on the time spent bringing up our daughters before the chasm that opened up between us.” The swimming pool, as in Hockney’s original, creates a sense of concurrent closeness and distance, like observing someone from afar, or through a window, unbeknownst to them.

Since becoming a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1997, Cobley has worked extensively on portrait commissions, painting everyone from Princess Anne to the actor Steven Berkoff and most famously, the comedian Ken Dodd – “I remember really being bowled over by him as a boy,” Cobley recalls, “His hair and his teeth. Cracking these jokes one after the other. He was an extraordinary person. Whether you liked him or not you had to admit he was extraordinary.”

David Cobley Sir Ken Dodd OBE, Oil on Linen, 76 x 91.5 cm – NFS (courtesy National Portrait Gallery)

His favourite commission to date is of a man he met at a party, a friend of his brother named Trevor. “I casually told him how much a commission would cost and he said he wanted me to paint him,” Cobley recalls. The result was ‘Blues, Beer and Rock 'n' Roll’ in which the sitter is captured from above, surrounded by his beloved record collection, a beer in hand. The piece is characteristic of the “composite” nature of Cobley’s work, as Peter Davies notes in All By Himself, “the iconographic combination of interior, unposed portrait and still life in one compellingly candid composition.”

Cobley admits that commissioned work comes with its own set of challenges. In some cases you may not click with, or particularly like, the person you’ve been asked to paint, admits Cobley. “But you have to find a way if you're being professional about it. Sometimes you might find you learn a lot by painting somebody that you don't initially warm to." Besides from the relational aspect, portraiture is technical and exacting. "Painting the human face is difficult,” Cobley explains, “only a slight variation and it doesn't look like them." Cobley himself is too humble to admit it, but one only has to look at his vast repertoire to see that capturing a person’s essence is a skill he has mastered.

David Cobley Blues, Beer and Rock 'n’ Roll, Oil on Linen, 122 x 122 cm - NFS

It might seem as though Cobley was born with a paintbrush in hand, but his route into art was a strange and meandering one. Shortly after moving to Liverpool to attend art school as a young man, Cobley was approached on the street by a stranger. The artist remembers this as a period of uncertainty in his life. "I was vulnerable because I was in a big city. I was only 19. I had no friends and I was open to new ideas. I had all kinds of questions about the meaning of life.” The man was a member of a religious sect known as the Moonies. "Cutting a long story short, they got me," Cobley reflects. 

After three years as a full-time member, he was sent to Japan with a group of a thousand others from all over Europe, where he was paired up with a Japanese work partner. “That was an amazing experience and I got to see a completely different culture,” the artist says, and ultimately an eye-opening one. He left the Moonies and studied at Sophia University in Tokyo, which he funded by teaching English. “I was learning all kinds of things, which had known before I met the Moonies, I wouldn't have joined them in the first place." After nearly ten years abroad, he moved home with his young family, working as an illustrator for some time before becoming a full-time painter. Cobley, now agnostic, sounds somewhat regretful when talking about his time with the Moonies, but ultimately accepting of it. "With hindsight, everything looks different. But you can't live your life backward, as my brother has pointed out."

David Cobley What Are You Doing Here?, Oil on Linen, 61 x 61 cm – £2,350

If anything, this colourful life has informed the dynamic way in which Cobley paints the world – with his eyes wide open. In the Foreword of the book, Pete Brown, President of the New English Art Club recalls sharing a studio with Cobley: “Being so adept meant that he was always looking for new angles.” An instinct that perhaps comes from a life lived, at various points, through a multitude of perspectives. If one looks closely, this familiarity with the road less travelled is evident in the layered nature of Cobley’s work which often appears to hint towards some deeper resonance beneath the surface meaning. “Rather than dazzle, he prefers his work to pose questions,” Pete Brown writes. “A true observer in a self-obsessed world dominated by people who shout the loudest.”

David Cobley All By Himself is on view at Mall Galleries from 10 to 15 September.

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David Cobley

Sarah Jane Moon: The Artist Changing the Face of Portraiture

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We visited Sarah Jane Moon at her studio in Brixton to discuss her roundabout route into portraiture, what compels her to keep painting people and the evolution of her practice.

Anyone who frequents the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition will recognise the work of Sarah Jane Moon. Since she began showing in 2011, the artist has earned a name for herself as someone who is challenging the traditional conventions of portraiture. Her boisterous and brave works are instantly distinguishable on the walls of Mall Galleries – Bold colours, sartorial aplomb, immediacy, strength of character, queerness: these are the elements of a quintessential Sarah Jane Moon portrait. Though her artistic vision feels clear cut, Moon's path into portraiture was not so straightforward.

Sarah Jane Moon, Derek, Mark & Baby (2017) Oil, 150 x 110 cm - NFS

Moon was interested in painting from an early age but was encouraged to pursue a more pragmatic career rather than study Fine Art. She studied English Literature and Japanese, picking up Art History. “I think that I was trying to get back into the art world somehow,” she recalls with hindsight.

After a stint teaching English in Japan, she moved to Perth, Australia, where, alongside post-graduate studies in curatorial practice, she tried her hand at various arts-based roles. This included organising the visual arts component of the Artrage festival and programming artist-run gallery spaces. “I wanted to be around art,” she explains, still not realising "that this was all probably an attempt to get back to painting.”

Sarah Jane Moon in her studio in Brixton (2019)

In 2007, she moved to London with her then-boyfriend and worked at the Royal Drawing School for a time in an arts admin role, before leaving to pursue a more hands-on path. It was during this crossroads that Moon signed up to life drawing classes at Central Saint Martins. “I was really not very good, making entry-level life drawings without much nuance, but despite feeling very nervous about it all, I loved it.” The artist remembers a pivotal moment in the class which changed the course of her life. “At the end, the tutor walked around the room trying to say something nice about everyone's work. She looked at mine and said, ‘It looks like your mark making suggests you might be good at portraiture.’ And I thought, ‘Oh...portraiture?’”

Sarah Jane Moon, Krishna Istha (2018) Oil, 122 x 97cm 

Shortly after, she applied to Heatherley's – where Moon now teaches herself. She got in, though only by the skin of her teeth. The tutors told her she didn’t have quite enough experience, and warned, “You're going to be at the bottom of the heap. But as long as you know that..." A self-defined contrarian, this only served to motivate Moon to prove herself. “I think I've always had a healthy sense of confidence,” the artist explains,  “I've always thought that with hard work most things are possible. That might be to do with being a New Zealander and our entrepreneurial spirit. You just think of course you can do it – or at least give it a go.”

But what is it about portraiture that has truly captivated Moon after all this time, other than the challenge it presented? “The engagement with my subjects.” She points to a painting in progress in her studio and explains, “Juno for example, is someone who I don't see very often as we live in different countries. But I'm very much thinking about her and what her life means, her work and everything else the painting suggests.”

Sarah Jane Moon with her portraits of artists Roxana Halls (2018) and Sadie Lee (2018)

Moon is fascinated by the way humans piece together their identities: how we choose to present ourselves in the world, from our body language and facial expressions to the clothes we wear and the objects we surround ourselves with. She attributes this to her experience as a queer woman painting queer subjects. “Because I paint a lot of LGBTQI people, issues around presentation are heightened because of the identity politics. How people feel within themselves, how they present, how they perform their identities and what I project onto them or want to portray is endlessly fascinating.”

Sarah Jane Moon, Dr Ronx (2019) Oil, 130 x 100cm

The artist notes a “distinct shift” from her earlier work, which was flatter and "less impastoed", often including lots of objects and details. The change came about in the summer of 2016 when Moon was working intensely on eight double portraits, without much time for her own work. “Everything was becoming too literal, in terms of the way I was putting the paint on the surface. I wanted the paintings to have a little more freedom and character and to be more painterly. I had always found this gestural approach came more readily in my landscape paintings and it took deliberate effort to bring it into the portraiture. There's much less detail in my portraiture these days; they are becoming more about the expressive potential of oil  – like the portrait of Dr. Ronx.”

Even if you don’t know Sarah Jane Moon’s work, it’s likely you’ll have seen her portrait of Dr. Ronx dotted around London in recent months. The striking painting has been used widely, unsurprisingly, for the promotion of this year’s BP Portrait Award. This work, alongside two pieces exhibited by Moon in this year's Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP) Annual Exhibition, feel as though they mark a transition into a new phase for the artist, both stylistically and conceptually.

From to Left: Sarah Jane Moon, Untitled (Portrait of My Girlfriend): Oil, 154 x 114cm - £5,600 and Bird La Bird: Oil, 154 x 124cm - £7,400

‘Untitled (Portrait of My Girlfriend)' and 'Bird La Bird' tell a story with a political undercurrent. The former, which depicts her partner half-dressed, is part of an ongoing investigation to paint the female nude through a queer lens, questioning and subverting the genre's patriarchial history along the way. The latter shows Bird La Bird in academic drag in front of foundational floor plans from Millbank Prison (current site of the Tate Britain) and St Martin’s Workhouse (that stood on the site of the National Portrait Gallery). Bird is a queer femme performance artist who works to uncover the inequalities that lurk beneath the histories of beloved UK art institutions.

Apart from becoming “looser and more expressive,” as with 'Dr Ronx', the artists sees herself "shifting towards working on a bigger scale.” She gestures to a stack of paintings in her studio, “like these things behind you that are seven feet across.” As with her works from the RP exhibition, Moon says, “I’d like to move into a narrative space, making paintings that are concept driven while remaining figurative.”

Sarah Jane Moon, Harriet & Anoushka Oil, 140 x 120cm - NFS

It feels timely, at this junction point, that the artist is holding a retrospective exhibition of sorts. Queer Portraits (2 to 14 November at The Department Store, Brixton) will exhibit 16 portraits created over the course of the last ten years, including friends, writers, artists, academics and commissioned work.

Moon debated using “queer” in the title to avoid being exclusionary. She is adamant that she wants everyone to feel welcome at the exhibition. “I didn't want to just call it Portraits because the queer aspect is a unifying factor and something I feel very celebratory about. It’s increasingly important that we celebrate diversity of all kinds.” 

The fact is that queerness is a key tenet of the artist’s work and the thing that makes her portraits sing is the vitality and joie de vivre of the queer character she captures. In doing so, she is creating greater visibility of queer people, presenting them in spaces where they have not always been welcome. “[Historically], portraiture is about the establishment and maintaining a nuclear family structure as well as class privilege and I'm subtly trying to expand and subvert that.”

Buy Art | Buy Now: Sarah Jane Moon

We have a new selection of paintings by Sarah Jane Moon available to purchase on Buy Art | Buy Now, including one of her signature portraits, as well as still lifes and landscapes.


Browse the Selection


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Derek, Mark & Baby by Sarah Jane Moon

The Hesketh Hubbard Bursary Experience

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This year, the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society (HH) launched a bursary for young artists. Here, we speak to HH member Alan Power and HH President Simon Whittle about the decision to launch the initiative. We also hear from the recipients of the bursary, Bartholomew Beal, Jonathan Farningham and Lucy Savage about their experience so far.

The Hesketh Hubbard Art Society has been running weekly life drawing classes for nearly 100 years. Founded in 1930 by the Royal Society of British Artists as a drawing club sponsored by Eric Hesketh Hubbard RBA, it eventually grew into its own separate art society and was renamed in his honor in 1957. Today, it has about 150 members and prides itself on being London’s largest life drawing group.

This year, the Society welcomed three emerging artists under a new bursary scheme for those aged 18 to 30, funded by Alan Power’s eponymous architecture practice. Power, a Hesketh Hubbard member, believes, “Life drawing is, in my view, essential for any developing artist, and it has been neglected in art schools over recent years.” While Simon Whittle, President of the Society, added, “The Society feels that the bursary scheme has been a great success, the artists are an asset to the Society and we would love it to continue.”

We spoke to Bartholomew Beal, Lucy Savage and Jonathan Farningham about how attending regular life drawing classes as a result of the bursary has influenced their process and how life drawing, in general, informs their work.

Bartholomew Beal is a figurative artist and studied Fine Art at Wimbledon College of Art. He has found the time brackets of the Society’s drawing sessions to be useful in changing the way he works. “I have been making art in 15-30 minutes, instead of spending months working into paintings, and I hope I can develop a unique style by the end of this year.” He feels that these life drawing sessions have encouraged an element of spontaneity in his work.

Life drawing by Bartholomew Beal

The fixed time frame also excites Jonathan Farningham, who has exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and is a participant of our In the Studio programme. ”You have a limited amount of time to capture the person in front of you and you must respond quickly to make the most of that moment. There is no time for extended contemplation, life drawing demands immediacy.”

Life drawing by Jonathan Farningham

For Lucy Savage, it is being part of “such a passionate and talented community of artists and sharing feedback with them every week.” Since becoming a bursary recipient, Lucy has also been working with a ballerina, Miriam Pierzak, in her studio, deciphering the anatomy of dance through drawing. Lucy will be hosting a ballet life drawing event with Miriam during the Hesketh Hubbard Society Exhibition in August

Life drawing by Lucy Savage

17 August, 1 to 3pm – Instinctive Drawing with Artist Lucy Savage and Ballerina Miriam Pierzak

Earlier this year, the three artists created a shared Instagram account (@heskethhubbardbursary) as a way to exhibit their work together online. Now, they are bringing this digital experience offline, hosting a special exhibition of their life drawings presented alongside the works they later inform when they return to their studios. See below for more details.

Drawn to Life, 31 August to 14 September

Jonathan Farningham, Lucy Savage and Bartholomew Beal are pleased to present an exhibition of figurative drawings at The Good Yard, located within the beautiful surroundings of Leadenhall Market.

Join them to observe a study of the human condition seen through three unique styles of draughtsmanship. They have each interpreted the body according to their individual visions, compromising different media and approaches to art making. Paintings and prints from their personal collections will also be on display.

Private View: 31st August 6pm.

RSVP to the Private View


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Life drawing by Bartholomew Beal

The Art of Self-Portraiture

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To coincide with National Selfie Day, we asked five artists what self-portraiture means to them.

Historically, self-portraiture was popularised during the Renaissance, brought about by the rise of individualism and the “heroic” status given to artists at that time. Since then, some of the most iconic artworks, from Van Gogh to Frida Kahlo, have been self-portraits. The genre has been used as a means of formal experimentation as well as psychological investigation. While contemporary artists such as Jenny Saville have used self-portraiture politically, to subvert societal expectations around prescribed notions of beauty.

In recent years, a new kind of self-portrait has emerged – the selfie. With the ubiquity of smartphones, this instantaneous method of capturing the self has become the defining visual genre of our time. “Today, we live in the age of the selfie,” wrote Jerry Saltz in his popular 2014 column on the subject. So much so, that there is even a whole day devoted to the act. Yes, today (21 June) is National Selfie Day. Despite the omnipresence of these digital snapshots, self-portraiture as an art form remains steadfast. It is perhaps more impactful than ever when its mindful painterly approach is compared to the stream of transitory catalogues which live on our devices.

Here, we speak to five artists about the art of self-portraiture, the technical and personal motivations behind it and the selfies that have influenced them throughout art history, from Rembrandt to Hockney.

Self Portrait, Arms behind Back, Tim Benson: Oil, 36 x 30 cm – £1,600


Tell me about the thought behind this self-portrait and the process of painting it.

This portrait was a direct reaction to not getting a piece of work into a competition. Over the last few years, I've channeled a lot of that negative energy into positive outcomes. Normally, I'll go to my studio and I'll do a self-portrait. That's something I've done for the last three years.

In the past, [rejection] was quite crushing. Not crushing, but you know, it would create a lot of negative energy and it was just sort of buzzing around doing no good. So I decided to channel it into something positive, slightly aggressive. I think I work in a relatively aggressive way anyway. I suppose it's quite a muscular way of working: Loads of paint. Big brushes. So, this is the latest iteration of yet another rejection. I've done loads of self-portraits before, I'm also not very interested in painting my own face, so this time around I wanted to do something different – which is how I ended up doing it from the back.

I used a series of mirrors and a photograph of my arm – because obviously, you can't paint with an arm that's behind you. It was quite a physical, visceral thing. A big creak in the neck. A twist in the torso. Quite painful. But, necessary. 

What do you want to achieve with your portraits?

A portrait can be a beautiful thing, even if it's not of a beautiful subject matter done in a beautiful way. There's beauty in anger. There's excitement. Portraiture transcends necessity for something that is objectively safe or pretty or glorifying. That's just not what I want to do. So it's almost a direct response to that, challenging that convention as explicitly as possible.

Are there any self-portraits by living or dead artists that you admire?

Rembrandt. I was brought up in North London. Kenwood House nearby is full of Fine Art. There's one of Rembrandt's latest self-portraits there. My mum used to plonk me in front of it. It's a beautiful piece of work. Totally honest. No artifice. Very unflashy. Very modern. 

Tai-Shan Schierenberg, who is one of the judges on the Sky Portrait Artists of the Year and won the BP Portrait Award in 1989. His self-portraits from the early 90s are particularly good, so I was influenced by some of that.

'Self Portrait, Arms behind Back' is currently exhibiting in the New English Art Club Annual Exhibition until 22 June. 

Portrait of an Artist by David Cobley: Oil on Linen, 122 x 173 cm

David Cobley RP NEAC

Tell me about the thought behind this self-portrait and the process of painting it.

I came up with the idea for this painting last year while visiting my daughters who live in California. Swimming in the neighbourhood pool one day, the reflections in the water reminded me of David Hockney’s 'Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)'. I share Hockney’s enthusiasm for the visual world and it seemed natural to make a painting based on it: not a pastiche or spoof, but a painting that was about my own relationship with water, California and a former partner.

The standing figure is me and the figure in the pool is my ex-wife. A decade ago, she became deeply religious. I don’t share her enthusiasm for God and a life of servitude. And so, my figure in this painting is looking on in bewilderment at her new-found faith. Perhaps also with some nostalgia on the time spent bringing up our daughters before the chasm that opened up between us.

The figure to the left is the hard-working Mexican who, in Orange County, is the one tending pools, mending roads and building houses. The hill in the background is Saddleback Mountain, which dominates the county’s eastern skyline.

In preparation for the painting, which I completed back in the UK, I was fortunate to have the enthusiastic assistance of my eldest daughter, who acted as both camera woman and body double.

What motivates you to paint a self-portrait and what do you get out of painting self-portraits?

For one thing, I am always around, so if I am short of someone or something to paint I only have to look in the mirror. And for another, self-portraits give me a chance to try a new approach or spend time working something out – either about myself or about the particular situation I find myself in.

Are there any self-portraits by living or dead artists that you admire?

I came across a reproduction of Rembrandt’s 'Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul' as a young teenager in a local shop selling Athena prints and bought it with the money from my paper round. I had it framed and hung it on my bedroom wall as a kind of talisman. Rembrandt was talented and ambitious and became very affluent from the proceeds of his work as a painter. He also faced the loss of three of his children just weeks after they were born, as well as the death of his wife and only son in adulthood. Living beyond his means, he died a pauper. And although he painted himself as a youth and in middle age, his later self-portraits depict a man who understands what life is all about. He seemed to understand me too.

David Cobley All By Himself, a retrospective exhibition charting 50 years of the artist's career, will take place from 10 to 15 September 2019.

Self-Portrait on a Train by Suzon Lagarde: Gouache, 20 x 20 cm – £350

Suzon Lagarde

Tell me about the thought behind this self-portrait and the process of painting it.

I painted this self-portrait on a train to Canterbury last spring. I had some gouache, my sketchbook and the desire to paint from life. As I'm mostly drawn to faces, I figured I could be my own model. With no proper mirror on hand, I decided to use the screen of my phone as a reflective surface and taped it to the front seat for convenience.

What motivates you to paint a self-portrait and what do you get out of painting self-portraits? 

This last year I've done a fair amount of self-portraits for various reasons. It's a wonderful way to practice as the model is always available and it takes the pressure off trying to please anyone. It can also be an opportunity to get to know yourself better through this intense scrutiny – painting my hands has been particularly important. And of course, there's another aspect of painting which lies beyond the visual representation, which can become emotionally charged, often beyond what you expected.

Are there any self-portraits by living or dead artists that you admire?

Vivian Maier's work is particularly fascinating. I love the playfulness and inventiveness of her self-portraits, finding indirect ways to capture her reflection among daily moments of life.

'Self-Portrait on a Train' was exhibited in the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 207th Exhibition 2019. Suzon will be showing new work in the upcoming In the Studio exhibition, from 12 to 17 August. 

Self Portrait at 19 by Erin Lee: Oil, 54 x 62 cm – £500

Erin Lee

Tell me about the thought behind this painting and the process of painting it.

This self-portrait came out of a desire to see an image of myself that countered passive representations of women in art and the media. Painted over the course of a year and a half during my university holidays, it became almost therapeutic in its ability to make me contemplate myself in a way that I don’t on a day to day basis. Instead of labelling my appearance as one thing or another, I saw my features as a unique combination of depths and textures with variations of light bouncing off of them. During those hours, painting it gave me a different relationship with myself that I think is only really capable through the intimate study of it. It was a refreshing break from the pressures society puts on appearance.

What motivates you to paint a self-portrait and what do you get out of painting self-portraits?

I am fascinated by gender and gendered representations in art. Having studied the History of Art at university, I became aware of the conventional dichotomy throughout Western art of the male artist and female muse and how representations of women were often geared towards the male gaze, using notions of vanity to redeem voyeurism.

It is interesting to think of selfies in the same light, even though there is a sense of agency inherent in them. The self-portrait for me is a way of challenging this convention and raising questions about the viewer’s own embedded perceptions of women’s self-portraits. As a female artist, I hope that by creating self-portraits I can contribute to rewriting traditional modes of representation and modes of viewing.

Are there any self-portraits by living or dead artists that you admire?

I really admire Jenny Saville’s self-portraits. Her corporeal application of paint teases out the fleshy meaning of the work in a way that I think is truly sensational. I also take a lot of inspiration from the compositions of Joan Semmel’s work, such as in 'Me without Mirrors' (1974), in which we are presented with a view of her body as though we are experiencing it through her own eyes. Through their un-idealised depictions, both of these artists raise questions about representations of women in art and society that are still relevant today.

'Self Portrait at 19' will be exhibiting in the upcoming Royal Society of British Artists Annual Exhibition, 4 to 14 July. Erin will also be showing new work in the upcoming In the Studio exhibition, from 12 to 17 August. 

Self Portrait, Oundle School Studio by Nick Grove: Oil, 120 x 95 cm – NFS

Nick Grove

Tell me about the thought behind this self-portrait and the process of painting it.

This portrait was created during my residency at Oundle School in Northamptonshire. I enjoyed the novelty of having lots of space and light and knew right away that one piece I had to create whilst there, was a large studio-based self-portrait.

I purposely chose a challenging viewpoint with numerous sources of light: natural and artificial, indoors and outdoors. I had to keep waiting for the light to be just right, to continue with the painting. It was meant to be a challenging painting and certainly lived up to that expectation; I was there to learn, as well as to teach, after all.

What motivates you to paint a self-portrait and what do you get out of painting self-portraits?

There’s something intrinsically personal about painting a self-portrait. Observing one's reflection in a mirror, instantly puts the viewer in a quietened state, ideal for painting. It’s something I enjoy immensely and come the winter, I’ll be switching focus to painting more self-portraits and portraits. Fundamentally I think self-portraits are the next level up from a good life drawing lesson. It’s drawing with all the bells and whistles and a cherry on top. And like all drawing, it’s essential to keep practising if you want to improve.

Are there any self-portraits by living or dead artists that you admire?

I particularly like Ken Howard’s studio self-portraits which were a direct influence when composing this particular painting.

Personally, I don’t think you can get any better than John Singer Sargent’s ‘Lady Agnew of Lochnaw’. There are many self-portraits within Sargent’s body of work which I enjoy inspecting, but this one, in particular, draws me in every time.

Likewise, I love thumbing through Rembrandt's huge catalogue of self-portraits spanning his lifetime. There are so many wonderfully emotive Rembrandt self-portraits that when regularly viewed, you begin to feel as though you knew the man. Currently, my favourite is ’Self Portrait at the Age of 63’.

Self Portrait, Oundle School Studio was exhibited in the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2019

Did you know we offer a portrait consultancy service? 

Many of our clients commission portraits to commemorate personal milestones, whether that be a marriage, the birth of a child or a professional achievement. Others gift them to family members to mark a meaningful life event such as an anniversary or birthday.

If you are interested in commissioning a portrait, contact our consultants here or visit the Commissions section of our blog to view a myriad of exciting case studies. 


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Portrait of an Artist by David Cobley