Artist Interviews

The Perceptive Portraiture of Kelvin Okafor

Kelvin Okafor selfportrait

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 selfportrait

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Kelvin Okafor

David Cobley Reflects on Painting, People and Portraiture

What Are You Doing Here? by David Cobley

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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What Are You Doing Here? by David Cobley

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David Cobley

Sarah Jane Moon: The Artist Changing the Face of Portraiture

Sarah Jane Moon cover

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.

 

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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.

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Life drawing by Bartholomew Beal

The Art of Self-Portraiture

David Cobley - Portrait of an Artist (cover)

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

Tim Benson PROI NEAC RP

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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David Cobley - Portrait of an Artist (cover)

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Portrait of an Artist by David Cobley

Emma Hopkins' Nude Portraits Explore What it Means to be Human

Rob & Martha by Emma Hopkins - cover

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.” 

 

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Rob & Martha by Emma Hopkins - cover

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Robert and Martha by Emma Hopkins

Inventing and Imagining the Natural World through Watercolours

Wild India by Kate Morgan

Kate Morgan RI discusses blending the fantastical with the real to create enchanting naturescapes and her recent collaboration with H&M Kids.

 

Hi Kate! Tell us about your practice? What materials do you use? Do you paint from photographs, life, a mix of both?

Kate Morgan: I work in watercolour. I find that this is a medium that offers maximum flexibility for expression. It gives scope for precise detail (which I need in my work) but also gives me the freedom to be playful with colour and texture. It’s also an unforgiving medium - which I really enjoy! Watercolour painting keeps me on my toes and makes every painting exciting. There is no room for error, so my planning begins before I even begin to apply the paint. It has to be exact to create the effect that I want.

I use a mixture of both real-life observation and photographic reference. I like to research the wildlife that I paint and their surrounding habitats in depth to understand the creatures and their surroundings before I begin. Having references around me whilst I’m painting helps me immerse myself into the world that I’m trying to create.

Even though I have the references in front of me,  I enjoy imagining (and sometimes inventing) creatures and their surroundings too. The overall painting then becomes an almost dreamlike place to escape to, depicting a familiar, yet, unfamiliar world.

'Wild India' by Kate Morgan RI, 65 x 60cm – SOLD

Have you always been interested in nature?

Kate Morgan: Always! One of my earliest memories was looking for newts and frogs in ponds. My dad loved his garden and had plants with huge leaves (like castor oil plants and palms) which, at the time, seemed giant to me. I imagined, even then, being in a jungle and from an early age wanted to be an explorer discovering new creatures and inventing new species - all from my morning’s expedition in the garden!

This love stayed with me into my teens and later into my 20s. Now, in my early 30s, when I’m painting in my studio, I love to use a mixture of the passion and interest I have for natural history with an imaginative world that I want to see and create. I'm aiming for a mix of the fantastical, enchanting, magical with the real.

Are there any artists you're influenced by?

Kate Morgan: I couldn’t answer this question without mentioning Henri Rousseau. Though to be honest, I view him more as a kindred spirit than as an “influencer” of my work. What inspired him connects with me - bright and characterful worlds inspired by the natural. I love his naive style that personifies his animals. I also love the fact that he never visited a jungle but it was his imagination that sparked his creative ideas of these unseen worlds. It always intrigued me.

Another artist who has always inspired me, is Maria Sybilla Merian. A German artist and one of the first naturalists to observe, study and paint animals, birds and insects from life. For a female artist/scientist of the 15-16th century this was almost unheard of. She travelled to Suriname to study and discover these incredible species. Her paintings are exceptionally exquisite in their detail and full of colour and celebration of the natural world.

'Where Wild Hearts Conquer' by Kate Morgan RI, Watercolour

How did the H&M collaboration come about?

Kate Morgan: In summer 2018, they got in touch about doing a potential children’s clothing collaboration for their 'Kids' range. I was intrigued by the offer as I’d always intended to translate my paintings onto fabric one day but was then concentrating solely on my painting. This, however, seemed like the perfect collaboration. I particularly loved that it was a kids range, as my audience up to then had been a little older!

Also, at a young age, this is when you develop your passions and imagination. The idea of creating something fun, a little magical but with an emphasis on all the animals that I love and inspiring this interest sounded like a wonderful opportunity to me.

How has it been received so far?

Kate Morgan: The response has been really wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for more. What I have enjoyed the most (highlighting the benefits of living in an age of social media), are the photos and messages I have received from both kids and parents alike, saying how much they love the range and modelling the clothes on various adventures.

Kate Morgan X H&M Kids: A Collection Inspired by Wildlife and Animals

How has becoming a member of the RI impacted your career?

Kate Morgan: There is the best and most inspirational group of artists associated with the Royal Institute of Paintings in Watercolour. Rosa Sepple is a wonderful president, who is great to talk to and her own work is imaginative and dreamlike - so I always come away feeling inspired.

There is such an eclectic mix of work from its members. Whether it be the beautiful abstract paintings of Jean Noble, the dreamy and beautiful work of Aimee Birnbaum or the incredibly intricate draftsmanship in Lillias August’s work – they offer so much inspiration.

The RI membership encompasses artists with so many different skills - all seeing the world differently and helping others through their work to see things with a new perspective. This, to me, is one of the wonders of what art can do.

It has had an incredible impact on my career - not just through its inspirational artists but also in influencing the way people perceive watercolour as a medium with its richness and diversity.

What’s next for you?

I have an upcoming solo show in London, just behind the Mall, from June 21st - 05th July at Panter and Hall.

'Sundarata' by Kate Morgan RI, Watercolour,  6ft 7" x 2ft 7" – SOLD

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Wild India by Kate Morgan

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Wild India by Kate Morgan

Interview with Ed Burkes: Winner of the Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award 2019

On April 10, we announced Ed Burkes as the winner of the eighth Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award. This biennial award, established by Foundation Derbyshire in 1998, will see Burkes take up a nine-month residency in Derbyshire from October 2019, where he will produce work inspired by the county’s landscape, heritage and people, under the broad theme “Sense of Place”. 

Since graduating from Falmouth University in 2016 with a BA in Fine Art, Burkes’ work has been selected for a number of group exhibitions, including Saatchi Invest in Art and FBA Futures 2017, shortlisted for Bloomberg New Contemporaries and exhibited at London Art Fair with Arusha Gallery. In 2016, he won the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Travel to Italy Award.

Burkes is currently living on the secluded Isles of Scilly, located 30 miles off the southwest coast of Cornwall. We spoke to the artist, between capricious WiFi-connections, about island life, how it's influencing his artistic practice and his plans for his upcoming residency in Derbyshire. 

Ed Burkes, His Master's Voice

Tell me about what you've been up to on the Isles of Scilly? 

Ed Burkes: There are five islands on the Isles of Scilly and the island I'm on is called Tresco. About 150 people live here permanently. There's only one pub, and there's no roads or street lights. There are these sub-tropical gardens here called the Abbey Gardens, which is where I'm living. I'm also working three days a week within the gardens. I'm not paying rent and I've got studio space, so it's an opportunity I had to take really because it's a wonderfully peculiar place. 

How has being on the Isles of Scilly impacted your artwork?

Ed Burkes: There are a few prongs to that actually. I'm big into my history and a lot of my paintings over the last year or so have come from various fifteenth and sixteenth century tapestries and things like that. So coming to the Isles of Scilly has been interesting. In about 500 AD, it was a single island but since then the waters have changed, so now you have this cluster of islands. It feels like you're still living on ancient Celtic hilltops. The landscape is very sort of rugged. 

Being outside is fruitful for art making. As a contemporary artist, I don't sit outside with an easel and paint a landscape, but there are definitely artistic secrets to be unlocked here. Traditionally all of these Old Masters and Impressionists and guys like that, just by being outside they’d take in the environment. Having that kind of response to work is really intriguing to me. There are all kinds of little weird flowers here. There's one called a yellow horned-poppy, another called a dog-rose and there's also a flower called love-in-a-mist. So there's all this language and the poetics of language is very anchored to how my images come about. There are so many visual stimuli but also just reading into things and looking into the history of the place. There's so much to latch onto.  

Ed Burkes on the Isles of Scilly (2019)

Have you thought about the Derbyshire residency and what you're going to do there? The "Sense of Place" theme ties in nicely with the Isles of Scilly. 

Ed Burkes: It ties in beautifully. Some of the works on paper, the "Dance Like a Lioness" ones, a lot of the motifs are from a tapestry in the V&A made by Mary Queen of Scots when she was under house arrest from Queen Elizabeth. She did these tapestries of elephants and fish and birds. In Derbyshire, there are lots of National Trust properties and museums. So I'm keen to explore all of that and find a peculiar little corner of history there. 

Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?

Ed Burkes: The work comes about in quite a hodgepodge. It's like a patchwork blanket and through the process of painting, images and text all lock into each other. It's something I can't quite articulate, but I think that's the magic of it. It's like music, when you listen to a song and it hits you in the feels and you can't quite explain it to someone. That's what really fascinates me: the problems of articulating things. 

I also enjoy contradictions. For example, one of my paintings is called "Hug Until We Catch On Fire". That is just one sentence but it could mean the seductive heat of a relationship or the impending implosion of one.

The titles of your paintings are very evocative and often humorous too. How do you name your works? 

Ed Burkes: I just write sentences and then maybe put two sentences next to one another. The title of the work changes as the work changes, and then it gets to a point where it doesn't change anymore, and that's when the work is finished. 

The text is just as important as how the work looks. I'm quite keen, when people look at a work of mine, for them to read the title. It's a little snippet, a little whisper. I don't want to tell the viewer anything, I just want to give a little hint. 

Ed Burke, Hug Until We Catch On Fire

There's a real sense of spontaneity to your paintings. How planned are they? 

Ed Burkes: I wouldn't really plan a painting. The work comes from drawings and sketchbooks, but there's very much a vacancy when I start making an image. The whole process is art making for me. It's almost like a stage waiting to be filled. I enjoy when an image comes about as if from nothing at all, from the subconscious. I listen to music a lot and I just zone out. One thing I like to do is have quite an eclectic playlist of music on. So one minute I'll be listening to Ozzy Osbourne and next thing it'll be Prince. This creates a contrast in the mood of how I apply brushstrokes. It's all very intuitive. I'm not thinking about what I'm doing. It all just feeds in. 

How long do you spend on a piece, or does it vary?

Ed Burkes: A lot of the time the work is in my studio and they won't get touched for two or three weeks, then they might change completely or they might change slightly. There's a recent cluster of works on paper, titled "Dance Like a Lioness". That's the most recent body of work and they're all 15x20cm works on paper, so they're really quite intimate. 

With the residency I’ll be starting in Derbyshire, I'm hoping to keep that intimacy but transpose it onto a larger scale. It varies with works. The larger paintings I do which are 2mx2m, they take quite a while, but I never just work on one thing. There are usually around six canvases I'd be working on alongside smaller things. 

Ed Burkes, Your Kind of Necklace

There is an immediacy and freedom to your work that is reminiscent of Rose Wylie's paintings. Are there any artists that you're influenced by? 

Ed Burkes: Yeah, Rose Wylie is amazing. I had some works in the London Art Fair in January and there were three or four people who had feedback and said it's like Rose Wylie, which is something I'm working on – developing my own voice, to a point where I own what I make visually. Not ownership in terms of copyright but “owning” in terms of doing something very well. I'm quite aware of that and that's something, talking to artists who are older than me, that just takes time to achieve. It's mad that she's 85 and she's making these huge paintings. They're just so visceral, aren't they? 

In your artist statement, you point to "the pitfalls of language" as a source of inspiration for your painting practice. You define your work as being "anchored around that inability to articulate, or at least the attempt to articulate." It seems you really understand what your practice is about. How did you come around to that realisation?

Ed Burkes: I think I came around to that realisation because I find it really difficult telling people what the work is about. I find that really frustrating when people ask, "What does this bit mean?" and then, "What's that?" So I tried to pin it down and ask myself what is the premise of my work and yeah it's trying to articulate things. Even just the attempt to articulate that is enough for me. 

Ed Burkes' Studio on Tresco, Isles of Scilly (2019)


The nine-month residency runs from 1 October 2019 to 30 June 2020.  The final exhibition will be held at Derby Museum and Art Gallery in late 2020 and at Mall Galleries in January 2021. Watch this space for updates as Ed’s residency unfolds.

Find out more about the Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award

Celebrating Older People in Portraiture

Melodie Cook PS and Penelope Milner explain how a desire to portray compelling emotion led them to select older sitters.


'I want my portraits to possess an emotional potency, and older sitters tend to project a lot of emotion because of the wealth of life experiences they have' says Melodie. 'I love the challenge of portraying those emotions with pastels. I also find it fascinating to map out the wrinkles, understanding how they are all connected and why they are there.'

Maria Vajente by Melodie Cook PS: Pastel, 107 x 107 cm - £2,950

'My two portraits in The Pastel Society Annual Exhibition 2019 were inspired by Maria Vajente, a long-time friend who'd wanted me to do her portrait for quite a while. Maria had seen my portrait of Nancy Trotter Landry and Bobby and absolutely wanted me to portray her with a chicken on her head.'

Nancy Trotter Landry and Bobby by Melodie Cook PS

'When we finally got together there was no chicken to be found, so Maria produced an amazing bandana and wrapped it around her head. Maria was three years into treatment for cancer and was awaiting the results from her latest tests. All of this really showed on her skin and in her expression, and I wanted to capture that, despite the pain of it. I put a lot of my own emotion into that drawing. Maria died just a few months later and so never made it to the exhibition.'

'Rosemary is 70 and a ceramic artist. She’s a lovely positive woman and has had a fantastically varied life, from owning a riding school to breeding and showing dogs, whilst running a French restaurant with her Italian husband. I wanted to portray Rosemary's strength of character and her love of the outdoors, hence the determined expression and the hair blowing away from her face.'

Rosemary Delfino by Melodie Cook PS: Pastel, 107 x 107 cm - £2,950

'Both ladies loved that I had done their portrait but hated to see all the wrinkles! They were both convinced that I had added extra ones, whereas the opposite was true. I am yet to find an older sitter who likes to contemplate the reality of their ageing - myself included. My self portraits are usually brutally honest. They reflect the ageing process rather than attempting any self-flattery or delusion.'


'Older people are physiologically complex and interesting to paint' says Penelope Milner. 'When the sitter is able to be themselves and allow the artist access, it's both a privilege and a fascinating discovery. I am less concerned about documenting the degenerative effects of age on the skin and the blemishes, than in understanding the individual.'

'Unfortunately, older women can be harder to paint than men; they often feel less at ease with their self image. But what happens to the muscles and the lines in the face tells much about the way a life has been lived, and there can be a real beauty in that. While painting the portrait of my mother, Harriet, I saw glimpses of her child self and young woman self as well as the person she now is.  The onset of my mother's dementia has made her less self-conscious about her physical appearance too.' 

Harriet by Penelope Milner; Pastel, 69 x 54 cm - £1,600

'Social media and adverts can feel dominated by perfect images of youth, often airbrushed, edited in photoshop, or filtered. These images seem to be concerned with a very narrow version of exterior beauty. In contrast, the process of painting someone is essentially slow and contemplative.'

'The presence of the individual makes itself known to the artist quietly, through a direct exchange. Perhaps art has a role to play in portraying something deeper about the human condition, something we as viewers can recognise about ourselves as we look into the face of a painted portrait.'

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Maria Vajente by Melodie Cook PS