I’m delighted to have been chosen to be part of Eastbourne Towner Gallery’s Open Plan: Summer Studio residency in August. Just announced as the host of next year’s Turner Prize, Towner will be opening up its ground floor studio as a workspace – a resource that I’m keen to make use of to explore the idea of scale in my work – and hosting a viewing at the end of the residency.
The space will be open to the public for the duration. It's a free, drop-in event so you’ll have the opportunity to view work as it progresses firsthand.
Last week I had the privilege of drawing model Sue Tilley over Zoom. Best known for Lucian Freud’s depictions of her in the 1990s (including Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which set the record for the most expensive painting by a living artist sold at auction when it went for £17 million in 2008), Sue was also prominent on the 1980s club scene where she was a regular at nights such as the Wag Club and Taboo, run by her friend, the performance artist Leigh Bowery. It was Bowery who introduced Sue to Lucian whilst she was working as a benefits supervisor at the job centre. A friend of theirs had attended university with one of Lucian's daughters, who had gotten Cerith Wyn Evans and Angus Cook to model for her father, and they in turn introduced Lucian to Leigh. In fact, they'd introduced the flamboyant Bowery as a ruse to shift Freud away from his neutral, beige pallet (Their words). It didn't work though as Bowery stripped out of his colourful clothes and makeup, and became one of Freud's most successful subjects. "Punctuality was the main thing he looked for in a model," Sue says. "That's why he has so many self-portraits; if someone didn't turn up he'd paint his own reflection."
As the session drew on, Sue spoke about her first painting with Freud, Evening in the Studio, an experience she describes as 'hideous' as she had to pose for long periods in an uncomfortable position propped up by filthy pillows on the studio's hard floorboards. She expressed her growing fascination with those pillows and how they contained the all DNA of all the previous models, with each painting taking about nine months, posing 2 to 3 days a week. With that level of required dedication and discipline, it's no surprise to hear Sue tell of her joy when she entered Freud's studio to begin work on Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and saw the sofa waiting for her that Lucian had bought specially for her. "Although it's all falling to bits, it cost about £3000 or £5000 or something."
She was paid £20 a day for sitting for Freud, though was always taken out for lunch at some of the artist's favourite restaurants. This wasn't just a fuel stop though. Freud used this tactic to continue observing the model, gleaning new visual information about the sitter in a more relaxed environment. Martin Gayford, who wrote an account of sitting for Freud in his book Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, recounts one dinner following a sitting where he asked what the artist was thinking about. "Your ear," came the reply.
During the session, we went through several poses ranging between five and twenty minutes. Sue is incredibly animated as she has so many stories to tell about her life: the most recent chapters include her moving to St Leonards on the South coast, starting her own fashion business and her continuing relationships with artists such as Rui Miguel Leitão Ferreira. In one pose, Sue recreated the position of another Freud painting, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, and a related etching. I took my sketch away and used it over the following day as the foundation to a work in oil.
It's easy to see why Freud found Tilley to be such a compelling model, not only for his painting of flesh, but also to spend time with her vibrant personality. Freud didn't leave the studio much, Sue even described how he would fabricate slights from people in his mind in order to not have to socialise with them which would have meant taking time away from painting. But Sue recounted how modelling for Freud was a bit like being a companion, since he didn't have time to go out because he was painting, he had his social life while he was painting instead. They would talk about current events and tell each other stories, to the point that she would fall off the sofa laughing.
Even David Hockney said of sitting for Freud: “He mixed every tone, and it did occur to me that he could have been a bit quicker if he’d premixed quite a few of them because they were quite similar and then it wouldn’t take him as long to mix it. But I then realised I was just thinking of myself there, because his method is that he wants you there as long as possible, so why not mix every colour slowly meaning he’s got more time with you that way.”
I'd been putting off booking my ticket for the Courtauld's Van Gogh Self-Portraits exhibition for ages, to the point that when I tried to book a couple of weeks ago it was already sold out. I was pretty annoyed at myself, as it was rare opportunity to see this collection of 16 portraits together, by an artist whom I greatly admire, and who's process you can learn so much about by seeing it up close in the flesh.
I checked back on the booking website everyday and eventually, late on Friday evening, a single ticket had reappeared for Saturday lunchtime. I immediately snapped it up and booked myself onto the Royal Academy's Francis Bacon show for the same day, promising to the art gods that I'd never be so foolish again.
I took a lot away from the Man and Beast Bacon exhibition: scale, composition, brushwork, abstraction, the importance of removing the glaring white of a new canvas, and also about building an archive of reference photos (as Bacon did) to draw from when required. I hadn't painted since February so these little kicks and thoughts were exactly what I was after.
Similarly, I instinctively knew that seeing the Van Goghs would inspire me to get painting again. The brushwork of them means that it's clear to see how they're constructed, how the contours of the face are suggested, what colours were used etc. Two particularly stood out for me: the one above from March-June 1887 (the background was once purple, but the pigment has since faded away) and Self-Portrait, spring 1887. I've not posted a picture because it's difficult to do it justice as a 2D image. In reality, the paint is so thickly applied in certain areas that the nose rises from the support, and the forehead protrudes.
So the next day, I photoed myself in Van Gogh's typical three-quarter view and began to work, intending to mimic his style of applying paint by merging one of his portraits with my own face. What happened instead, after months of not painting, was my own process and technique naturally beginning to flow again and so I decided to go along with it instead of trying to force the individual marks of Van Gogh, particularly since it was such a positive feeling.
It quickly turned into my favourite painting of mine so far, meaning that I reached a point after around 4 hours where I dared not overwork it and potentially ruin it. So there it is, finished but unfinished, and the jumpstart I needed to get painting again.
Since mid-November 2021, I’ve been going to life drawing sessions. Over the year prior, I’d been drawing and painting from a flat image on a screen and was becoming frustrated about how much of getting a likeness was down to measuring. Shifting an eye one millimetre to the left or right would make a difference to whether the drawing or painting bore a similarity to the image on the screen. But I found creating literal reproductions of an image in this way missed something vital.
I remember my first life drawing session, and it was strange when I was trying to measure the model against my pencil, but the model was breathing! Her ribcage moving up and down significantly as I was measuring, her arms shifting slightly over the course of the 5/10/20/30-minute poses. But gradually you begin to work in a way that sees the model not as an instant in time, but more of an overarching presence, and I've been really grateful to get feedback and guidance from artist Guy Portelli to help me improve quickly.
This week, as usual now, I have a life drawing session and the model is an ex-wrestler who has posed for our group of artists before. I'm particularly looking forward to it because I was was really happy with my pictures last time. Fingers crossed the new ones will measure up...