Painting someone’s portrait is bound to be an intimate affair, but it adds a whole new layer when your subject turns around and paints you back! This is exactly what the Contemporary British Portrait Painters (CBPP) have done in their recent project, “CBPP Life in Lockdown”, a series shared on the group’s Instagram account where members paint portraits of each other to capture a range of perspectives on life as an artist in the UK today.
Selected works from the project are featured in the new CBPP exhibition, Portraits in Isolation, installed at the Old Fire Station in Oxford. In contrast to the CBPP’s inaugural Perceptions exhibition – which opened with a packed private view and celebrated camaraderie between the artists – Portraits in Isolation reflects a year of working in isolation. The Net Gallery worked with the CBPP to create a 3D virtual walkthrough of the exhibition, which can be viewed here. The content includes a special video introduction from Will Gompertz, BBC Arts Editor!
To find out more about creating work for “Life In Lockdown”, we spoke to Lucy Stopford and Peter Monkman, two of the CBPP artists who painted reciprocal portraits of each other, and whose work is included as part of Portraits in Isolation.
The Net Gallery: How did you find the experience of painting a fellow portrait artist? Was it different to your usual experience?
Lucy Stopford: Painting a fellow artist and portrait painter provides an immediate rapport and shared understanding, even though working from a photograph is very different from my usual practice of painting from life. However, having made contact through exchanged messages before and throughout the project, the process felt unexpectedly collaborative despite the physical distance between us.
Peter Monkman: I found the experience of working with Lucy very rewarding. It was a real incentive to work towards a painting which is different to a usual commission. I wanted to work with an artist who was willing to experiment and work towards an abstraction and push their own practice. Lucy seemed like a good match as she works with materials in a way that brings out interesting formal qualities.
TNG: How did you approach your portrait?
PM: I wanted to explore the idea of layering generations together and I asked Lucy to provide me with a series of photos of herself, son and father. I experimented with different combinations of faces and decided on 3 images that worked together. I use about 4 layers of heavy matt gel graphite and acrylic on wood, built up over a period of time to let the surfaces dry. My emphasis on drawing and mark making has enabled me to explore more abstract less predictable aspects of portraiture.
TNG: Portrait painting must be a relatively intimate process between artist and sitter. Were you able to safely replicate this process in lockdown? Did lockdown make this much harder than usual?
PM: The level of intimacy that comes from working from life is not always possible. I am quite happy to work with digital images and a detachment that allows me to explore physiognomy and processes in a more personal way, without time limits. Lockdown made it easier for me to focus on experimentation rather than being answerable to the sitter.
LS: Initially I approached the image Peter had sent of himself as if I were painting from life, sight size, which means walking back from the easel and working to scale. Soon it became apparent that this was a very different experience from having the model present and I had to think hard about what I was painting. My subject was the image in the absence of my sitter’s presence, and as I didn’t want the subject to be a substitute, I decided I should paint the screen in order for my finished piece to have authenticity.
TNG: How did you find the experience of having your own portrait painted?
LS: This was an unusual process as it involved two other people as well as me. I photographed my son and my father and my son photographed me. The multiple images were to be used together in Peter’s uniquely sensitive and thoughtful approach to portraiture.
PM: It wasn’t a sitting so much as an exchange of images. I was interested in a portrait of myself and wife as I have never had this done before. It was my selection of images that was used so I had to think about pose and tonal values to help Lucy’s composition
TNG: Did you notice any interesting differences between your own processes and those of the other artist? What did you learn from the experience?
PM: My emphasis on drawing and mark making has enabled me to explore more abstract less predictable aspects of portraiture. Similarly, Lucy’s focus on oil paint, gesture and mark has enabled the material quality of the portrait to take on a life of its own detached from appearance. Lucy generally works from life so it was interesting to see new outcomes evolving from images.
I have learnt that a non-commercial collaborative exchange with a fellow artist can result in new approaches and encouragement to create a new body of work.
LS: Although the results are distinctly different to look at, in a way we share the use of layers to reach a conclusion. Peter’s has a fascinating psychological depth whereas I repeat the act again and again physically on the canvas, scraping off and repeating, until I feel I have expressed what I want to in paint with the traces of enquiry beneath.
TNG: If another artist was interested in undertaking a similar project, would you recommend it? What advice would you give?
LS: I would suggest considering how to approach painting someone once removed and adapting to accommodate this so that the method reflects the subject.
PM: I would definitely recommend this process as it provides a mutually supportive process with feedback and motivation to experiment. It’s also great to own work by someone whose work you respect.
My advice is to find an artist who is not too similar to your own practice, but someone that will provide a learning experience and move you on. It opens up need channels for communication.
About Lucy Stopford
“I am interested in capturing the experience of creating a portrait by retaining gestural marks of enquiry in the final piece, celebrating the physicality of the medium, whether the is paint, charcoal or clay.
“I have shown work at the National Portrait Gallery and The Scottish National Portrait Gallery with the 2017 BP Portrait Award. I have also exhibited with the New English Art Club, the Royal Society of British Artists, The Society of Women Artists and the Pastel Society at the Mall Galleries in recent years.
“I am delighted to be a member of the Contemporary British Portrait Painters, one of the resident artists at the Oxford Old Fire Station. I organise the annual Jericho Artweeks Lecture in Oxford, run weekly portrait workshops and am current chairman of the Oxford Art Society, all of these opportunities provide me with the experience of working alongside other artists which I find a great impetus and inspiration.” Lucy Stopford
About Peter Monkman
Since winning the BP Portrait Award in 2009 with a depiction of his 12 year old daughter as ‘The Changeling’ Monkman has always been interested in how appearances can be captured revealing more complex notions of identity. Monkman had a solo show at the Lightbox in Woking (2019) which represented 10 years worth of Head Boys and Girls at a public school. As non-commissioned portraits, the series aimed to question how young people may be perceived within an institutional setting where the uniform acts as a signifier but the face reveal many more vulnerabilities. More recently Monkman has been breaking down appearances in portraits by exploring the abstract qualities of materials using layering to evoke another world beyond physical likeness.
Monkman has exhibited widely including the Watts Gallery, the Threadneedle Prize at the Mall and the Jerwood Drawing Award as well as being a regular feature in the BP Portrait Awards.
In June 2015 a major portrait commission by Monkman of Children’s author Julia Donaldson was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery.
Article by Toby Buckley
The CBPP exhibition, Portraits in Isolation, can be viewed as a virtual walkthrough (scanned and produced by The Net Gallery) here.