Ian Goldsmith is a British portrait artist and the founder of the Contemporary British Portrait Painters (CBPP), an artist-led group of some of the leading portrait artists working in the UK today. Goldsmith’s practice explores the interplay of light and colour, utilising what he says is an “almost scientific fascination with the elements that make an image.” His portraits often have a playful quality, but are also cleverly composed and visually striking.
The Net Gallery spoke to Goldsmith to discuss his development and approach as an artist, as well as the motivation behind the creation of the CBPP.
Richard Unwin: At what point in your career or training as an artist did you begin to focus on portraiture?
Ian Goldsmith: I think I’ve always been interested in portraiture, even before I started college, but when I took up painting a few years ago it was focused solely on portraiture, nothing else seemed to hold my attention long enough.
RU: You mention that you took up painting a few years ago. What prompted you to start and how quickly did you start producing work of a similar style to your current output? And, had you had much prior experience of painting, either at college or elsewhere?
IG: I started experimenting in painting in about 2012. I’d been working in a couple of long term jobs beforehand, but felt a continual pull towards creating artwork again. Up until then I hadn’t really done anything since college, so it was a break of over twenty five years from art. Slowly though, thanks mostly to the support of my wife Michelle, I was able to reduce the days I was working on my main job and dedicate more time to painting, until eventually we took the leap and I went full time.
I’d had no experience with painting up until I started in 2012. I’d messed around with a box of watercolours like most of us do as kids, but not oils. Thankfully the internet is a great resource for people who want to learn techniques and it certainly helped me learn to paint. Now I’m a believer in teaching people how the materials work, not how to paint. If you learn to paint like me, you’re not learning to paint in a way that might suit you better and fit your personality and allow you to express yourself. Our styles are as unique as our clothing and wearing someone else’s ‘style’ will never truly feel comfortable. We might borrow bits that fit our personality, but wholesale adoption of someone else’s methodology and style just makes us a clone, not an individual. We don’t need more cookie cutter artists, we need individuals with unique and interesting things to say.
RU: Your work has a striking, thought-provoking quality, as well as a playful element, with a great diversity to the way your subjects are depicted. There’s often a sense for the viewer of seeing something unexpected that demands a second look. How do you go about deciding how to stage or approach each portrait, particularly in the choice of props or items of clothing you make use of, and (from the point where you meet or first see your subject) how quickly do you start to formulate a visual idea of the painting you plan to produce?
IG: Thank you. I think there are a few elements at play in my portraiture that are probably common to most portraits. The first is that the artist will end up portraying his or her character in a portrait, whether they like it or not. A saying attributed to Da Vinci and Michelangelo, but also cited by Picasso and Freud, was something like “every painter paints himself”. This is true. The way an artist paints is inescapably influenced by who they are, in terms of style, but also in terms of the subjects they choose. That doesn’t mean that the portraits they paint will literally look like themselves, but the way they apply paint, look at an image and portray it will reflect their character.
I try not to take myself or what I do too seriously, there’s enough of that in the art world already, so elements of that humour might creep in, but I also have little interest in painting anything other than what’s in front of me. I want my portraits to be an honest reflection of the person being painted, a true record of who they are and what I want to say about them. So I rarely use props, apart from clothing or things the subject might actually use or wear and I try to avoid check shirts or difficult patterns. I’ve done a few and it’s not something I want to repeat in a hurry.
If I take the reference shots myself, then I do like to use a single direct light source with a warm hue bulb and try to capture those off-guard moments when the subject is relaxed and being themselves.
I’m getting more focused though in my recent work. I’m not really interested in the body, or clothing of the subject and – being really impatient and lazy as a painter – I’m trying to just paint heads right now. I love the idea of a portrait being serious art, but also being used as a sticker, or a moveable painting that the viewer can interact with. Like the magnetic head I produced, that’s mounted on steel, so you can move it around. Portraiture has a bit of a boring rep’ to some, and I’d like to contribute to changing or challenging that.
RU: How self-critical are you of your own work: do you often reject or abandon a piece or your approach to it, and how easy do you find it to know when a piece is finished? Similarly, what kind of a relationship do you have with your work after it’s completed, and do you like to look back at older work?
IG: Ha! (laughs) I try not to abandon a piece if I can, I prefer to try to wrestle it into submission, but you don’t always win and what you feel at the time is a failure is often a great teacher in hindsight. It’s not usually a good idea to give up, because success can be just a short while away, or achieved by persevering, but sometimes – how ever much you try – a piece is just not worth continuing with.
I think, like many artists, I like to keep a painting I’m happy with around a while, but the longer you keep it the more it drops from public attention, so there’s a tension there between wanting to keep it around and needing to make a living. On the whole I’d much rather my work was with someone who would really appreciate it than living a rather sad and lonely life in the studio. As for older work, some I still love because they were successes that spurred me on and gave encouragement when I really needed it, others I’d be quite happy if they never saw the light of day again. I’m sure it wasn’t always a shortage of canvas that made past painters paint over their work.
RU: What motivated you to found the CBPP and how long did it take to develop into its current from?
IG: Basically I wanted to know if there was any other portrait group in the UK apart from the RP (The Royal Society of Portrait Painters) and everyone I asked replied “No, but if you’re starting one I’d be interested”. So it kinda got started by default. It’s developed amazingly fast though. We’ve only been going a year or two and we have nearly fifty of Britain’s best portrait painters as members and are changing and growing in terms of organisation and scope almost daily. Being mostly based virtually means we can communicate and develop very quickly. It’s a very exciting time to be part of British portraiture and I think things are going to change very fast over the next few years in the art world. I hope so anyway.
RU: How has the process worked in terms of inviting members to join and growing the network? And were you aware when you started that there would be a big pool of amazingly talented artists ready to join?
IG: When it started nearly all the initial small core of members were invited, but that rapidly changed as membership grew and the process evolved. Now, thankfully, there is a team of members that oversee selection, as we have applications nearly every day to join the CBPP. Membership is always tricky with the CBPP. We really want to encourage artists and do all we can to support them, but not everyone that applies is ready and it’s always sad when we can’t say yes to an application. That said it’s a joy when we find someone who is dedicated to portraiture, has a unique expression of their artistic voice and wants to join. There is no fixed limit on member numbers, the only thing that matters and has always mattered is the quality of the work.
RU: What are some of the core things you think portraiture can offer as an art form today, and are there certain places it needs to go, or types of subjects that it should be tackling, in order to maximise its relevance and impact?
IG: I think portraiture does today what it’s always done, it records people, the human race as we see it in our time. Art is often said to ‘hold a mirror up to society’, but what branch of the arts can really do this better than portraiture?
I’d love to see it morph a little more, in terms of practice and public perception, from the traditional corporate or aristocratic form of self aggrandisement that it has been seen to be in the past, to something more relevant and exciting. Portrait artists today are doing just about everything you can think of with a portrait and really pushing what it means to paint portraits. I’d love to see the big portrait competitions reflecting this more, rather than dragging their feet like they currently are a little.
Should we be painting a greater range of subjects and tackling relevant current issues? Definitely! And many artists do, but they also need an outlet for that work, and until the system changes where public galleries embrace representative art, or big competitions take more risks with what they show, there isn’t a lot of incentive to do this. Much of what is currently produced that is tackling these issues literally is a labour of love.
Portrait artists need exposure to get known and be able to make a living, and they will produce what they hope might get accepted by a judging committee on a big competition to do this. They’re human beings, they don’t like rejection anymore than anyone else and if they feel taking a risk will mean rejection they’ll try to work towards what they hope might get them accepted. Competitions like the BP, the RP and other big annual exhibitions need to lead the way here and signal to artists that they want to take more risks and see more exciting and innovative work, or they risk losing the very things that will take the art form forward.