TNG member Peter James Field was born in 1976, in Scotland. He has worked as a fine artist and illustrator full time since 2005. His illustration clients include Penguin Books, Time Magazine and Vanity Fair. In this article, he talks about his portrait of Alexander Nilere, which is currently on display in the Aberdeen Art Gallery as part of the BP Portrait Awards 2020.
My painting of Alexander Nilere was recently selected for the BP Portrait Award 2020. Though the show didn’t get its customary Summer outing at the National Portrait Gallery due to the pandemic restrictions, it did finally open last month in the flesh at Aberdeen Art Gallery. This is my second time in the BP Award (a portrait of friend Robert Harewood was featured in 2018).
I met Alex 10 years ago at a wedding. He looked amazing and was wearing, if I recall correctly, a colourful suit he’d made himself. He was very friendly to me – I’m never at ease in social gatherings and I was there as a plus one so I knew almost nobody. I was grateful he took some time to get to know me. I took an instant and strong liking to him.
Alex looked like a pop star – and I later learned he’d been the singer in a group called Acacia, which featured other members who would go on to great success – including Guy Sigsworth, who ended up producing records for Bjork, Britney and Alanis Morrissette, and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Imogen Heap. Nilere himself was pursuing a solo career as ‘The Blackmoth.’
I saw Alex a couple of times in the intervening years. We both appeared as extras in a music video for the band Artmagic where once again he outshone everyone in the room with his sartorial perfection. He remained, to my mind, an absolutely ideal potential portrait sitter. He embodied an interesting contradiction to me – this immaculately turned out dandyish some-time pop singer didn’t cultivate an icy sense of cool distance.
My interest was not just about the surface stuff, in that sense. Alex seemed rather shy, very kind and free of ego. There was plenty of intriguing, vulnerable stuff going on behind his, admittedly already fabulous, façade – and I like to paint people about whom I have some curiosity.
The initial sitting took place at Alex’s flat in Kilburn. We tried out various attitudes. This was a pose Alex struck very naturally and it resonated with me, embodying that loud/shy contradiction within him. After experimenting with some props and lighting we pulled in a red flower in a golden vase, which seemed to curve towards him in a kind of embrace. I can only describe it as one of those moments where everything wordlessly falls into place.
One of the more prosaic reasons I approached Alex is that I wanted a technical challenge – I’d never painted patterned fabric before. I wouldn’t describe myself as a super technical painter – I don’t wish for photo realism, there is always an element of expressive distortion and gentle stylisation in my work. My background is in illustration not painting per se, so for me portraiture is all about making sure there is a strong underlying drawing, and that the picture conveys some kind of feeling, giving a deeper insight than a photograph might permit.
My picture of Alex turned out to be a really exciting learning experience, where I pushed myself harder than usual on a technical level. It took about four months – but there were a lot of layers, so it has to be said that much of that was drying time.
I’ve not seen Alex since the painting was done – the coronavirus robbed us of a chance to enjoy a London private view – but he was delighted with the piece. I hope one day he’ll be able to see it up close. Peter James Field