Aside from my portrait practice, war and conflict has been the subject of much of my recent artwork. The unchecked march of ISIS in the middle east first prompted me to address this subject. The preparation for the coming war against China reinforced my interest. The political climate that was feeding this frenzy was the inspiration behind my painting “Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars”. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine I felt a compulsion to work full time on “Men Wrestling” and “The Disasters of War”. Even though I was neglecting more commercial work, I felt it was important to make a statement with these paintings.
What was the point?
The Israel-Hamas war has left me feeling empty. The brutality of it has shocked me, and I have been appalled by people’s reactions to it. I have no desire to pick up my paintbrushes and say anything about this war. Other than it disgusts me. Man disgusts me. We are no more than beasts. So in this dark mood I heard an interview with legendary war photographer Don McCullin, where he spoke about how depressed he was with the present conflict.
‘I am slightly depressed in a way, because I think everything I’ve done concerning international conflict, everything I have contributed to showing how awful it is, I think has been a waste of time really.’
‘I’ve looked at so many wars, I’ve been in so many wars, and nothing has changed.’
He summed up exactly how I was thinking, and got me wondering if art really can make a difference. Producing my anti-war paintings may be no more than a cathartic experience for me. If that is the case, what really is the point in painting them?
I think I will just concentrate on painting portraits from now on.
Why do I feature nude figures in so many of my paintings, from my Relationships Series to the recent Disasters of War? It would certainly be easier to market my artwork if I just painted landscapes: no more polite rejections from venues; no shadowbans from Instagram. But no subject interests me quite as much as the human figure. I have always been fascinated with depictions of the human form in art. Maybe it started with my early love of comics, and the idealised perfection of superhuman figures cavorting across their pages. It might have been when I first set eyes on Tintoretto’s or Titian’s glorious mythological masterpieces in the National Gallery. It was a fascination cemented by my introduction to life drawing at art school. But the nude is a complicated subject in the 21st Century. It would be naive to suggest we can continue to paint the nude figure as it has always been painted. Many of the naked figures that now adorn the walls of our galleries were originally produced as thinly veiled titillation for their wealthy owners. I have started to question my own motivations for painting certain figures nude. When I work on paintings about the “male gaze” I cannot ignore the fact that I am a man, and I might have the same prejudices that I happily mock in other people.
The Nude in Modern Art
I was taught at art school that Manet’s Olympia (shown above) was one of the first modern nudes in art. With no pretence of being an otherworldly goddess, this was a contemporary naked woman staring right back at the viewer. Manet was probably prepared for the outrage it caused, having provoked a similar scandal with his “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”. I read an interesting article about that painting and the controversy it caused on Artsy.net When looking at the nude throughout the history of western art, you can see how the perception of the naked body in art depends on when and where the viewer was from. The nude becomes more like a dynamic idea, and the forces that alter our perception of the nude are changing all the time. In my short career as an artist I have had to reassess my own approach to the subject a couple of times.
Artists will always push boundaries
Just as Manet created a stir in the Salon, artist Marina Abramović caused some discomfort amongst visitors to her Royal Academy exhibition. by making them squeeze between two nude models to enter it (as in the photo above). It’s an interesting idea – remove the option for the viewer to remain a detached observer; force them to confront the nakedness of the models’ bodies. In news coverage of this long awaited retrospective, this unusual entrance has become the headline: “Visitors invited to squeeze through naked models” In a world awash with pornographic images on the internet, I wonder what boundaries artists have left to push in visual art. Good art should challenge us, and should test our sensibilities. But gratuitous nudity can be tiresome, and it is something I try to be alert to in my own work..
My professional art practice started with my Relationships Series paintings, where I explored the relationship between two figures within a composition in both a spatial and an emotional sense (an example shown above). This series had started as an honest portrayal of my own relationship with my partner, but at some point I began to question my own motivation and objectives.
As the series had developed, and featured different “couples”, I became aware that the interpretation of most viewers was overwhelmingly sexual, which wasn’t really my intention. I am proud of the paintings I produced with this body of work, but decided I needed to take my work in a different direction. You can see paintings from this series here: Relationships Gallery
Objectification and #selflove
Over the years I have received various commissions for nude portraits. The main motivations for women were self-empowerment and body positivity, which I respect and admire. I started a project called “Unnamed Portraits” which I naively thought might facilitate the same outcome for anyone who wanted to pose. With these artworks I would purposely crop the faces from the paintings, focusing instead on the naked body. I had a good response from potential models willing to pose for me . I suspect the readiness to pose stemmed from the same motivations as my nude portrait customers – essentially wanting to feel good about your body.
However. it turned out that my original ideas – which encompassed our sense of identity, sexuality and body positivity, were more expansive than the final paintings turned out. The risk was that instead of enabling female empowerment, they were simply reinforcing male objectification. And I missed painting the model’s face. I have always considered my nude paintings as just an extension of my portrait practice. I paused this project, and am still undecided about it.
#metoo and the male gaze
I have already written at length about my experience painting “Men in Suits”, so won’t repeat myself here (the original post is here: Men in Suits. I mention this painting as it was a defining moment in my artistic development, where I identified the themes that I wanted to explore with my art, which I went on to develop over the next couple of years. This painting took so long to finish that the main motivation behind it – the #metoo movement – had long since disappeared from the headlines.
Misogyny and male menace are pervasive in our patriarchal society. #metoo might not be on the frontpages now, but the underlying causes for the movement are still there. You can see some of my paintings that deal with these issues here: Recent Work
Nakedness and Vulnerability
So why did I include so many naked figures in my latest painting The Disasters of War? The keyword here is naked. These figures are naked, exposed and vulnerable. Their nakedness has been forced on them as an act of humiliation and degradation. But despite this and their terrible situation, they preserve a sense of quiet dignity; there is a beauty about them. The figure on the left is based on Rubens’ Christ Descending from the Cross.
Although the naked figures are in no way sexualised, I wanted there to be an erotic undertone to the masked female figure wielding the knife. This alludes to the base instincts and urges that are feeding this awful war. When I witness the raptures of joy displayed with every killed soldier, I wonder just how close sex and violence are on the spectrum of primal instincts.
The theme that I keep returning to in my recent work is male menace, and male objectification of women. These character traits (or flaws) have always been around. I cringe when I think about what was considered acceptable behaviour when I was young. I shudder to think of all the times when I acted inappropriately, especially when in a group of men. I have featured the likes of Prince Andrew in a number of my paintings, calling out his bad behaviour. But these paintings are really about all men. We are all culpable, including myself. This is why in my painting Men in Suits I included myself in the back, amongst the various sex pests and offenders. I also added a masked figure, who could well represent you, the viewer.
The layout above was my proposal for the Concord Art Prize – a competition for artworks inspired by a piece of music. My proposition was inspired by The Rite of Spring – a composition that has everything. Starting with a joyful innocence it builds up slowly, ending in a dizzying climax – a frantic menacing finale. It was going to be the convergence of a number of themes that run through my work: beauty; sexuality; lechery; male menace. It’s one of my biggest disappointments that this proposal wasn’t accepted. I feel confident that it would have been an interesting project. I wrote more about the painting here: Rite of Spring
I’ve been reluctant to write about this painting, for fear of how it will be viewed by potential portrait customers. I haven’t even offered it to any exhibitions. But as you read this, millions of lives have been ruined or lost by a pointless conflict, so who am I to fret over losing a few commissions. So here we go. After finishing my painting Men Wrestling, I still felt compelled to say something about the barbarity and viscousness of events unfolding in Ukraine. It’s too easy to feel detached from it all, viewing it as a spectacle rather than the existential crisis it is. That was exactly what I wanted to convey with Men Wrestling – world leaders looking on as the two naked wrestlers (representing Russia and Ukraine) are embraced in a fight to the death. For my next painting I wanted to show the cruel horror of it all.
Goya – The Disasters of War
Los desastres de la guerra is a series of 82 prints created between 1810-1820 by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828). These etchings are viewed as a visual protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, and the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–1814. They were not published during the artist’s lifetime; they are considered a graphic representation of the atrocities of war. As such, they were the perfect source material and inspiration for the painting I wanted to create.
Composing the painting
Creating a painting like this is a bit like directing a play. You have your story and actors, and much of the time you are arranging them on the stage to describe a particular scene. Below is a video (apologies for the very bad exposure) where I talk about the painting at quite an early stage. I explain how I saw a certain dignity in the brutalised figures Goya had hanging from trees, with similarities to some depictions of Christ descending from the Cross.
Putin and Prigozhin
From the beginning I wanted the main actors occupying centre stage to be Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin. At the time I painted this, Prigozhin was alive and still a trusted ally of the president, with his Wagner group taking the lead in the assault on Bakhmut. That costly assault gave Russia its only gain since the early days of the war. During this battle, Wagner mercenaries were accused of castrating Ukrainian prisoners (read the story here).
This central section also draws some inspiration from The Flaying of Marsyas – a late work by Titian which shows the killing by flaying or skinning alive of Marsyas, a satyr. Marsyas is hung from a tree like a butcher’s carcass, much like the brutalised figures in Goya’s etchings, and also like the captured soldiers in my painting. I wanted to capture something of the inhuman and bestial behaviour of the invading Russian troops; behaviour that most people could not believe would be happening in Europe in the 21st Century.
A picnic at an execution
It took me a while to fill the space in the bottom left. I tried out various figures, but in the end settled for someone having a picnic in front of this awful scene.
I had in mind the wealthy Muscovites dining in their expensive restaurants, thinking themselves isolated from the “special operation” happening in a foreign land; they might see it as their evening entertainment on TV. But they are still tainted by it. As are we all.
I will be exhibiting this painting along with The Gleaners at S. B. Art Gallery in London, from the 27th-29th October
I am absolutely delighted that “Man and Woman” has been shortlisted for the Theo Paphitis LGC Art Prize. Out of 837 submissions, they shortlisted just 11 artworks, so I am feeling extremely grateful that the judges chose my work to be amongst the finalists.
It is a painting that has taken rather a long time for me to finish (I wrote more about the painting and how I recently repainted it here). I have had a troubled relationship with this piece. I started working on it during a time of great loss and pain. It has spent ten years in an unfinished state. I could not work out what was wrong with it, but I suspect unresolved feelings from that time made me feel uncomfortable working on it.
Anyway, it’s finished now, and it’s so encouraging having such a personal piece being endorsed by the judges. Working alone in a studio, it is all too easy to start having doubts about particular paintings and projects. Will people understand them? Will anyone make a connection with my work? So a big thank you to the judges – Kate Brinkworth, Tom Croft, Brian Reed, Jayne Kay, and a special thanks to Theo Paphitis who set up and supports the LGC Art Prize.
It was a wonderful and quite lavish awards ceremony. Theo Paphitis must be congratulated for hosting this excellent addition to the Arts calendar. Tom Meads was the deserved winner with his painting ‘Stoic’. You can read more about the three different winners here: theopaphitis.com/my-blog What I particularly enjoyed about the judges’ selection was that they chose works that actually followed the theme “connection” – not always the case with themed shows.
One very nice touch was how, after the awards ceremony, they then gave each artist a goody bag full of art materials. I’ve not seen that in any competitions I’ve been shortlisted for before, and I was incredibly pleased with that little surprise. I left feeling like a winner. Artists are so easy to please 🙂
London Graphic Centre is a treasure trove of art materials in the heart of London. Here is their website: londongraphics.co.uk
Have you ever thought about commissioning a nude portrait painting?
You’re not that unusual if you have. I receive plenty of enquiries about such commissions. In fact, almost half the commissions I have worked on were for nude portraits, and I am sure I would receive many more enquiries if people didn’t feel slightly awkward asking about them.
The simple answer to the question “can you paint me nude?” is yes. I don’t see much distinction between a nude portrait and a more conventional portrait. The preparations for both are much the same. I like to arrange an in-person sitting if possible, during which I will make several drawings, trying out different poses. Once a pose has been selected, I will take a reference photo, and use that along with the drawings to create a painting.
I can have sittings in my studio, or am happy to travel to the client’s home. That’s often the best option, as the sitter is more likely to feel at ease in their home environment.
It often turns out that the best poses are not planned for, but can happen by chance. The light might fall on the body in a particular way; a fleeting expression might say more about you than a carefully prepared pose. By having a three hour sitting, we’re more likely to happen upon that one elusive pose that says what you want to say.
The most important step is finding out what the sitter wants from the painting. Everyone has a different reason for commissioning a portrait – nude or conventional. Understanding why you want your likeness painted will help me decide how to paint you.
Is a nude portrait the best way to boost your self-esteem?
Last year I was contacted by journalist/author Radhika Sanghani who was writing a feature on women who have commissioned naked portraits of themselves to celebrate their bodies. It was something she had personally done, and she was looking to be put in touch with women who had done the same. None of my customers wanted to be contacted (possibly because the story was destined for the Daily Mail), but Radhika managed to finish her article, and you can read it here: Is a nude portrait the best way to boost self esteem I found it particularly interesting reading three different stories for why people had commissioned a nude portrait of themself.
Can I paint your nude portrait from photos?
It might be impractical for you to have in-person sittings. In that case I can paint from photos you provide, but they will have to be of adequate quality. I am happy to advise; it is possible to have a preliminary chat via Zoom-call, where I can give advice about the pose and lighting. Expensive cameras aren’t necessary. It is more important to avoid lens distortion and to get the correct lighting. Both are achievable with a good phone camera.
The most exciting thing about painting portraits is also the most daunting thing: there are such endless possibilities for how to paint someone, it’s a challenge knowing where to start. It might help looking at examples of nude portraits, by myself and other artists (photos or paintings), just to get some ideas.
If you are thinking about commissioning a nude portrait, feel free to contact me with any questions. I am always happy to chat, with no obligation. Embarking on a portrait commission is a collaborative exercise between the artist and the sitter. It should be both rewarding and enjoyable, and can be more affordable than you expect.