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Katherine, chalk drawing
Katherine, chalk drawing

The Artist Masterclass with Paul Emsley


Paul Emsley - Posted on 12 Dec 2007

Paul Emsley, winner of the BP Portrait Award 2007, describes his approach to animal paintings and drawings and studies of the human face


Whatever the subject matter, whether the impressive form of a rhinoceros, elephant, bull or similar animal, the more delicate nature of a flower, or the distinctive qualities of the human face, it is the surface textures and characteristics that most interest Paul Emsley, especially when these are influenced by the play of light and shade.

"All forms are made up of different configurations and densities," he says. "Light and shade pass over each in the same way. By emphasising a brooding or settled half-light I try to give a sense of mystery to my images."

Paul is best known for his paintings of animals, which is a genre he began to specialise in about 12 years ago, when he was living in South Africa. In fact, his first animal subject, a chalk drawing made in 1995, was one of the bulls on his brother-in-law's farm. Since then, always using a limited palette and exploring the drama of light and texture, he has painted many different animals, often on a large scale and mostly in watercolour, although also more recently in oils and acrylics.

White Rhinoceros by BP winner Paul Emsley

White Rhinoceros, chalk drawing, 201/2x381/2in. (52x97.5cm)

"I see animals as walking landscapes," he explains. "I try to emphasise veins, bones, folds and muscles. They are interesting shapes within the overall form, but they also have something very poignant to say. And when drawing or painting an animal I am often struck by a particular part, such as a tuft of hair, an eye or an area of skin. There is a kind of horror at its strange beauty and I am often startled by its resemblance to parts of our own bodies."


Michael Simpson, oil on canvas by Paul Emsley BP portrait award winner 2007

Michael Simpson, oil on canvas, 541/2x44in. (137.5x112cm).

Winner of the BP Portrait Award 2007

In 2002 Paul won first prize in the Singer & Friedlander/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition with his painting Rhinoceros, (above). This year, encouraged by the fact that there is no longer an upper age limit for the BP Portrait Award, he decided to enter. His striking large-scale oil study of fellow artist Michael Simpson, (left) won the prestigious first prize — an impressive feat in itself, but undoubtedly the more so when one considers that Paul is not a portrait specialist and indeed has painted only five portraits in the past five years. "Now the success of this portrait opens up the possibility of going back to the figure," he says, "either in terms of portraits, which I enjoy doing, or other figure work."

Form and character

On his studio wall Paul has a photograph of Earth taken from space. It is a significant and arguably a symbolic photograph because it seems to encapsulate his philosophy and approach to painting: the concern with surface, light and shade, and the context of the object in space. For the portrait of Michael Simpson, for example, the light source is from directly above, which emphasises the surface qualities of the face. This
concern for the texture and the physical, outward appearance is more important to Paul than attempting to reveal the inner personality of the sitter.

"However, if it is a commissioned portrait you must obviously aim for a likeness," he says. "For me this means a likeness based on observation and subsequently the carefully constructed form of the head. I aim for a presentable image, though not one that is tinted with flattery. I interpret purely from the standpoint of visual form: if, as a consequence, this reflects the character of the person that is almost an accident, I would say.

"The Michael Simpson portrait measures 54x44in. [137.5x112cm]. A large scale adds to the impact of the image, I think. The convention is to paint a portrait life-size, and although this might well make a fine painting there will be nothing particularly striking or different about it, in my view. A large head is visually much more challenging and powerful.

"I chose Michael Simpson for the BP submission because, apart from the fact that he is a well-known artist, he is a very interesting man to look at. The shape and form of his head are typically European, and what I found especially interesting about him was that his face seems to tell a story. It seems to carry something about the history of Europe and also the aesthetics of Europe: he is a very aesthetic person.

"Incidentally, as in my animal paintings, in the portraits I leave the background as a fairly nebulous space instead of depicting a particular environment. A non-explicit  background, while directing the focus to the person or animal, infers a sense of stillness and timelessness, and it enhances the feeling of mystery."

Cola, chalk drawing by artist Paul Emsley

Cola, chalk drawing, 241/2x33in. (62.5x84.5cm)


Limited colour

Paul used to work entirely from reference sketches and studies. However, in recent years, partly due to the time required and the practicalities of this kind of approach, and also because he has now built up a wealth of knowledge and experience, he has generally used photographs.

"I take lots of photographs," he explains, "probably 50 or 60 in Michael's case. Then I work mainly from one or two. But essentially I regard them as an aid, a starting point. I am not a photo-realist, just someone whouses photographs. My belief is that if Van Eyck, Rembrandt or Constable had been able to work from photographs, they would have done so. They are a time-saving device. For the portrait of Michael the photographs took half an hour and the painting five weeks. I could not have expected him to sit in my studio for five weeks!"

This portrait was painted on ready-primed linen canvas, remarkably working with just two colours: Mars violet and blue black, plus an occasional touch of white.

Yorkshire Lady, oil on canvas by Paul Emsley

Yorkshire Lady, oil on canvas, 271/2x271/2in. (70x70cm)

Taking a photograph that gives him the essence of the idea he has in mind for the painting, Paul makes a small version on his computer and then either squares it up or projects it onto the canvas surface. For this he uses an epidiascope. His intention is not to make a strict copy of the photograph but to use it as a guide to establish the general shape of the head, the position of the eyes and so on.

He usually starts with the eyes, taking whatever reference information he needs from the appropriate section of the photograph, which he now enlarges on the computer. From the eyes he moves on to another part of the face, essentially finishing each area as he goes. Then, having considered all the necessary detail and surface texture, he reassesses the light and dark qualities. With the Michael Simpson portrait, for example, he wanted a more contrasting shadow on the right-hand side of the face — much darker than that in the photograph.

Paul's painting technique relies on applying thin layers of colour one over another until he is satisfied that the depth and 'glow' of the colour is what he wants. For this he often uses a trimmed fan brush. All the while he is evaluating and adjusting the tones until the right harmony and balance are achieved. In some of the watercolour paintings, for example, there may be up to 100 of these successive washes of colour.

The palette colours are very limited: "But it is surprising what colour effects are possible," Paul enthuses. "For instance, for the warm flesh tones I might use just Mars violet, adding a dash of white if I want to soften the tone. And where I want the bluer parts of the skin or areas of shadow, I will add a tiny amount of blue black to the Mars violet. The variety comes from how much the colour is diluted, the extent of the overlaid colour, and the proportions of colours used in the mixes.

"In my experience, the fewer colours you use, the more shocking are the reactions when you do make subtle changes. Until you begin to experiment, you don't fully realise how much variety can be achieved with just two colours!"

Jan 08 TA

<< Back to Figures & Portraits

4 comments so far...


B_M_ M

16 Jul 2008 18:13

Great article, i enjoyed reading this! The BP portraits are astounding! :)


Trev Goodwin

13 Apr 2009 22:12

Paul, your portraits are the dogs testicles, when i see your BP portraits i feel i should give up art and take up knitting. A wonderful article, and trully inspiring work. Thanks Trev


angela angela

27 Apr 2009 16:41

I was lucky enough to see your work at the Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh when the BP exhib was touring. How striking it was. I also recall the one called the ' Oncologists' which I also thought was very memorable. I'm not sure if it was part of the touring exhib but I'm sure you know the one I mean. It is one of those images once seen never forgotten, like the face of the old man here. He has such a wealth of time spent in that gaze. I feel it is a bit of a cheek for me to even have an opinion, but I figure praise is always welcome.



01 Sep 2009 23:02

great fan of paul emsley the portrait of michael simpson blew me away with inspiration.i am completely shadowed in his greatness and shall always be in awe of such brilliance.

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