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Painting people, not just 'likenesses': The work of Tim Wright

— November 2014

Associated media

Tim Wright with some of his work. Image courtesy Tim Wright

Tim Wright, who has recently painted portraits of actor Timothy Spall, in conversation with Sue Ecclestone

Tim Wright was born in Crouch End and attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in Elstree. The son of a painter, Tim followed in his father’s footsteps into the art world, taking a degree in Fine Art at Middlesex University, where he spent most of his time playing in bands. After graduation he spent a lot of time teaching in art schools while developing his own extremely accomplished style of portraiture, some of which were recently part of a solo exhibition at Shine Artists Gallery in Albemarle Street, London. Two of the portraits included in this exhibition are of the actor Timothy Spall, whom Tim got to know during his involvement on the new Mike Leigh film Mr Turner, about the artist J.M.W. Turner.

Sue Ecclestone: Tim, I first met you at the opening of the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Awards, where you were exhibiting a portrait of the actor Timothy Spall. Despite the many accomplished portraits in the room I was immediately drawn to your work. It’s always easy to be fascinated by a portrait of a famous actor but this painting has something special, it’s reminiscent of something I can’t quite put my finger on: the way you paint the actor full length yet from a slightly elevated perspective is classical yet completely contemporary.

Tim Wright: The portrait of Tim is perhaps a culmination of the influences of painters I admire. For example I really like Manet,  his work has a direct quality, almost an awkwardness in the handling that is very powerful and appeals to me.  I also admire Velasquez, who was so technically accomplished and concise and had a timeless rendering of human flesh.

SE: So has portraiture always been your favourite genre?

TW: No, not at all, my earlier work was abstract but I was drawn to figurative work and I wanted to get back to it before I couldn’t do it anymore. In fact it was hard work regaining those skills but I am so glad I made the effort.

SE: The figurative works you have done so far are not exactly portraits in the traditional sense of the word, a couple of them show people lying down and in others the people seem to be hanging around waiting for something.

TW: Yes I am interested in the body in a space, how it relates to that space and how we relate with it, a  presence of body and body language, pose and gesture is really important: not just the appearance, for that reason I don't crop my paintings in a photographic way. I started off painting heads but I think the body makes a point. For example, even with their back to you, you can recognize someone you know from their body language and gestures.  So in my work I want people to see the figures as people not just likenesses.

SE: You have taken some of your individual portraits and grouped them together in paintings to create quite uncanny gatherings. Please tell me about those.

TW: I am interested in how people behave in groups, how they are socially, how they choose to present themselves to you or somebody else and how we observe that happening. So the paintings are not exactly a fact of someone – their likeness – but their activity and social performance and the mental processes of that activity

SE: And the paintings for the exhibition with Shine Artists, how did that idea materialize?

TW: I went and looked at the Kit-Cat Club paintings by Godfrey Kneller in the National Portrait Gallery. Kneller’s portraits were painted so that you can see the hands as well, which are very expressive. Hands are important, it's important to use them in a portrait, they do and say so much; even hands that are passive can appear aggressive. In fact when my sitters are posing, they sometimes don’t know what to do with their hands and I wait until they have settled and then I take that [pose] because it is essentially them at that point. So these portraits are my version of the Kit-Cat portraits using people whom I find interesting: some are actors that have asked to sit and others are friends. Ultimately the paintings are a group, they are connected to each other and I am making art historical references

SE: Yes, you mentioned Manet earlier and I can see that influence.

TW: Exactly, and in the full-length work I reference John Singer Sargent and the way he presents a layer of society in an outwardly slick and flattering style, which, on closer inspection, reveals a lot. I am concerned about how I compose everything, for example I consider what people are wearing because clothes are a great signifier, so I play around with outfits a lot. Also, I may make a decision to use or not use a colour and end up using it anyway because it is the colour that works best. But, basically the paintings are a sequence, you are watching the subjects react, they are not looking at you, rather you are watching them react to something else; they are looking off somewhere, up or away. There is a dynamic to them and when seen together you can see something is happening in the paintings. It's not very specific it's just a question of them being involved in some sort of activity we are not aware of, perhaps. After years of painting I realize that this is what I am interested in, this idea that the artist is an observer; this is overt in the group paintings and more subtle in this series. Really I want to get the viewer to realize that there is more to the paintings than a likeness; while they are portraits the main thrust of the work is the figure.

SE: So what would you like to explore next in your work?

TW: I don’t see a radical change in my direction but I haven’t painted the nude for quite a while so perhaps the nude. But how to do it requires some thinking about because I don't particularly want to do the cliché nude. I have loved painting the exposed arms and shoulders in the work I have just completed; it’s been good to paint flesh so I am keen to do more. But I feel like I would like to take the nude out of the genre in the way that I feel I am taking the portrait out of the genre with my figurative paintings.


Sue Ecclestone
Art journalist

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