Jonathan Yeo: in the studio
The self-taught British artist Jonathan Yeo, 45, is known for his portraits of acclaimed figures such as Kevin Spacey and Dennis Hopper, Sienna Miller, former Prime Minister Tony Blair and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. In 2013 the National Portrait Gallery staged a retrospective of his work. This month, he is holding his largest exhibition to date at The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg, in Denmark.
My kids are a good alarm clock, so unless I’ve been working very late I’ll get up with them at 6.45am. I take them to school once or twice a week, but usually I head to the studio for about 9am.
A bit of a rhythm is helpful for getting things done and then it doesn’t matter if you sometimes deviate from that. I’m very time conscious. As we get older, that’s the only real commodity. There are so many things I want to do and I’m aware of time running out.
My studio used to belong to the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. It’s about half an hour from where I live, which is enough time for me to get myself into the right frame of mind and raring to go.
It’s not a perfect painting studio: you’re supposed to have north light, for consistency, but actually I'm more interested in seeing the light changing. I also have lights set up everywhere inside, so I can create different kinds of atmospheres for each subject – flat , reflections, science fiction and so on.
Clever lighting is everything. It still surprises me when students ask me what kind of paint I use – use any paint you want! None of them ask me about lighting and it’s the most fundamental thing of all. Hollywood cinematographers study Old Master paintings to see how they used light – they were incredibly sophisticated.
Brushes and paints are all within reach, but I have no idea where anything else is. My assistant, Reuben, is the only one who does. One day I’ll design a studio from the ground up and do it exactly as I want. This one happened organically, and so it’s a bit chaotic and haphazard, but it works well for most things.
I have several chairs, but once a thing has been in several paintings I stop using it. I don’t want it to become a motif. I went through a phase of painting sitters on a see-through chair because I didn’t want any reflections, but I’ve got better at lighting now so that doesn’t matter so much. I also have a dressing-up room next door with glasses and hats and wigs. It’s quite nice to have a few props and toys, but mostly as a distraction, if someone is very self-conscious. At least that’s my explanation; I think my wife would say I just can’t help collecting ridiculous objects.
For a portrait painter, no two days are the same. You have different personalities coming into the studio and bringing their own chaos. If I have to have any meetings, I’ll try to do them first thing, so as much of the day is clear for working as possible. If I have a sitter coming, that tends to be mid-morning for, say, an hour and a half, maybe two hours, but no longer. I want to see them animated, not falling asleep.
When I started out I thought I had to do it all from life. That’s a great way to learn, but it has its limitations because the most interesting people are often the most elusive. Next, I tried working from photographs, but that can make a very static image. What tends to happen now is people will sit for me once every three or four weeks over several months, and I’ll sometimes use photos in between, although not always. I like to paint my impression or my memory of people, too.
I have at least three or four paintings on the go. It can be good to put a painting aside for a few days in order to come back with fresh eyes. Or I might be waiting for a sitter to come back. Having never been taught how to paint, my methods change all the time. I’m still learning, but that does make it interesting.
The first couple of sittings are when I trial ideas. Sometimes we just talk. I might draw in pencil or paint as a way of getting used to their face. I play with lighting. And even people who are used to being looked at can be self conscious the first time they come, so sometimes I have to take them out for lunch or go and see them in their own environment to get past that.
I have lots of different-shaped canvases pre-prepared in the studio racks. It means I can grab one and start painting immediately rather than waiting for the right shape or background colour to be dry. These days I draw faster in paint, anyway. I find pencil too precise when you have a sudden idea.
We have a team lunch in the studio every day and that’s when I catch up on admin. The life of an artist these days is not just sitting making pictures; there’s a lot of organisational stuff to do, too. You could spend your entire life doing everything other than painting. I don't tend to look at emails and Instagram until towards the end of the day.
I’m always thinking: how far can I push it? You can do so much with a portrait, particularly with people’s expectations. I’ve been down all kinds of dead-ends and wild goose chases over the years but I still believe it’s irresponsible not to take risks.
I have ideas all the time and they’re mostly terrible ones; the trick is knowing which ones to concentrate on. But it’s not like writing an essay, where if you write a bit and you don’t like it you can delete it. If you try something out and it doesn’t work, you’ve ruined your painting for good.
I feed my inspiration by looking at other artists’ work. It’s how I learned to paint in the first place and it still affects me very obviously when I see something exciting, or new. Sometimes it happens almost by osmosis, and only feeds into your work a year or two later.
I sometimes feel stuck. There are different tricks you can use, such as having mirrors in funny places so you can be surprised by a reverse angle. I often take pictures of a painting with my phone, and then look at it again a couple of days later. And seeing the painting in miniature changes things again. I use my art books for problem solving, too. Looking at someone else’s work can unexpectedly offer a solution.
I joke that I leave things unfinished because I don’t know how, but I prefer that look. We don’t pick up every bit of detail when we see or remember things – we only need a couple of suggestions to be able to reconstruct it in our mind. I start with the eyes and mouth first, and move out from there. I’ve seen so many portraits over the years which are technically very accomplished, but the artist has over-worked it. Somehow it lacks emotion. Artists need to learn to edit. It’s like they’re afraid of putting anything of themselves in the picture.
Signing off a painting is still incredibly hard. I always feel that something can carry on being improved. In the past I’ve tinkered with pictures when they’re on the wall in a show – it’s had me in a lot of trouble. I play this game with myself of trying to pretend that something is definitely not finished but then also being aware that it could be. One of the biggest problems in this line of work is missing the point where there was something brilliant happening. Sometimes you f--k it up.
I hang my own work on my studio walls. It changes according to what I’m working on. Sometimes they’re studies for an idea I’m mulling over, or something I’m stuck with.
I like listening to spoken word when I’m in my stride. If I have to concentrate, or I’m not sure where the painting is going, then I have to be more careful. Music is such a powerful trigger for memory that it can either really help or really hinder. Classical music with which I’m not familiar is good, because it helps shut out the outside world without infringing on things. I sometimes let the sitter choose music though; it’s another way of making them more comfortable.
I can finish a portrait study in an afternoonif I’m in the right mood. That can be a nice thing because it’s really a portrait of a moment. Mostly I expect to come back to it several times. I probably do about 20-30 paintings a year.
I wear dark clothes to paint because they don’t reflect light or colour. And nothing too expensive: I’m too impatient for overalls and I’ve ruined every piece of nice clothing I’ve worn into the studio by covering it in paint. I like clod-hopper boots, too. They’re comfy and I’m always climbing on things.
Finish time is very variable. I try to make sure I go home to have supper with my kids and put them to bed a couple of times a week, but that can go out of window in the run-up to a deadline. Sometimes I go out, but if the work’s going well I end up cancelling – my friends are used to me being a bit flaky. Evenings are often the best time to work, when it’s quiet. But later than about midnight and your work drops off really fast. You might think you’re working well but actually you’re getting tired and can end up undoing all the good work you’ve done that day. You need discipline to draw that line.
I don’t often draw at home, apart from with my kids. I think it’s healthy to have a separation, although I never really stop thinking about my work. When I was in my twenties I tried living and working in the same place, but it’s always in the back of your mind that you should be painting.
Just being at home relaxes me. My house has a peaceful energy. If friends drop by we might open a nice bottle of wine. I love watching good documentaries, and I’ve finally managed to watch House of Cards, but that was really for a painting [of Kevin Spacey] I was working on – there has to be a reason for me doing something like that. I can’t remember when I last had time to kill.
I like to talk to my wife at the end of a day. We’ve been together about 20 years and half an hour together a few times a week is good therapy for both of us. Long relationships can be pretty epic, and I’m sure it’s difficult for her. Being with an artist is the biggest nightmare – we’re like thoroughbred racehorses, all tears and tantrums.
It’s very easy to obsess over things, but at the end of the day I’m just in the entertainment business. Like poets and philosophers, artists are trying to make things which are interesting to other people and which will hopefully make them see things in a new way, but we’re not saving lives.
To read The Telegraph article in full click here.