Julian Opie: Twenty Six Portraits

Julian Opie: Twenty Six Portraits
Friday, August 11, 2006

Text by Julian Opie, published by Alan Cristea Gallery

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Hirofumi is the owner of a Tokyo-based fashion company. He asked if I would collaborate with his company to design some clothes. A group of designers from the firm came to visit me in London. They were very open about what I could do. They showed me clothes from an earlier collaboration they had made with an artist that I like a lot and the quality was great. I had some anxieties about combining my work with someone elses product but I had previously made a t-shirt that carried an image of someone taking off their t-shirt and I wanted to develop this idea.

Once the project was underway my Japanese gallery told me that Hirofumi wanted to commission a portrait of himself and his wife, Hijiri.

By this time I had stopped doing commissioned portraits. I began the portrait series with the idea that anyone would be a good model. Every person could equally well show that a simple sign for their face could bring their individual presence into the picture, that everyone could be their own classic type. I started by drawing friends and family and anyone who happened to visit the studio. Then some people asked if I would draw them as a commission and for some time this became my principal starting point for a portrait. It is relatively unusual to find an un-commissioned Old Master portrait and this hides the fact that a commissioned one has a very particular character. It doesn't just affect one's understanding of the painting and the relationship one feels with the sitter but also seems to show in the poses and expressions. I find this interesting and it helps in my attempt to make these images feel like familiar, museum portrait paintings. On top of this the models paid me. However the commissions rather snowballed, they take quite a long time to produce and I soon had a bothersome backlog of commissions. Parents would be picky about the way their children looked and my role as hired portraitist often felt uncomfortable. I tried raising the commission fee but eventually just told everyone that I had stopped. Anyway, I had over a hundred portraits to play with and I was beginning to want to move away from the tight format of the close-up.

I had been making animated films of full-length figures in motion for some years and on a few occasions I also made films of people's heads. Sometimes the models would blink or smile, in other films they would nod or shake their heads. These days large screens are only available in a stretched format and this is inconvenient when using the fairly square portrait format that comes as a result of drawing a head. In the past I had cropped the sides of the head but the other obvious possibility was to show more of the body. Drawing more of the body involved a lot of new challenges and possibilities: what to make of the model's pose? what to do with their hands?

I am crazy about Japanese woodblock prints, particularly the work of Kitagawa Utamaro. He is most famous for depicting women and I made drawings of some of the poses. I also borrowed some male poses from early Renaissance painters such as Giovanni Bellini and Fra Angelico. I imagined drawing someone in these poses as a three-quarter length portrait. I thought this would place the image into a certain painterly context instead of simply showing a person standing there; a bit like dressing up on stage. I hoped the reference to historical, classic poses, would have the effect of distancing the models, putting them into a more fictional role. The props involved also provided a visual diversion from confronting the model full on, like a joke at an awkward moment.

The possibility of using a Japanese couple seemed interesting, so I accepted Hirofumi's request and set up a date for them both to visit.

I had been working on a series of talking portraits. The idea was to have a face animated in such a way that the eyes appeared to blink on a computer screen and combine this with the voice of the person relating a series of facts about themselves. I had recorded a young woman's answers to my scripted questions, cut the recording into a series of simple statements and then had them play randomly from the computer. I got the idea from my daughter's talking doll. I wanted to try a version of this in Japanese, so I asked Hirofumi and Hijiri if they would participate. I think they were a little hesitant, but they agreed. With the help of an interpreter I asked them simple questions such as: "where were you born?", "do you have any pets?", "what is your job?". I also experimented with more personal questions such as: "were you good at school?" and: "what do you vote?". But I generally found that the answers to the simple questions were most effective and that the answers did not come across as impersonal.

Hirofumi, who speaks less English than Hijiri, found the process difficult; we were both shy. Hijiri, an actress, was more light about it and, though very self deprecatory, was quite happy to try different ways of answering the same questions and play around with the idea.

That I couldn't understand the statements confused me and, although I continued to record them and the subsequent models, the project began to fall apart. I tried to combine a drawing of someone breathing and blinking with the sound of her singing but lost heart in this project too. Eventually I shelved the idea and concentrated on the accidents of the outfits and poses to accompany the blinking eyes. Hirofumi's fashion sense provided me with interesting outfits to draw and to set off the classical poses that I asked him to adopt. Strangely he was a more relaxed model than Hijiri. She remained very stiff and self-conscious in every pose but she proved very enjoyable to draw. There was another drawing of her smoking a cigarette but I somehow lost it while transferring files from one computer to another. I used the various works that came out of the session to make an exhibition in Tokyo. There was a billboard size inkjet painting of "Hirofumi with staff" and smaller silkscreen paintings of Hijiri. I had planned to show the two blinking portraits (without soundtrack) side by side, but in the context of the other work this proved distracting and so I split them up.

A television chat show had been using horrible copies of my portraits to accompany each of their guest-stars, despite all my efforts to get them to stop. When Channel 4 asked if I would take part in an art programme on self-portraiture I saw a chance to put things right, so I accepted. It involved them filming me while I made a self-portrait. I wanted to make a portrait that appeared to be breathing and it seemed that using myself would be a good solution as I could control all the movements precisely. Some years earlier I had played a lot of Tomb Raider computer games. If you leave the controls alone Lara Croft stops walking but appears to breathe heavily. This simple movement gives the illusion that she is still active, that the scene is still live. It seemed to animate everything around her as well.

It was difficult to concentrate while dealing with the camera crew and answering the presenters' questions. As is usual with TV there was some faking but they filmed me filming myself and then returned later to film me drawing some of the frames and viewing the finished work. For this kind of film I draw a base image and then animate parts of it. The base image can be used in a number of ways. I made a smallish version using silkscreen on spray-painted wooden board. Silkscreen is usually associated with multiple prints but it is still one of the best ways to make a precise, flat painting, even if you are making only one image. By printing on a wooden board the whole thing becomes an object, rather like the traditional oil on canvas portraits that I was mimicking. Silkscreens become difficult on a big scale and the cut-out vinyl system that I often use does not provide the subtle colours that seemed more appropriate for these more complicated drawings. Inkjet printing on canvas has a rather thin, superficial quality that I don't like, but I found a company in Manchester that inkjets on to paper and then presses the image from the paper on to nylon cloth. The effect is a much more saturated colour that does not seem to sit on the surface but be in the cloth, as if it were a dyed silk scarf. I use this system to make the large versions which are two and a half metres high, big enough to put the head well above the viewer, like a picture in a palace.

It was an unpleasant experience using my own image to draw. I sometimes have the feeling that all the portraits are really self-portraits but actually staring at my own image for hours and using my own name when referring to the works later made me uncomfortable. Even looking at the final drawings makes me a little uncomfortable and it was difficult to distinguish this from the feeling I have when a drawing is not working. As a result I spent a long time fiddling with minor adjustments on the face.

Ashley first contacted me through my website. He explained that he and his wife, Anya, liked to collect art, but only of images of themselves as a couple. He asked if I would be willing to do a double portrait of them as a commission. Normally I would have explained that for one thing I had stopped doing commissioned portraits and secondly that I had not been able to find a way to put two different people into a single picture, except for a portrait of a pair of monkeys that I had made some years earlier. Somehow the relationship between the people becomes too important and visually one's eye keeps jumping back and forth in an uncomfortable way, refusing to take in the image as a whole. However I had a plan to make a pair of conversing portrait films on two separate screens and asked Ashley if this project might interest him. Ashley and Anya agreed to come to the studio for a day and pose for me on the understanding that a number of different works might come out of the project and that they would wait and see what, if anything, they wanted.

Ashley is a city banker and keen sportsman. He arrived in a pristine suit and tie with a casual, weekend outfit as a back up. I had prepared myself by gathering together my drawings of Old Master paintings that I had made for the previous portrait project with a Japanese couple. I started with Ashley, using only the stills, digital camera. He posed with books and files in his hands and with a staff, but in the end the images that worked best of him were those where he simply stood with arms crossed or hands in pockets, somewhat sideways to the viewer and looking slightly down at you. It might have made more sense to show Ashley, the banker, in his suit, but the mix of quite tough leather jacket and formal city shirt seemed better to describe him and presented new opportunities for drawing, particularly the shine on the jacket and the stripes of the shirt, both of which act to further define his shape and give a lot of detail without really complicating the drawing. While I photographed I kept fairly silent. Some models need a lot of calming and, in a way so do I, and chatting helps, but Ashley was very calm, even rigid. It wasn't necessary to take a lot of photos of each pose as he didn't fidget or grimace.

I knew photographing Anya would be more demanding, if only due to the number of outfits she had brought. She was also a good model but much more active and chatty, laughing and telling stories all the while. I tried to be organized and go through a number of similar poses in each outfit, with hair up and then the same with hair down, but when you added in the shoes and accessories, the variations became endless and I just took what I could. I didn't really notice her earrings at the time, but they proved very useful later when I came to make films of the two of them. The plan was to make films of both of them in which they appear to blink. To do this I take a photo and then take the same photo but asking the models to close their eyes. I then draw some intervening stages and the model appears to blink. My friend and animator, Daniel, then loops the frames and runs them on an algorithmic (that's what he calls it) random system which makes the computer decide when she blinks. At this stage I realized that Anya's dangly earrings would probably be moving slightly. It was fairly simple to draw a series of earrings which, when animated, makes the earrings appear to sway back and forth.

Perhaps because Anya was an actress, she seemed to enjoy finding different poses and trying out many combinations of clothes. Her husband waited patiently down-stairs until we were finished and then they swapped and I sat Ashley down and began the next phase of the project. I had a list of simple questions developed from the questions I had asked Hirofumi and Hijiri. Ashley seemed more nervous at this stage. He didn't really seem to understand what I was looking for. I wanted a series of statements that were deadpan information in the voice of the sitter, but Ashley had prepared answers that were amusing and gave me too much detail. We persevered however and then moved on to Anya. Anya was much more relaxed, though surprisingly shy and modest.

Sorting through the hundreds of photos was a challenge. I sort the photos into 'great', 'good' and 'bad' files and then I junk the 'bad' ones. I tell myself I will also consider the 'good' ones but actually only usually deal with the 'great'. No matter how many photos I take, there always seem to be missing possibilities or slight problems with each pose. The hair is behind one ear, the straps are irregular, or I cropped too much, or she is not in full focus. Really, one could re-photograph at this stage but I don't.

Having photographed a number of people to make these new, three-quarter length portraits it occurred to me that I could use images from earlier photo-shoots taken for different purposes. I sifted through photos of my favourite, recent models. Very few images seemed likely to work, perhaps because I had been focusing on different things. Kiera is a London based artist and one-time child minder for my first daughter. Over the years I have drawn her for various projects including wall drawings, statues, films and paintings. Her long, slim legs inspired a number of poses including a series suggesting that she was adjusting her shoes.

I found Bijou via a modelling agency. She and a male model, Alex, were the first professional models I ever used. I needed images of naked male and female figures for an architectural project and felt it was too much to ask of people I knew. Bijou proved to be a great model and I made a large series of paintings and a film of her undressing. In this pose she is actually removing her underwear but, in the end, that information got cropped out of the image, as it seemed awkward and crude when drawn in this way. Bijou was not wearing earrings and there was no pendant on Kiera's necklace. I added these so that I could later animate them swinging. I can now animate someone blinking without filming the actual blink. It turns out that I have to draw the movement as much faster than it is in reality.

I have made even more works depicting Monique, a business woman and art collector from Switzerland. She and her husband commissioned me to make portraits of themselves and their three children. Some years later Monique asked me to make a second portrait of herself. I had an idea to make a kind of mega-portrait, to draw her from many angles, in many ways, in many outfits and somehow combine the resulting images. On my instructions Monique arrived with an array of clothes and I took hundreds of photos and hours of video footage. I made a lot of paintings and three films. The first had her walking in a swimsuit. The second film was a close-up portrait of her face. Every now and then she smiles, frowns, blinks, or raises her eyebrows, in a random order. The third combined all the images I had drawn in a kind of slide show. I later realized that I could use the 'changing expressions' film in combination with a three-quarter length portrait drawn in the more detailed style I was now using. I eventually found a pose where the heads matched. Although the head is much smaller in this second film, the slight facial movements seem to animate the whole.

Ruth is an art collector living in Geneva. She had bought a few of my full-length people paintings and asked my gallery if I would make some similar paintings of her. I asked if I could have some photos of her and if she smoked. She did smoke and she also had long smooth hair. These were both qualities that I was looking for. I talked to Ruth on the phone, explaining what I had in mind and what I would need her to bring to the studio.

She turned up with many bags of clothes and accessories and a new pack of cigarettes. I have an upstairs, sky-lit studio, put aside for photography. Even when people are working below, it feels calm and private. There is something quite intimate about the process of a photo-shoot. Invariably I end up chatting freely with models as we work, laughing and sharing stories and opinions. Often I never see the model again but at the time it feels, to me at least, as if we get to know each other a bit. We tried hair up, hair down, glasses, dark glasses, jewellery, underwear, swimming costume, dresses and topless, all with and without cigarettes. I photographed her standing and filmed her walking on my running machine. The previous year I had made a film of a model turning through three hundred and sixty degrees. To do this I had an electric turn-table made. Ruth stood on this and slowly turned as I took my photos. This gave me the choice of many angles on each pose. I ended up with five images of Ruth, all smoking. I intend to make them into films if I can animate smoke successfully. I have made a series of portraits where a small amount of movement helps to bring the figure to life. There is no story, just a sense of time. I didn't notice that Ruth was wearing a watch throughout the shoot, but it offered the possibility of animating the second hand to further the sense that the image was 'live'. I considered making the watch actually work and tell the real time, but in the end this seemed unnecessary.

I have used the five images of Ruth in a number of ways: computer films, silkscreens, large scale inkjet canvases, and I made a set where the abstraction is taken a step further, in the manner of the full-length figures that I have drawn.

I feel I may have finished the three-quarter length series, though one or two other projects might come up. I have never managed to draw more than one person in a portrait but, with more help from Utamaro, and remembering the monkey double portrait, I realized that maybe drawing people who that looked alike or had some obvious connection might work. I have started by drawing a group portrait of three sisters.

I had arranged to meet Clare in a pub on Cambridge Circus. She turned up looking very glamorous in a shimmering black evening dress. We drank gin and tonics and I smoked a cigarette even though I don't smoke. Clare looks after me at my London Gallery but we talked instead about her part time charity work. I think we were both a bit nervous about the evening's assignment.

A month before, Clare, my friend Paul and I had visited a "gentleman's club" to look at pole dancers. My friend had turned white, I had forked out a lot of cash and Clare had taken down the names of the best dancers. Clare then contacted the club and asked if Bambi or Heather would like to do some modelling. Neither of them contacted the gallery and I was running out of time for the project. 

I had been asked to make a wall drawing for an art museum in Ontario. The room I chose was full of Henry Moore sculptures, mostly of reclining nudes. I thought it might look good if I placed my drawings of nudes behind the Moores.

My drawings up till then had been very vertical, posed, and static. People naturally stand and are therefore vertical. If they sit or lie down, the bed or floor or chair become part of the image and have an impact on the body shape. It occurred to me that the only way to get a more dynamic pose while keeping the body free of any background, was to use a pole for the model to hang from and lean against. The pole allows the body to be seen from various angles in various positions. I had not at first intended to use the whole figure or to include the pole. Previous wall drawings had shown a small 'slice' of the body, blown up large, only just recognizable as a nude. I ordered a pole on the internet and set it up in the studio. Having decided on the pole, it seemed more interesting to follow through and use a professional pole dancer.

So anyway we headed off into Soho to look for a place called Raymond's Revue Bar. My last experience of a Soho club was back in the eighties with a trip to a transvestite cabaret club and it turned out that Raymond's had closed. So we wandered into the nearest strip club, which was much seedier than the up-market gentleman's bar that we had tried on the previous attempt. Every surface was painted matt black and the lighting was somehow dim but harsh. We paid a disinterested man who sat behind the counter and were sent upstairs to a small, private cinema like space. The stage was large, matt black, surrounded by mirrors and had three poles. Three girls danced. The central pole was the focus and that dancer was the most active. When she finished her dance and strip she would head off to the bar and the girls would shuffle along a pole as a new dancer came on stage. 

There was only space for two rows of red velvet seating and we slid into the back row. We sat for a while trying not to look at the other customers and focusing on why we were there. One girl was easily the best pole dancer that we saw and so once she had finished her number we went into the side bar and waited for her to turn up. I asked her to sit with us and Clare showed her some of my catalogues while I asked if she would be willing to pose for a couple of afternoons. She said yes, seemed very sweet and quite interested in the idea but not at all pushy, like: "Sure, why not? Could be fun for a change". She told us her name was Shahnoza and that she came from Tehran. She then went back on stage, it was hard to see where she could have kept the card that Clare had given her.

As we left the doorman took pity on us, told us we should not be wandering around that area and offered to take us by cab to a much more "appropriate" club. "You two are from out of town right?" he said. 

This club was more pretentious. It had a leopard skin interior, lounge seating and waitresses. The ceiling seemed low and it was hard to see where the room ended. There were only a few customers but a lot of women wandering around the floor as well as dancing up on stage. You had to check your coat and buy a drink. 

It is difficult to choose a model. Until I start drawing I don't fully know what I want of a project, so it's hard to tell who will be good to draw, it's a matter of personality, or at least style, as well as body type. I focused on finding someone who could dance well and had hips. We had to buy a number of the incredibly expensive drinks before Bruna had time to talk to us. Again we described the project and asked if she would be interested. Bruna was also very nice, a bit more air hostess-like, but friendly and casual. She was a really good pole-dancer, I thought, able to shimmy up the pole and hang upside-down. She also took a card and said she would call.

A few days later I was giving up hope and thinking I would have to try the health club angle, when Shahnoza called. We arranged a time and I gave her instructions on the type of clothes to bring. She said she would bring her own music. She cancelled the first appointment, saying she was ill. I felt like I was fishing and that the fish could get away even at the last minute. But she turned up on the following week and worked very hard. It was an intense and tiring two days with two video cameras and a stills camera all going simultaneously. It's important to give a model an idea of what you want but I find that the best moves and positions usually come from the sitter. You have to guide and follow while dealing with the technical side as well (I don't like anybody helping). The music has to be right the films and batteries changed, focus, camera angle, lighting, all while I try to remember what kind of positions I wanted to draw. We picked five or six of the costumes that she bought and she spent a lot of time getting the outfits and accessories and even make-up right. We improvised a number of moves and dances and repeated them in each of the costumes. I took over a thousand photos and then did the same thing the next day but with her hair tied up. The second day was more successful.

Going through two thousand photos and hours of video is almost as much work as doing the drawings and I have to keep searching as I refine my ideas of what I want to draw. As usual, the first attempts were unsuccessful, too dependent on previous logics. I tend to loose heart a little as I flounder around until something seems to work. Eventually a simple format emerged, four drawings of each outfit, in contrasting poses, showing the whole figure and the pole she moves around. Once a set of drawings are made I can play around with what I want to do with them. I draw on the computer over the digital photos. The drawings can be outputted in a number of ways.