Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Portraitist Jonathan Yeo

“I think that successful portraits are basically a document of the relationship between the artist and the sitter.” — Jonathan Yeo

The relationship between a portrait painter and his or her subject is an intimate one. The subject must bear it while the painter undresses them with his eyes—metaphorically, that is. For Jonathan Yeo—who’s painted a range of notable figures, including Malala Yousafszai, Kate Moss, Cara Delavigne and Tony Blair—the resulting relationship with the sitter is a treasured part of the process. As he noted when we spoke with him, “You form these interesting relationships, and sometimes it turns into therapy, you know? Sometimes you find out all kinds of things about them that you wouldn't have known.” While Yeo once described what he does as “unmasking pretense,” he also has painted portraits of actors as characters they have played, such as his portrait of Kevin Spacey as House of Cards' “Frank Underwood.” We spoke with the artist when he was in town to officially loan the Underwood portrait to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (where it will be on view through mid-October). Here’s Yeo on how he sees his work as a portrait painter, why he prefers to leave his work a little undone, and how he sometimes relies on others to let him know if a portrait is finished. 

NEA: What are you setting out to do when you paint someone’s portrait? How do you define what a portrait is?

JONATHAN YEO: I'm trying to tell as much of someone's story as possible and the truth about them in different ways. Partly their physical appearance and what they’re communicating nonverbally through their expression and the way they sat or stood and that kind of thing. But I think also I'm interested in the other narratives that are communicated through a painting [by] the composition, [and how] different areas of the painting are very highly finished and others may be looser or more raw, the geometry of the underpainting or the hard edges of the painterly brushstrokes. Whatever it is I think that there are no rules for [portraiture] and… there are so many different ways into it. It can sometimes be a little paralyzing having too many options. I think part of it is just your instinct, usually a moment early on in the process, when it might not be [your subject is] sitting in front of you, but when you've gone out to lunch afterwards and they've finally dropped the performance or are being more relaxed themselves, or more confessional, and that's the point at which you might notice something they do or something that comes to you and then that leads you into a way of starting the picture.

I'm always worried about saying too much about the content of a painting because you don't want to lead people too much. It's quite nice for people to project onto it what they think of it. I think also it's important for me always not to fill every detail of the picture. I think to leave a certain ambiguity makes it more enjoyable because we like to complete images in our mind. It's a sort of [how] poetry gives you a suggestion not interpretation. I think it's important that painting do that too, especially when a big part of it is depicting something precisely…. There's been an assumption since the birth of photography that the way we photograph these things is actually how things are, how we see them, and that's not true at all. I think that actually painting has got that opportunity to more closely replicate our actual experience of absorbing a scene and this very selective nature of our mind in sifting through what's important and ignoring some of the other aspects.

NEA: How do you decide who you want to sit for you? Or if it's a commission, how do you decide that you want to say yes?

YEO: I think it's just whether you feel an excitement to do the project. Obviously there was a time early on when I wasn't known, and I could barely afford to keep going so I was often compelled to take commissions even if I had reservations about it…. The ones that are problematic are the ones where you lose interest in it along the way. I'm very lucky. The last ten years or so I've been able to choose quite selectively which ones I take on. I do very few commissions these days, unless it's a very interesting offer from a great institution because that’s a great honor and a challenge in a way. If you know the works are going to be up against some of the greatest portraits of all time, then you feel like, "I want to make sure this one's as good as those." I think that gives it a certain sort of excitement just to be doing that. I think that in terms of just day to day, what makes me happy is working, and that's getting easier these days happily. You know, I've been lucky with all the breaks I've had and the subjects I've had that people, I think, trust me more and therefore I can approach people I don't know but I know by reputation and quite often persuade them to give up their time to [sit for me]. And so, I think it's just a case of trying to keep it an interesting view. I generally try to meet people once or twice before completely committing to things because maybe their public persona can sometimes be exactly what you end up with but some could be quite different. That doesn't necessarily matter as long as it’s interesting, it excites you, and you see something to do with [a portrait] which is more than you get from just a straightforward depiction.

NEA: Do you think that there is a common characteristic or characteristics to people who you've wanted to paint?

YEO: Other than the fact that there’s something that's interested me about them that I feel is an intriguing challenge to communicate on a canvas, I think it's the diversity of [my subjects] that's interesting. If I do [people of] the same background or similar profession several times in a row, I start to lose interest. That's one of the nice things about being able to pick and choose which ones you take on because you can mix it up more. I think that the whole [idea] of public performance is obviously an interesting one, whether it's actors or musicians or politicians, but people who professionally manipulate their image or use their image in some way. That gives it an extra layer of challenge and drama as well…. Sometimes it's just nice to paint your friends or family where it's just your relationship with them. [Portraiture] is a unique way to get to know someone, whether they are public figures or just people who do something that you're interested in. It’s a great privilege to be able to spend time just sitting, chatting in a way that you don't normally get a chance to just sit and get to know another adult, particularly someone who's busy at this stage in life…. You form these interesting relationships, and sometimes it turns into therapy, you know? Sometimes you find out all kinds of things about them that you wouldn't have known.

NEA: How do you know when a portrait is done?

YEO: [That’s] something I'm always asking myself. I think that I've made a mistake in the past of sometimes overworking something, and there is an element to it of chance, of magic happening… and spotting the moment when actually you've got something because of something not being finished or you've done a few gestures where you were going to come back later and work on it more and realizing that that actually worked better than if it was overly prosaic or explicit. I think that is something which we sometimes lose—a sense of spontaneity and energy…. I like that aesthetic of having different parts of the painting done in slightly different ways because that also, I think, eludes the passage of time, the fact that it's not the single moment of a photographic picture. You've had the experience of getting to know [the sitter], seeing them coming up the stairs [the the studio], and coming in and sitting down, and listening to things they say and the fact that on a different day they might be in a different mood and say things differently or show different sides of themselves. … I definitely think that there's very often a point when something doesn't look completely resolved where it actually communicates better what you're trying to do than if it's taken to the edge. What doesn't do much for me are the photorealist paintings where they're technically effortless, but there's no sense of accident involved or that the artist changed their mind halfway through or saw something different in the third sitting that they hadn't seen before. It's too mechanical; it loses a bit of magic.

I think that partly it's an instinctive [moment] when you feel that the way you see someone is there in front of you. There’ll often be a certain moment when that happens in the picture, which is obvious. The problem is that if you're working continually on one thing, you get so used to the image as it is that you think it looks right and then it's only when you [leave and] come back to it, you realize whether it's right or not. Obviously there's a moment when you show the subject or someone who knows them well and see their reactions. I try as often as possible not to show them the picture as it's in progress because it's so useful to have that element of genuine reaction to the finished or nearly finished article. [The sitter’s] own vanities and preoccupations about their appearance may come into it or color the way they react to the portrait, but someone who's married to them or related to them or just has known them for a long time will often react instantaneously and you can see in their reaction [if you’ve succeeded].

NEA: As a portraitist your gaze is always on the other. I'm curious what you see reflected back at you.

YEO: I think that at first people are often trying to convey positive sides of them because they think that they want to look their best but gradually they click that off. I think what is lovely is the fact that often the people I'm most interested in and like most, I end up forming relationships with that continue beyond the process of the painting. There are very few I have not ended up on not great terms with, because you have this extraordinary access and time with someone. You really wouldn't have time to get to know a stranger in the middle of their busy lives, and so it's a very unique relationship. I think that successful portraits are basically a document of the relationship between the artist and the sitter. Sometimes people take a bit of coaxing to get the best out of and sometimes people are great from the start but there's always a bit of an evolution and journey you go on and you just don't know how each one is going to turn out. 

Did you know that the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC is a Blue Star Museum? Find the complete list of Blue Star Museums across the U.S. here

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