Recently reaching the final of Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year, Tom Mead painted a variety of celebrity names, with his portrait of Jazzie B. finally ending up on display at Camden’s Roundhouse later this year. His time on the show has led to getting more commission work, which he continues to do alongside studying BA Fine Art: Painting, where he will soon graduate. Recently chatting to Tom, he tells us about appearing on Portrait Artist of the Year, his upcoming exhibitions and discovering his talent for art.
When did you discover your talent for art?
It’s just something I’ve always loved doing. I’ve tried a bit of everything and my career aims have varied (illustrator to animator to sculptor to graphic design to painter), but I’ve always been doing something to do with Art. I’ve been lucky to have had plenty of supportive teachers and friends along the way, but after school I had the opportunity at college to focus on Art full time. I think taking that risk of deciding not to study any other (probably more employable) subjects any further paid off, as I realised how quickly I could improve if I devoted all my time to art, and how happy it made me. I had very generous tutors tell me I was bound to be successful, which despite being a lovely thing to say, meant there’s always been a worry in the back of my mind that anything less would disappoint people. Then I joined university and felt like a very small fish in a big pond. I think every artist goes through periods of self-doubt, even the ones I look up to, but Portrait Artist restored my confidence massively, being judged against professional artists and having incredible feedback made the risk worthwhile, and now I’m sure I’ll never stop painting.
Were there any artists that inspired you to paint?
As I said, I’ve changed a lot over the last few years before I found something that works for me. There was a time when I wanted to just paint the most realistic portraits I could, and Chuck Close was a big influence there. When I wanted to create a lot of movie ‘fan art’, I loved the work of Drew Struzan. Once I started university, I realised my love of film was becoming more of an aim to be a director myself. I have no directing experience, but I saw the opportunity to create ‘short stories’ within my paintings, I can plan a scene, compose a shot and decide how much movement would occur in that scene to make my work feel like a living storyboard or film still. There are a few glitchy artists I follow on Instagram, a couple of which have appeared on Portrait Artist before, and they helped me discover ways of portraying movement and character and make sure I’m not treading on anyone’s toes. My current favourite artist, Mark Tennant is inspiring me to know how much of a painting can be left ‘unfinished’ to add life and a different form of glitch.
How was your experience on Portrait Artist of the Year?
I’m a really big fan of the show, I had probably seen most episodes a couple of times before they started filming mine. It was pretty surreal to see behind the scenes and meet the judges, which quickly made the whole experience feel very real. Thankfully, when I started painting I managed to lose myself in it, and that helped calm my nerves too. I thought the standard of this year’s competition was extremely high, so each time I stood there waiting for the winners to be announced I could never call it, and to hear my name was one of the best experiences of my life, so I’m glad someone was filming it! The whole process takes so much more effort than you’d think watching the final product, there’s a huge team of people to make everything run smoothly, but I probably did four to six interviews per episode that didn’t make the final cut. I spent a whole day filming my preparation for the two-week commission, where I had to walk across a bridge three times to get the right shot, explore the Roundhouse and interview the director, then interview and sketch Jazzie B. It all took hours, and was edited to around five seconds! It made me gain a lot of respect for the crew and editors, and you realise how much effort is required in that kind of industry. I also loved meeting a range of artists from across the country, and feeling like we were peers despite age gaps and differences in style.
Did you watch the series on TV and if so, how was it seeing it back?
Before each episode I was incredibly nervous, even when it was going to be an episode I had done well in. All of a sudden you realise you’re going to get the public’s unfiltered feedback, and hear everything the judges were saying behind your back! Thankfully all of the feedback was so positive, I found it quite overwhelming as I’d been dreading it for almost a year. I was also relieved the editing team was very kind to me, taking out all of the embarrassing things I remember saying.
What do you think you learnt from appearing on the show?
I definitely learnt to be more confident in my work, as I said I was starting to feel quite pessimistic about the possibilities of being an artist, so it was perfect timing to have this confidence boost. The timing also worked in my favour as we had almost a year to wait between filming and broadcast, which allowed me another more relaxed year at university to improve my work greatly without any pressure of commissions. It was just so humbling to learn people liked what I was doing, and then by the end of the show I think I discovered a lot more about my own work, what works and what doesn’t. I did so many practice pieces before each round and it was quite invaluable, it also showed me that I was heading towards being too repetitive and I’ve started to reinvent my own style already to keep everything exciting for myself and others. The show also helped me learn how to talk about my own work, it’s easy to have a thousand thoughts about your own process in your head, but when it comes to articulating them to other people it becomes quite difficult. Talking about your work can be half of the battle in selling yourself as an artist, it’s a very important skill to learn and the show really helped me improve by throwing me in the deep end.
Which celebrity did you find most challenging to paint?
Definitely Laura Linney. The final was already stressful enough, lots of pressure and painting it in the National Portrait Gallery, so the fact I had one of my least favourite faces to paint made it a pretty scary experience. She was also sitting very far away from us artists (I think to allow room for cameras), and I wanted to paint one of my faces fully from life. I should’ve taken a bit more time at the beginning to rethink my plan, that’s definitely what I would’ve done now but at the time the pressure and my inexperience made me want to start immediately. I’m still fairly happy with my end result, but can’t help but wonder what could’ve happened if I had tried something slightly different! Laura Linney as a sitter was great – very still, but drawing fair-skinned and haired, classically attractive people in a strict time limit is a real challenge. There’s always a tendency to paint the one wrinkle or shadow you find and immediately make the sitter look twice their age, or too butch, something that can be easily rectified with my usual work, but can take a while to spot in a four-hour time limit. I’ve just realised I haven’t mentioned that I also painted two faces in the same amount of time, which definitely didn’t help my nerves under the time pressure!
Do you have any advice for those thinking of applying for a future series?
Practice, practice, practice. I had to essentially unlearn my usual painting process to find one that worked for me within four hours, and it took quite a lot of time. The first few practice paintings I didn’t even get to put eyes on my sitters, and even when you feel you can paint a full face in four hours, the amount of time you spend on the show giving interviews and having your view obstructed by cameras means you end up with even less time to paint. I also think knowing who you are as an artist (sounds cliché) is important, the judges and viewers want to see a consistent style that you develop at each stage. You also need to be prepared to talk about your work and process for a very, very long time. I’ve probably made it sound daunting, and it was a very stressful experience, but in hindsight I loved every minute of it and the StoryVault team are amazing at looking after all of the artists. It’s also an opportunity like no other, I think I might’ve been too young looking back, but now it’s given me the best start to my career I could’ve dreamed of! One last piece of advice I’d give is to practice drawing/painting a variety of faces. The amount of contestants on the show that say they haven’t painted someone a different age/gender/skin colour to themselves before normally worries them so be prepared for any type of sitter. I spent most evenings on Google Images drawing random faces, although I must admit I still wasn’t prepared for my heat sitter Daniel Lismore.
Did you start with a different style of art or have you always enjoyed portrait painting?
Portraiture has always been my main focus, I’d say right now my work is about portraits/figures within an environment, but I can’t ever see myself painting a piece that doesn’t have a human in it. It’s amazing how much a single painting of a face can affect a viewer, it instantly becomes a character study that can either be appreciated at face value or delved into deeper if the viewer decides to. I worry about being too pretentious when talking about art, but I like how a painting depicting figures in a more realistic and mundane moment in time can be very accessible yet still have potential for interpretation.
Have you seen your Jazzie B. painting at the Roundhouse in Camden, and how does it feel having it displayed there?
The piece is actually currently on a tour of Whitewall Galleries, after it recently finished its stay at the Clarendon Gallery in Mayfair. I’m so pleased the piece is being able to be seen by as many people as possible, and having it permanently stay in a popular, contemporary venue like the Roundhouse is a privilege.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or events?
My work produced on the show is currently touring Whitewall Galleries. After that, I have my degree show at Wimbledon College of Art from 16th-21st June. There are a few more potential things after that, competitions that could exhibit my work, and I’ve had interest from galleries which is fantastic. If I have more opportunities to show my work in London I’d be very excited, the private view of the Portrait Artist exhibition at the Clarendon Gallery in Mayfair was exceptionally surreal, and I hope I’ll get to repeat the experience some day.
Who in the public eye would you most like to paint?
I could just list a few of my favourite celebrities, but I guess actors in particular could be very interesting. I’d probably use their skills to be characters and models within my paintings, rather than produce a painting of a ‘celebrity’ which could become too much like fan art. Adeel Ahktar comes to mind because he’s got a great face and I love the Channel 4 show ‘Utopia’. Quentin Tarantino would be a dream come true just to get to meet him! I also like the idea of painting album covers for some of my favourite contemporary musicians like Michael Kiwanuka, Paolo Nutini, Alabama Shakes and Tame Impala.
When and how did you decide to start painting two profiles in one artwork?
There was a time I started to get bored with just reproducing a single photo in paint. I think I realised no matter how well I could paint it, someone somewhere could do a better job, and even then, the photo still exists and makes a reproduction almost pointless. Of course, that’s not actually true, there are many things a painting can do that a photograph can’t, but at the time I just wanted to create something original that didn’t exist anywhere else. This lead to my fracturing and glitch effect, merging traditional painting with elements of technology, and adding additional faces became a product of that. It’s easy to not fully capture a likeness or personality in one face, so hopefully adding more gives the viewer a better idea of the person in the painting.
How do you prepare for a new piece of art?
I try not to force it too much, and let ideas come to me naturally. For instance, I might be worried about a certain thing, or excited, or someone’s wound me up. I’ll try and think how those feelings could be portrayed in a film, how the lighting, composition and characters would create that kind of atmosphere and start sketching all of this down. I normally take the more personal aspects of the piece and conceptualise them, usually into objects that I’ll place in the background. An example I can give of this is the dove skull in the poster in ‘Down Here, Looking Up’. That piece is all about young relationships and how they can feel so strong and defiant against the odds, but the dove skull is a reminder that those relationships rarely last. I think it gets too pretentious when I say those things out loud, but they’re the kind of things that excite me in paintings, where every detail is important, but the work can still be enjoyed without acknowledging them. This way of working set me at a disadvantage on Portrait Artist I feel, as having to immediately respond to a sitter and be judged against contestants who are fantastic ‘portrait painters’ limited my work. But I knew that going into it, so I had to up my basic drawing and painting skills to give myself more of a chance!
What do you enjoy most about being an artist?
If I’m honest, the title is probably one of the best things! I’ve always loved drawing and painting and always will, but now people actually call me an artist it feels very validating, and I’ve received messages from people saying I’ve inspired them to paint, which I wasn’t expecting at all and was very overwhelmed by. I paint because I love it and it excites me, but knowing it has an effect on other people is something else. The idea I could potentially do what I love for a career is incredible.
Do you have plans for once you finish university?
The show has helped me get plenty of commission work to keep me busy for a while, with enough time to create more of my own work. Despite this, I graduate in just over a month and times are still quite uncertain, although I’m a lot more optimistic about it all now. I’ll be entering more competitions (non-televised thankfully), and putting on exhibitions and selling work where I can, but there are no solid plans as of yet – however I think this might just be what being an artist is!
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