After reaching the final of Portrait Artist of the Year on Sky Arts in 2019, Tom Mead has continued working during the pandemic and he took part in last year’s Portrait Artist of the Week online painting Professor Green and was also involved in Portraits for NHS Heroes. Tom has recently released his debut book Black Box, featuring six short stories made up of a mixture of script, storyboards and illustrations, and it proved such a success that it sold out shortly after the announcement. Currently, Tom’s work has been shortlisted for the Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Prize, which can be viewed online, and over lockdown, he has been working again with Sky Arts for a future project. Answering our questions, Tom talks about being part of Portrait Artist of the Week, his continuous art work and releasing his book Black Box.
Since appearing on Portrait Artist of the Year in 2019 and graduating from university, how have you found the experience continuing your journey as an artist?
I’m constantly just thinking how lucky I’ve been, the show really gave me a career when I needed it most and I don’t know where I’d be without it. This industry is a tough one to navigate, and it feels like there are no set rules or steps to take to ‘make it’. Thankfully I’ve had portrait commissions and some successes with competitions that have kept my career going, even through 2020. I think I’m getting more confident with my paintings, to be more authentic and honest with myself, and also branch out and try new things such as the book and other projects I haven’t released yet. I can’t stress how glad I am to have so many amazing and talented friends from university and PAOTY, those communities have really helped keep my creativity and motivation high, especially during the last year which has obviously been very isolating for us all.
Last year, during the pandemic, you were part of Portrait Artist of the Week, can you tell us how it was being involved and what was it like painting Professor Green?
I was extremely proud to be chosen to take part, but obviously it was quite a daunting challenge to have thousands of people watching me paint and make conversation live for four hours! I’m so glad I had Professor Green as my sitter, he was fantastic to chat to and obviously him being a young contemporary figure suited my artwork well. I decided to be very genuine with my process, instead of trying to show how much I could paint in four hours if I ‘really tried’. Usually the first four hours of my paintings are a complete mess, or so loose because I use this time to make decisions on compositions, tonal values and colours. Thankfully I think most of the viewers used the live streams as more of a podcast to paint along to, so everyone was a lot more interested in our conversation, which then helped me finish the painting afterwards with a much better sense of Professor Green’s character.
I wanted to comment on the strange situation within my painting, as due to COVID these sittings were done virtually, so in my composition I zoomed out of the portrait and painted my view of Pro Green on the iPad next to my canvas. I thought of it as a ‘portrait as a still life’.
How was it being part of Portraits for NHS Heroes?
The idea to do this by Tom Croft was just fantastic, I got involved fairly early and couldn’t believe how quickly it grew, it wasn’t long before almost every portrait artist I knew had done one. I definitely felt a responsibility with the piece, you want to please your NHS worker but also document this very real, scary situation they’re in, and also, as always, I wanted to stay true to my style. The glitching and collaging of my work actually helped me represent both aspects I wanted to within one painting.
It’s great to feel like I was a small part of one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic, and to make the cut for the official book was a real privilege!
You’ve recently announced your book Black Box, can you tell us about it and how it came about?
Black Box is a dark comedy screenplay that consists of six short stories that all dip into their own individual genre. I took the script and added just under 300 storyboard panels which I had illustrated, so it became a screenplay/storyboard/graphic-novel hybrid.
I was taking inspiration from anthology shows like Inside No. 9 and Black Mirror when I thought of the initial concepts for the short stories, but things really took off when I realised I could package them all in one screenplay. I find it hard to talk too much about the stories without spoiling too much of the fun of reading the book, but the first story features two young friends just driving and chatting in real time, and the second story is a supernatural horror from the point of view of a five-year-old girl.
How long were you working on the release and is it something you always wanted to do?
I initially wrote one of the stories about three years ago, so it’s definitely been a long journey overall. A lot of my scripts tend to go this way, even if something is ‘finished’ I’ll probably still put it away for a few months or a year before returning to it and improving/rewriting it. The idea of turning it into a storyboarded/graphic novel type book came very late, and lockdown made this possible to do in a few months.
I guess I’ve always really wanted to be a storyteller, from around age five I was making my own comics. Although I’ve pursued Art a lot more since then, I still treat my paintings like film scenes with stories and themes, although obviously these have to be a lot more ambiguous.
Where did you get the inspiration from for the stories and how does it feel having the book now sold out?
The inspiration came from all sorts of places, one of the stories was me trying to creatively visualise an anxiety attack, and some others were me being inspired by genres I’m not used to writing. Once I had the idea to combine them all, the script really took off and I became engrossed in the project. That was over a year ago and I had other commitments that meant the screenplay was put to the side, but then the pandemic and a few other personal issues happened, and around November/December I had a lot of emotion that I was able to apply to the framework of my script and really bring it to life.
I was pretty terrified about advertising the book, it’s very different to anything I’ve ever put out publicly and I had no idea if any of my followers would be interested or like the story itself. The response was really overwhelming and I was amazed to see it sell out in a couple days, with copies going to Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, Amsterdam, Canada and America. It’s extremely encouraging and the response from the people who have read it already has really motivated me to keep pursuing this passion of mine, and continue to share the results with everyone.
I’m considering doing a digital release for everyone that missed out on a copy, I’ll be advertising this on my Instagram when it’s ready!
How have you found the experience releasing your debut book during the pandemic?
It’s actually not a bad time for it, if anything I should’ve done it sooner. Everyone is looking for new media to consume and there was a huge amount of admin involved for me that I was able to do with very few outside distractions. My main concern was the book being too depressing at points for the current climate, but seeing as the pandemic inspired a lot of the story I think this was inevitable. I’m glad I now have this record of a specifically ‘lockdown’ project.
Can you tell us about any paintings you’re currently working on?
I’ve accidentally created a series I’m still working on, these figurative compositions that all have one strong colour. So far I’ve finished ’15 Minutes’ (blue), ‘Home’ (grey), ‘I Never Saw Them Winging’ (pink), ‘Perspective’ (red) and ‘What’s a Cowboy Without His Hat?’ (red). I have three others in progress that should join this series, which is encapsulating the more graphic approach to painting I’m now taking, with simplified blocks of colour adding to the glitched aesthetic.
In between this work and the commissions, I still create smaller study pieces, experimenting with different types of glitches to see if they are worth pursuing in my larger scaled paintings. A painting of my boots was the most recent one, and I usually just sell these through my Instagram, which has really become a fantastic tool for getting work directly to my followers like this.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions where your work can be viewed?
I’m really proud to say I’ve been shortlisted for the Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Prize, which is available to view online and the piece is also hanging in Coventry Cathedral right now. It’s a really incredible venue and I’m hung alongside some insanely talented artists.
What are some of your highlights from being an artist so far?
There’s been a couple of instances where people have seen a painting of mine and, without knowing for sure, have guessed that I painted it. Writing that out makes it not sound like a big deal, but the industry (especially with social media) is so oversaturated that I’m incredibly grateful that a few people out there can recognise my painting style and remember me.
Another highlight (aside from exhibitions and the amazing opportunities SkyArts have given me) is the fact that people want to buy my artwork. You’re not really supposed to talk about money and the financial side of this industry, or act like you care about it, but I’m so grateful for the support because every sale and commission means I can keep doing this for a living. Seeing people want to own my paintings and also support me to create new pieces is extremely humbling.
How do you like to spend your time away from painting?
There’s the writing, and some very slow progress on various short films (usually animated), as well as watching a lot of films and TV shows. Usually whilst doing all of these I’m half-looking at my current paintings and seeing all of the mistakes I need to fix.
The last month I have been seeing friends or my niece almost every single day, and although I always loved that, I’m ridiculously appreciative to be able to do this again. I didn’t really realise how much I need to socialise to then be able to go back to work and be invested in it, I thought they were two separate things but lockdown has shown me that I need one to encourage the other.
How has it been continuing painting during the pandemic and what are you hoping 2021 brings for you?
Like I just said, I really learnt how important the social side of my life is to inspire and motivate my artwork. I think a lot of artists such as myself have always thought (pre-pandemic) that if we could just be locked away in our studios for a few months we’d be so productive, and I quickly learnt that is not the case at all. Somehow being locked in the studio with nothing else to do makes creating work twenty times harder.
I’m feeling very optimistic about everything now, and just grateful for what I have been able to do. I’ll always continue to paint and write, and hopefully the rest of 2021 gives me a lot more opportunities to do both, I’ve been doing another small project with Sky Arts over lockdown that should be revealed soon!
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