Our Grandpa was the artist in the family. He once painted a portrait of my Dad. In a series of simple brushstrokes he had managed to capture not just a technical likeness but an emotional embodiment of the man I knew best in life. Sarah Muirhead is similar in her effect. But she takes it to a whole new level of jaw dropping awesomeness.
I first saw Sarah’s work on Facebook. I have yet to experience one of her pieces in the flesh but I hope I can remedy that one day very soon. The painting in question which sparked my interest in the young Edinburger’s work was of my friend Seth Kirk; local skateboard enthusiast and one of the masterminds behind The Bunker. It was the first time since seeing that portrait of my Dad that I had seen a painting of someone I knew which really struck a chord with me. There are several reasons why this painting was a chord striker, reasons I will now endeavour to explain.
First off, it looks exactly like him. And not just in a technical way, although Sarah’s technical ability is astonishingly good; it is more the essence of Mr Kirk which Sarah has managed to capture on canvas which really brings the painting to life. Sarah’s work on first glance looks to be photorealism. The likeness of the subject is totally on point and there is a definite startling accuracy to the work. However the more I studied the portrait of Seth I realised that this was an expressionistic piece. There is vibrancy and life breathing and swirling through every brushstroke. Brushstrokes which are not smoothed over or tidied away but are left proudly on show. They add to the energy of the portrait. The frantic lines of the Seth’s beard and hair for instance, emanate like gamma rays off the sun. There are stories of nights and days spent living life woven into the cracks of his slight but warm smile. His eyes tell tales of grit and determination, of exhausted jubilance, and yet there is a sensitivity captured there too. The way the eyes linger in the world of soft-focus, as if he is deep in thought and staring right through you. What he is thinking about we will never know but it seems more than just a nice handrail. There is poignancy to the piece. When taking the fact that I know Seth out of the equation and just looking at it as a portrait of a man, it demands questions asked of it, stories made up about it; who is he, what does he do, where has he come from and what wonders has he witnessed? You get the sense that he has seen some sights and you want to know more. There is strength to this piece, a quiet dignity hidden amongst all the energetic bravado.
Now you could say it was all down to good casting, and that someone else might not have such an interesting puss as Mr Seth, but I believe we all have our hidden stories and secrets, we have all seen stuff and done things which could ignite the spark of intrigue in the eye of the beholder. What Sarah Muirhead does, with ninja like precision, is take the essence and the magic of a person and translate these qualities into an image, a piece of art which is more realistic than a photograph and in many ways the person themselves.
Sarah took some time off from preparing for her upcoming London show to answer some questions for us:
1. Our Grandpa was a keen artist when he was alive; he painted hundreds of painting over the years. He was the one who would sit us down with a 2b pencil sharpened with a knife, a blank sheet of A4 and show us how to draw. Who or what made you pick up that first crayon or pencil when you were younger?
I’ve always scribbled and it’s felt like a compulsion to draw or experiment with colour but I do have a vague memory of an old man who worked in a local gallery my parents and grandparents used to take my sister and I to, we would watch him work. He used a Spirograph and extended the patterns to the outer edges of the paper, filling in the gaps with a myriad of psychedelic colour. I was hypnotised by the skill and accuracy involved and I remember trying to mimic the seemingly impossible perfection of his pictures.
2. I kept the art up until I left high school, studying it from Standard Grade to Highers. But like many things it faded from my interests as I got older and busier. What made you stick with it through those mixed up years from child to adult?
It wasn’t so much a decision as an impulse. I think a lot of people who see drawing as their core skill or their starting point do it because it’s how they think, how they relax and how they refine their work; at least that’s how I see it. Other subjects were interesting and enriching or dull and obligatory but as corny as it sounds art wasn’t a choice, it was a fixation.
3. In those formative years of finding out who you were as an artist did your style go through transformations?
I’ve never consciously aimed to achieve a particular style or manner of painting, it’s like an accent, the more you immerse yourself in something and refine it the more distinctive and naturally individual it becomes. I think it’s an ongoing process with no end goal but a constant effort to improve and articulate something intangible. Any time I’ve tried to achieve a particular style it results in a kind of parody of other people’s work. Perhaps that’s an issue of confidence too.
4. How long into your life of painting did it take for you to find your specific style?
In my second year at Art College around the age of 19, one of my tutors said I should concentrate on figurative art after I became a little obsessed by life drawing and taking photographs of interesting faces I found in town. Sometimes it just takes someone you respect to point out what you already know.
5. Was it an organic journey to get to the level you are at present or did you see similar works, think I want to do that kind of painting and just start practising like mad?
It’s difficult to name influences or processes specifically and it’s definitely more of an organic process. There are a few ‘greats’ who inspire or move me and who have achieved a standard I would like to aim for but imitation is something I’ve never been good at and it would make me too self-conscious.
6. The word artist is banded about too readily these days; all the contestants on X Factor are “true artists” in the eyes of Mel B for example. In my opinion an artist is someone who, whatever their medium, be it painting, sculpture, acting, dance, music, literature etc. can express their emotions through their creativity and create an emotional response in others. This is something, I believe, you achieve time and time again in your work. Can you talk a bit about when, for you, it went from merely painting for pleasure to creating works of art?
I remember reading about the origins of the word ‘artist’ -a term that was coined in order to describe nobility who painted as a hobby rather than out of necessity which wasn’t allowed in their social position. Now we romanticise the word, it’s a loaded term that somehow elevates someone from the ranks of the hobbyists in a kind of ethereal sense. It feels too removed and glamorous for me, I’m a painter. Making art for a living takes up all of my time and I think it feels like an addiction or irrepressible drive about 75% of the time but the magic 25% is what I do it for- when I’m totally engaged in the process and it feels relaxing and stimulating I feel incredibly lucky and totally consumed by it.
7. You talk about your interest in nuance of character. It is a little known fact that I went to drama school here in Edinburgh and I am actually a fully qualified actor of stage and screen…I once did a Taggart…any way, when I do the acting I am all about finding the quirks, the nuances of the charter I am playing in order to bring them fully to life, how do you manage to capture such tiny, intimate, personal touches of someone’s being on canvas?
Thank you, the idiosyncrasies of an individual are something I try to focus on and I spend a lot of time finding a pose that represents something specific about the subject but avoids looking cartoonish which can be tricky. I think that with practice one can learn the anatomy, proportion and general perspective but I feel like I’ll always be wrestling to show weight and character of a subject which comes down to sensitivity and observation much like acting I expect.
8. When you work from a photograph, if you work from a photograph and perhaps this applies to working with a model too, do you concentrate on the captured moment of that image or do you add on to it your perceptions of the person, if you know them for instance, do your personal opinions of that person you’re painting add to and or inform the final outcome? Or is it all about the image in that precise moment?
I like to work from several photographs to get as much information as possible and I can’t really put my finger on what it is that attracts me to a particular image but my interaction with the model and relationship to them is all part of the process now. I guess I’m just looking for images that remind me of something that I took away from the encounter. I used to find people in the street and while I was able to find lots of interesting faces in environments that were meaningful to them, it was too brief an encounter to be much more than voyeuristic or tokenistic and it’s something I’d like to revisit with a different outlook later on. Now I’m much more ritualistic and I find people in all kinds of places, and I like to arrange to meet so I can spend time with them. Now I try to paint or draw something of the connection we shared rather than one isolated moment although I hope they still look like I’m painting something transient and fleeting in a sense too.
9. You are currently working towards your show in London. Can you tell us a bit about that please? Where is it and when is it on? What is the idea behind it? Is this your first show? What has it been like working towards a predestined goal? How long will the process be in total from first painting to doors opening on the first night? Can you tell us the name of the show? What do you hope people take away from coming to your show and what do you hope to take away from the experience as a whole?
I’m working towards a show in the Leyden Gallery in London at the moment. The gallery is in its infancy and is run by incredibly passionate and bright people. I saw a show there by an artist whose work I had admired on the internet and thought I should contact them to see if my work would fit in. Happily I’ll be showing there this June so I’m working my ass off to get everything finished in time. I’ve been working on and off for the last year or two and due to serious illness I was out of the game for a while but I feel like this is my chance to restart and I’m excited about how different things will look on the walls and whether the show is a success. I can’t get down to specifics just yet but it’s a mix of new paintings and drawings and I hope people who know my work will see some progress and new direction and those who don’t find something they can get excited about.
10. If you’re at work or when you were studying, or whatever, and you start to doodle as so many of us do, can your doodles turn into sprawling works of art or has a doodle ever been the inspiration for a full sized piece?
Sometimes doodles give me vague ideas for composition but I’m so used to a particular mind-set when I’m working that I find it difficult not to expand or draw without intention. Busman’s holiday, you know?
11. As you are aware, here at Bone-Yard we are lovers of the alternative ways of life. Many of your paintings are of similar, like-minded folk. Is there an influence in your work from the alternative world from perhaps the music, clothing, tattoos and people’s personalities?
I certainly don’t have an agenda or a plan about who I paint in that sense but I guess I’m artistically attracted to what I identify with socially and typical or conventional subjects have never held much interest for me. I hope it never seems too prescriptive or fashionable. I think I see particular things as visual representations of self. I prefer to paint flesh than clothes but I admit I find inked, pierced or scarred skin fascinating and beautiful. While I want these features to be more meaningful than decorative, I want the focus to be on body language, facial expression and anatomy.
12. Do you listen to music while you work and if so what’s on the old painting playlist at present?
Noise is imperative while I’m working, recently it’s been a mixture of Future Islands, Death grips and Ravi Shankar but I love to have documentaries on in the background too. I think I like this genre in particular because of its unpredictability and style of filming and I can identify with the person holding the camera
13. Some say the art mirrors the artist; what is one thing about yourself that your paintings do not reveal?
I have no doubt that my work says something profound about my state of mind but I’m never that aware of it other than revealing a tendency to obsession with detail. I’ve no doubt there’s a myriad of mind-sets and experiences that aren’t yet revealed in the work and I hope to use them in more narrative pieces in future but for now I’ll spare you any gory details.