Discover / Meet the Artist
 Andy Sylvester

Interview with Andy Sylvester

"It is what interests me about portraiture so much that it is about how people want the world to see themselves."

 

Today, we'd like to introduce you to

Andy Sylvester @andysylve

 

 

 

 

 

Andy is a portrait painter based in Bridgnorth, UK. 

We reached out to Andy following up from his recent selection among the Top 10 Picks
in the Voice of Artists Issue 14, to find out more about his story and art. Here is what he shared...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tell us a bit about your background.

 

I was born in a seaside town on the east coast of England. I initially studied at Grimsby School of Art and then went on to Wolverhampton Polytechnic to take my degree in Fine Art Painting.

After that, I worked in artists’ studios across the country whilst teaching art and design to post sixteen students. At this point, I was making landscape paintings and exhibiting these.  

As with many artists, the teaching provided a more stable income to support my practice. Eventually, the teaching job led to a management role which took over, and I stopped making my own work through lack of time and studio space.  

Having moved to a house four years ago, which enabled me to have a working space in the house, I began to make work again. A friend asked if I could paint her portrait, which sparked a new direction for my practice by moving me into portraiture. This was an opportunity to develop new work and explore things that I had been interested in for some time. The practice of teaching had sharpened my art historical interests, and this has permeated into the work. 

 

As a gay man, I also developed work that has been concerned with representations of queer themes alongside my commission work.

 

 

 

 

What does your process look like, from start to finish?

 

 

My work always begins with an image that is usually photographic. This can be one that I hold in my head or one I come across on social media or through looking at art historical images. If I am using social media images, there must be something about the image, the punctum, that draws me in, that speaks to me about them. If I am developing a more personal piece of work, I will work with the sitter in arranging the composition to tell a narrative about them. 

I work directly once I have the image, sometimes using underdrawing, but often just working directly with paint. I like the image to develop over time, and changes and corrections are all part of that process. This means I will scrape back and redraw if needed, allowing the image to develop. 

I work quickly and can lay out an image in an hour. Partially this is to do with using acrylic, which has a fast-drying time, but also because I like to keep a freshness to the paint marks.

 

I tend to work in series of images related to ideas and pursue this until I have exhausted it. I also work across several pieces consecutively, giving each of them time to ‘speak to me’ about how they need to develop. It allows me to know when a piece is finished and prevents overworking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you see your finished product before you start it?

 

 

I can usually see the form of the work in my head before I start it. I will have a mental image of the type of image I want to make and what I am trying to convey. I wouldn’t say that the image comes out fully formed. 

The process of taking photographs for a painting can change that idea, and I will take many images to work with and pare those down until I have got the image or images I want. 

The process of painting often means that the image is changed and developed beyond what I first thought. For example, when working out the composition, things can be painted out, or background colour changed. Whilst some paintings can go through a radical change, others stay true to the initial idea. It really depends on what happens through the process of painting.

I really don’t make any preparatory sketches for anything. If I do any preliminary work, it will be written notes. Often, I will find a line from somewhere that might make a title later and save this. 

 

Or I collect images as ideas for future works. I tend to go back to these if I have a creative block.

 

 

 

 

Do you create hidden meanings or messages in your work?

 

 

I often create hidden meanings or stories within the works I make. I like the idea that a painting has a narrative or story about that person, their life and relationships. The larger portrait pieces are made in collaboration with the sitters. We agree on what they want to say about themselves, how they want the world to see them. It is what interests me about portraiture so much that it is about how people want the world to see themselves. They are often about power, wealth and status.  Find people reveal a lot about themselves through their discussions, and we agree on what they want to show.

There are often books open around the sitter; the images are art-historical clues to the sitter. If you know the painting, you have another clue to the deeper meanings of the narrative.

In the case of a couple of the larger portraits, we have agreed what words I would write onto the board prior to painting over them so that they are literally hidden beneath the paint. Only the sitter and I know what these paintings say. In the case of ‘Marguerite, what is essential is invisible to the eye’, she wrote the words herself. 

 

This is also a good example of how the titles of the works are important, particularly in the larger works. They give a clue to the work itself and reflect what the work is about.

 

 

 



 

 

 

How important is having a personal connection to the subject matter you choose to paint?

 

 

I think having a personal connection to the subject matter I paint is important but not essential. When I am developing the work, my ‘personal work’, then it is important. If I choose to paint someone, I like to get to know what it is that makes them tick. I want to be able to tell a story about them through the composition or the arrangement of objects that surround them.  

I have made a series of works using social media posts. Generally, these are people I don’t know in real life but follow through social media. I became interested in the way that the social media selfie is like a contemporary portrait. People are selecting how they want the world to see them. In these paintings, I didn’t have a personal connection to the person, but I’d say that I had a personal connection to the image that they had created. There was always something that made me stop scrolling and think, “That’s a great image, I’d like to paint that”. In all these cases, I asked if I could use the image first. There is something interesting about taking something so disposable as a social media selfie-and elevating it to a painted portrait.

 

I also work to commission and use photographic sources for this. In this case, there really isn’t a personal connection to the sitter. I haven’t got to know them in the usual way and what I do is work through discussions with the person commissioning the work to get to know the subject better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artists and art lovers often have one painting by a great artist that has especially influenced them or holds special meaning.
What's that one painting for you, and why?

 

 

I have always been drawn to the works of the old masters as well as contemporary figurative painters. The one painting that holds a special meaning for me is Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ at the National Gallery. It is a painting I visit every time I am in London and sit and look at for some time. It gives something new every time. There are several reasons for this.  

I am interested in the idea of storytelling within a painting. I like the idea that images such as this would have been very easily understood when they were painted because educated people knew classical myths and the Bible as part of their knowledge. This is not so easily understood nowadays.

On a technical level, I find the circular composition extraordinary. There is real sense of movement within the painting that contributes to the dynamic of the narrative. The emotion captured in this freeze-frame moment between the two protagonists is electric. Whilst surrounded by swirling chaos and cacophony, their gaze is a perfect still point in the composition.

The colour is extraordinary; the intensity of the blue sky and the pink of Bacchus’ cloak are real highlights for me.

The handling of the paint is so fresh, and some passages look barely touched.

 

It is an endlessly fascinating painting.

 

 

 

Do you think creativity is part of human nature, or something that must be nurtured and learned?

 

 

I think that creativity is part of human nature, but it does need to be nurtured to help it grow. I have always wanted to draw and paint from an early age, and through my experiences of teaching art and design practice, students come to you with this sort of background. There is a passion for making that the most able exhibit. It is a curiosity to understand the world and comment on the human condition, and try to make sense of it.

I believe that it is possible to teach most people to draw, for instance. It is a set of rules and problem-solving activities that can be taught to improve someone’s ability. What is difficult to teach is the ability to think of and develop an idea to its fullest potential.  

I also believe that these abilities change over time and through practice. As I’ve got older, I have found I have a bank of resources and technical skills that I can rely on to help me resolve issues with paintings. The process of having to teach drawing and painting has enabled me to be more analytical about how I do things that come naturally to me. For example, I have no difficulty analysing and mixing colour. I can do this instinctively, so I guess you’d say that is part of my nature, but to teach how I do it, I have had to think about how I do it. 

 

So, in answer, I think that what is inherent in human nature can be developed and nurtured to be more focussed, sharper, and better.

 

 

 

 

 

Curious to explore more of Andy's art? Visit his website and browse through more of his work: andysylvesterartist.com