Photorealism in the Modern Age: Interview with Mike Clapton

The Gravel Road (Catharsis) , 2013, Compressed charcoals on paper, 1.5m x 1.2m.

The Gravel Road (Catharsis) , 2013, Compressed charcoals on paper, 1.5m x 1.2m. Based on the original self-portrait photo by Rosie Hardy.

Mike Clapton is a 24 year old British artist who creates enormous and intricate portraits. He graduated from the University of Oxford in 2011 with a degree in geography, although he continued to make art in his spare time and since then has carried on drawing when possible. Aside from art, hes loves to travel and photograph the diverse cultures and landscapes that he encounters around the world, although in a typically modest fashion he claims to be far from the next Sebastião Salgado.

His work ‘Take Care’ (see below) will be featuring in the Pastel Society Annual Exhibition entitled “Look Again”. The Society holds a similar exhibition every year, where both members and selected non-members display work that demonstrates both contemporary and traditional artwork created using a diverse range of dry media. The exhibition runs from February 24th-March 7th, and will be open from 10am – 5pm every day (only until 3pm on the final day) at the Mall Galleries in London. His piece will be competing for the Zsuzsi Roboz Award, a new prize this year awarded to an outstanding work created by an artist under the age of 35 years.

We asked him more about his work and how he creates it.

Take Care, 2014, Compressed charcoals, conté crayons and black coloured pencil on paper, 100cm x 75cm. Based on the photo of Luke Leighfield, post-London marathon, taken by Tom Price.

Take Care, 2014, Compressed charcoals, conté crayons and black coloured pencil on paper, 100cm x 75cm. Based on the photo of Luke Leighfield, post-London marathon, taken by Tom Price.


Could you describe a little about the process of creating your work and the media you use and why?

My technique for producing the charcoal portraits has remained generally unchanged since my first attempts at school. I tend to work in sections when building up the portrait. I firstly cover the background, blending the charcoal into a smooth gradient from light to dark, which provides the basic visual form of the area I am working on. I then build up various layers of increasingly complex detail over this to capture the subtle highlights, shadows and details which define a face – the various freckles, pores, spots and wrinkles are what give a face character and depth. But there is no set formula as such, my drawing practice is constantly evolving to try and improve and hone my skills.

I use compressed charcoals as they have the advantage of being able to smoothly cover large areas, as well as achieve fine details, which can be complemented with conté crayons and black coloured pencil for finer details such as hair. They’re also dead cheap, which is a bonus.


What attracts you to such large scale work?

I first really explored larger scale portraiture when I did an A-level project on Chuck Close at school. I remember Googling some of his works, and just staring in amazement at how truly massive they were. Trying to replicate this scale seemed like a really exciting challenge and I haven’t looked back since. However, really large works are a right pain-in-the-ass to transport, get framed and store, so I’ve stopped producing huge pieces for now.

Larger scale works I think have a two-way benefit. The first is for me, the artist. Particularly with my use of charcoals, the larger scale allows me to get far more detail into the work, without having to get a magnifying glass out to draw every single freckle. It also allows me to be quite unrestrained in my mark making for the skin. I actually have quite shaky hands, so rather than struggling to accurately render with a pencil at a small scale, I can quite freely build up layers of detail on a larger scale. The second benefit is for the viewer. Particularly with my style of portraits, the larger size allows far more detail in the piece, which can be very revealing and eye-opening and shed new light on what people actually look like. We don’t tend to inspect each others’ faces (that would be pretty weird and I’m not advocating doing that to strangers), so we mostly ignore all of the little details, or they’re hidden under make-up. By projecting up the scale of a face, it can be quite revelatory in terms of redefining what someone looks like, and how the face is constructed of a huge complex network of abstract patterns. In a time when most imperfections are photoshopped out by the media, I think it’s important to reverse the trend and actually refocus on how the imperfections are integral to who we are.



Do you ever draw from life?

I haven’t done a life drawing since school. I always use photos for my work, which, as it is primarily portraiture, have the considerable benefit of being electronic. I usually spend 3-4 weeks on a portrait, so drawing from life is simply not feasible unless my subject is particularly fond of staring at me in close proximity for a month. I’m very methodical in the way I draw, and life drawing tends to err towards more free-flowing gestural draftsmanship which I’m less comfortable with. Also, due to time restrictions on when I have available to draw, I prefer to work on a finalised piece rather than experimental stuff. However, the benefits to be reaped from life drawing are huge, particularly with portraiture. To be able to get accurate proportions and likeness in a quick life-drawing session is very difficult, and I would be put to shame by most if I did some life drawing now I’m sure.

Your pictures are almost photo-realistic- what do you think a drawing or a painting achieves that a photograph can’t?

One thing that I think is very important to consider as an artist is what you want to convey in your art; the message behind the lines so to speak. Over the last few years there has been quite a boom in the popularity of photorealism in the fine art world, with considerable media attention generated around artists producing photographic quality drawings and paintings. However, artists really have to make a point of rooting their work in a particular concept in this artistic genre, otherwise it really does become just a technical exercise. Which is fair enough, it’s very impressive to be able to draw incredibly detailed copies. However, a piece of art has to do something which a photograph can’t, otherwise you might as well just have a photograph… At school I was humorously jibed about my work being “soulless” due to the focus on detail, rather than any artistic pizazz. Although in jest, it was an important point that I still use as a reference. ‘Does my work evoke an emotional response with the viewer? What am I trying to convey?’

Personally, I think traditional artistic methods have a very special quality that photography can’t rival. Great photographic portraits can be extremely impactful, but I find they mostly just create a narrative around the subject. However, painted or drawn portraits have an additional dimension, and often say just as much, if not more, about the artist as about the subject. I find them to be more revealing and emotionally connecting; great paintings and drawings create a sense of childish wonderment that photographs just don’t evoke.

From the daguerreotype of Kate Moss taken by Chuck Close, 2013,  Compressed charcoals on A1 sized paper.

From the daguerreotype of Kate Moss taken by Chuck Close, 2013, Compressed charcoals on A1 sized paper.

Are there any artists who inspire and inform your work?

I didn’t really start focussing on portraiture until my final year at school, when I was given the option of choosing to study and explore any particular area for a unit in my art A-level. I had recently been introduced by a friend to the work of Chuck Close, revolutionary figurehead of photorealism and famed for his large portraits, and it seemed like the prime opportunity to try my hand at producing various portraits in his broad range of styles. I’d always been more of a draughtsman than a painter, and the precise, intensely detailed nature of Close’s early work appealed to my natural style. So I guess he was the guy who first really took me in my current direction.

However, although Chuck Close was the original artist who had a significant impact on the direction of my art, Dirk Dzimirsky is my primary influence. He is an artist who has absolutely mastered not just the use of charcoals in portraiture, but also in capturing mood and creating atmosphere. His works are incredibly emotive and exquisitely drawn, and his charcoal pieces, along with the delicate melancholy facial portraits of Gottfried Helnwein, will constantly provide inspiration, both in technique and concept.

As someone that draws so precisely and realistically are you ever attracted to do something totally different, like abstraction?

At school I did dabble in a bit of abstraction, and a piece of mine entitled “Condensation” which was a fusion of photo-realism and abstraction was actually awarded a Daily Deviation on DeviantArt. However, I really do struggle to let myself go and be more abstract in my approach, and I always end up just “neatening” things up until any attempt at being more gestural completely disappears. I once tried to paint a portrait in the style of Andrew Salgado, who is a simply brilliant artist who uses very bold mark making in his pieces, but failed miserably due to my inability to free myself from the restraints of realism. I really envy artists who can take such bold steps in their style. Nicola Samorì is another artist who I adore, whose technique of peeling back layers of paint to create areas of abstract destruction creates such striking portraits, yet would fill me with fear if I tried something similar. I’m quite a control-freak with my art I think, and I like to know confidently how things will turn out; which is the complete opposite to some of the abstraction techniques. It must be extremely liberating to produce art in such a way.

Nutshell, 2013, Compressed charcoals on paper, 1.4m x 1m.

Nutshell, 2013, Compressed charcoals on paper, 1.4m x 1m.

What are your artistic plans for the future?

To be honest, I’m not too sure. I have a few pieces in mind that I would like to do, following along the same kind of lines of my recent work. All of my large portraits have been influenced by music (their titles are all the names of the songs that inform their mood), and this is something that I am keen to continue as I feel it helps me connect with the piece and create something very personal and emotive. However, I am looking to also incorporate some filmic influences too in upcoming works, which I’m really looking forward to exploring. My time available to draw is very limited though, and I only produced a couple of new works last year. And there are times where I really do doubt why I’m doing it and take a sustained break to try and find some inspiration again. But I think it’s better to produce fewer but really impassioned pieces, rather than just churning out material for the sake of it – I think it can be quite obvious when an artist is simply going through the motions and their work suffers for it.

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