As a counterpoint to this, traditional modes of portraiture are beginning to enjoy a resurgence of interest, with thanks in part to the Florence Academy of Art – founded in 1995 to school artists in the refined techniques of classical-realist painting, sculpture and drawing. Last year, a particular flurry of interest was generated around the Academy when ex-FAA student Jamie Coreth was awarded the prestigious BP Young Artist Award for a self-referential portrait of a portrait – depicting his sculptor father crafting a bust of Coreth. Today, from the heart of his Fulham studio, Coreth paints anyone from musicians and academics to military figures using much the same method applied by artists centuries before him. On the day I visit, he is in the paint-splattered throws of a striking full-length portrait of someone he was introduced to at a party. “He was very charismatic and had a strong face so I thought that I should paint him,” Coreth explains. Even in the early stages, a clear sense of the sitter’s presence is beginning to crystalise, as a distinctive black beard and a steady gaze emerge from the canvas.
DRAWING FROM LIFE
Central to the success of Coreth’s portraiture is a fascination with the unique character of the people he portrays, which he believes is best unlocked by painting from life. “The techniques I use enable me to create an accurate likeness, but it’s evoking the character behind the likeness that’s the really tough part,” he says. “Spending so much time with the sitter is really important to the way you execute the painting. I insist on doing everything from real life because things change over the course of the sittings – the nature of our conversations, the light, the feelings of the sitter as they become more relaxed as well as their facial expressions – and capturing that journey helps create a sense of someone.” So crucial is this process that Coreth can identify at a glance whether a portrait has been created from life or a photograph.
“When you’re working from life, on a clear day you’ll have a blue sky that creates quite a cold light but on a cloudy day the light will be warm. The shifts between these colour temperatures mean you have to keep repainting to accommodate the change. In Rembrandt’s self-portraits you can see cool and warm areas layered up and it wouldn’t surprise me if that was a result of the clouds changing from day to day. Because of this, in his paintings there is a real sense of someone being there, which is absolutely bound to his process.” Coreth’s commitment to working directly from life also imbues his paintings with an at times unnerving sense of human presence. This becomes particularly noticeable standing in his studio, where a family of completed portraits study you intently from the walls.
“People commission me for my artistic decisions and understand it isn’t a vanity project,” explains Coreth. “My goal is to capture my experience of being with them.” A cornerstone of the visual language Coreth uses to convey this experience is a captivating attention to detail, which he believes provides his portraits with more than just a likeness.
“If you look at the work of the painter Andrew Wyeth, he expresses emotion about something really understated – a piece of fluff caught in barbed wire for example,” says Coreth. “He has lovingly executed every twist and turn of the fibres, and in going to those extremes, it communicates something felt. You can’t necessarily do that by taking a photograph. At a time when it’s so easy to create an image of yourself, there’s a value in something that’s really considered.” The same dedication to detail is also present in Coreth’s work, where the hours spent describing the shape of the sitter’s cheek, a fold of skin or the glint of an eye reflect Coreth’s fascination with the idiosyncrasies of his sitter. “It is a real privilege to spend time with such interesting people,” he says.
Coreth’s interest in human nature is a product of his degree in archaeology and anthropology, from which he developed a particular passion for rock art and prehistoric painting. “The degree is absolutely essential to the way I see things now,” he explains. “It gave me an insight into different cultures and ways of perceiving the world.” Studying how humans have been represented throughout history also gave Coreth a sense of the timeless nature of his craft. “The more I progressed in my artistic training, the more interesting I found the rock art as I could identify that the same processes that I was using were also present in this medium, even though it was created tens of thousands of years before.”
AN ARTIST'S APPROACH
Also an alumnus of the Florence Academy, sculptor Thomas Merrett believes, like Coreth, that the value of his art lies in his unique interpretation of a subject, rather than just a skilful replication of their likeness. “I’m not trying to just make a copy of someone,” he says, demonstrating an impressive plaster bust that won a place at last year’s annual exhibition for The Society of Portrait Sculptors. “I’m trying to capture the character in the model’s face, and it can be as much about what you don’t do as what you do.” Through these choices, a staid copying gives way to a sensitive artistic interpretation. “Even though on this bust I haven’t sculpted the eyelids completely, you can understand there is an eyelid there,” Merrett explains, demonstrating the sculpted ridges that imply the form of an eye. “I might want to emphasise the chin or the texture of the hair or make more of the eyes, and in other places you can blend things away so they are less prominent. Even though I’m working in a naturalistic style, it’s still very abstract.”
This degree of creative freedom was responsible for luring Merrett away from the career in architectural design that he originally embarked on. “I completed an architectural carving course at City & Guilds,” he explains. “We did some modelling but it was very measured, which made sense as our trade needed to be accurate, but what I do now is much more loose and free, and I feel more creatively fulfilled this way.”
The artistic scope provided by sculpture means that Merrett has been commissioned to create a wide variety of pieces, from an interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-fluid Orlando, to a relief of French novelist Balzac and, most recently, a three-person scene themed on ‘Flight in Terms of Refugees’.
Merrett won the latter commission from a competition organised by The Worshipful Company of Founders – one of the oldest Livery Companies of the City of London – which was established to encourage the portrayal of the human body in art. What is currently a wax maquette will eventually evolve into a finished bronze sculpture exhibited at Guildhall.
To convey such a challenging theme, Merrett translated the struggles of migration into abstract forms, which swirl and contort around two figures in motion, submerging limbs and pulling on bodies. As you move around the piece, a third figure emerges, either having been left behind or arrived alone at its destination. Viewed from this angle, the first two figures evolve into a jagged wall, against which the single figure’s isolation is emphasised. The figures in the maquette were formed from Merrett’s imagination, but he considers it essential to work from models for the final piece. “Models provide valuable insight into the pose and forms I want to create,” he explains.
Merrett is currently crafting the first clay figure to be used in the final piece, building on to an aluminium armature by adding sweeps of clay that delineate muscle and form. “The model for this figure really got into character and you could see the narrative he was portraying,” says Merrett. This collaborative element of the craft renders Merrett’s sculptures more than just a copy from life, becoming a dialogue between artist and subject. In this way, he continues in the vein of his artistic hero, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who rejected the decorative and formulaic offerings of his contemporary sculptors in favour of engaging with the individual character and physicality of his subjects: “Some of these projects can be five weeks’ long and you are seeing the model every day. You chat, share lunch together and establish a relationship. Gradually, over the course of the project, their character begins to emerge. They are not just a body to copy – they are human beings and you need to try to capture something from that.”
For both Coreth and Merrett, the ever increasing interest in their considered approach to portraying the human character is an exciting development, and one that betrays a much greater appetite for more meaningful methods of communicating human experience.
“Studying in Florence helped me realise that there are a lot of other people fascinated in the human form,” says Merrett. “It feels like people do seem to be taking more of an interest in what we do, and I think it’s wonderful that this traditional approach to capturing the human image isn’t dying out – in fact it’s getting stronger again.”