We sat down with Shaun Ferguson of Fairfax Gallery, the talented artist who inspired us to bring his stunning 'Boxer II' to life for our Battersea Autumn campaign (below). Read on to discover why the Royal Academy graduate has always been particularly drawn to the figure, which art books you'd currently find lying around his studio and what advice he'd give to any emerging artist.
What was it that initially drew you to portraiture?
I suppose I was drawn to the figure as a result of growing up surrounded by art books and picture books as a child, where there was usually a human figurative presence that drew you in and told a story. I felt there was something direct and powerful about the figure and face – a means of communication. As a student at the Royal Academy, I worked more or less abstractly but ultimately felt frustrated by the lack of this human, narrative presence. When I came back to the figure however the abstract, formal preoccupations remained in the way that I tried to construct the picture plain.
What do you seek to capture in your subjects? And how do you hope your work affects the viewer?
I don’t necessarily see my work as portraits to be honest. I’m as interested in atmosphere and implied narrative as I am capturing a likeness. In this sense I see my work as being quite filmic. Saying that the attitude or personality of the ‘sitter’ sets the scene and drives the mood, so the individual is important. I select models based on this sense of personality. I would hope the viewer feels something relatable in the subject, an authentic predicament or attitude we can empathise with. I would also hope they can appreciate the formal play – how the surface colours and marks rhyme, collide, interlock and echo. I do work on some portrait commissions each year and an exact likeness becomes more critical in these works.
Are there any artworks or artists in particular that have influenced your style and process?
I take inspiration from a broad range of sources but the books lying round the studio floor at the moment are Jack Levine, Daumier, Diebenkorn and Paul Nash. I might be looking at the broken contours and sense of movement in Levine whilst simultaneously taking colour and compositional ideas from Diebenkorn. Then there are other influences than painting, such as film. For example, Hal Hartley has a particular way of staging scenes in his films – creating a kind of disconnect and self-awareness which I relate to. When watching films, I might be drawn to an actor’s gesture or expression, the lighting, atmosphere or framing and this might be the catalyst for scenarios that I then set up in the studio.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
You know that feeling when you try something on for the first time and it feels alien but ends up becoming ‘your thing’. Well there are certain paintings that catch me off-guard, I might need to sit with them for a while to weigh them up before I see that they are significant, breakthrough works. These then hold your hand until the next stage. Those paintings are my career highlights and I have postcards of them on a pin-board in my studio. Paintings like this also tend to have been a messy struggle, predictably working into the dead of night not knowing where you are heading, then in some intuitive moment it works in a totally new way. I guess the memory of the battle also cements a strange bond – so they make it to the ‘family album’ pin-board!
The thrill of selling work or winning prizes is great but it’s being in the studio that is the real pleasure and goal. Given all the potential day-to-day distractions and inconveniences life presents us, finding sustained periods at the easel is an achievement in itself.
What advice would you give to any emerging portrait artists?
I would give the same advice to portrait painters that I would give to any painter on the whole...draw! Observational drawing, compositional drawing, playful, idea generation drawings and problem solving drawings. Always have sketchbooks on the go. Secondly, engage with the process and try not to focus on the end result, if you do the former the latter will hopefully take care of itself. Finally, look at other artists and be influenced but be a bit wary of the bombardment of internet images sloshing about. Learn to edit. A visit to the National Gallery or seeing a Whistler in the flesh is probably going to be more helpful than flicking through a thousand images on your laptop.
Behind the Battersea Autumn campaign
Taken by the portrayal of strength in Shaun’s striking ‘Boxer II’ painting, our Global Lead Designer, Emma Dakeyne, said the campaign "is a salute to strong women all over the world. We've reflected the red gloves as a symbol of power – something everyone can relate to when gearing themselves up for a busy day. Art is a force that can invoke feelings of empowerment and courage, and what better daily affirmation is there than a beautiful, unique artwork!”
Header image: Shaun Ferguson in the studio.
Artwork images from top to bottom: Shaun Ferguson, Boxer II, acrylic on canvas, original, £4,600, Fairfax Gallery, stand F8.
Shaun Ferguson, Sheet, acrylic on canvas, original, £5,200, Fairfax Gallery, stand F8.
Shaun Ferguson, Party, acrylic on canvas, original, £5,200, Fairfax Gallery, stand F8.
Campaign photography: John Wright, Motel Studios.