Portraits in Progress!
A conversation with India Durban on painting portraits. And everything that comes with it!
India was a few years above me at school, but we mainly know each other through having both worked at our local wood-fired pizza place; I nabbed her front of house role when she left Norfolk to study Fine Art at university.
“When did you become interested in art?”
“I've always done it! I know that's a proper cliche answer, but in the evenings we'd all sit in the lounge and watch tv, when I was little, and I would just lay on the floor and draw. My dad is really arty, I take it for granted that he's always got drawers of paper; I'd just always be in his office taking it. And I’ve never bought a birthday or Christmas card, we hand make them.”
“When you were little, what were you mainly drawing?”
“It's always been people. Recently I’ve thought about painting stuff like trees or landscapes, and I just can't do it! I can't paint landscapes, I've no interest in them. If someone said 'what colour is sand?', I just don't know what colour I would pick, whereas any skin tone, if someone came up to me and just gave me a picture of a face, I'd know exactly what pigments I'd mix to make that skin colour. If I'm talking to someone with a really interesting face, I think 'ooh, I'd use a bit of blue, there', but if someone was like 'paint a tree', I'd be like '...Green?'"
“How do you see yourself as a person? I feel like every career has character expectations; you’d expect a musician to be comfortable on stage, and so on.”
“I don't feel like I typically suit 'the artist' kind of stereotype, and I think I realised that when I was at uni. Everyone was in their culotts with blue hair and nose piercings and really knowledgeable about art. I’d just come from sixth form and A Levels: I like exams, I like revising and I like there being a right and wrong answer. I was actually really close to doing a French or Biology degree; it wasn't until right at the end that I picked Art. It’s quite unusual to be academic and arty, usually you’re one or the other; on every course at my university you are tested for dyslexia, and on Fine Art we all sat the full assessments because 90% of the course were dyslexic.”
“On top of that, I feel like art is seen as a solitary thing, kind of like writing. As a character, do you like spending time on your own?”
“Not at all! I'm awful at being on my own, I drive myself insane. I think that's partly anxiety: I overthink and wind myself up. When I'm with other people I'm out of my own head. If I'm alone I'm in my head, and I don't like being in my head for too long.”
“When you're painting, are you in or out?”
“Out. I don't think about anything. Time goes and I'll stop to wet my brushes, then realise I'm starving or bursting for the loo.”
“How many hours can you go like that?”
“Maybe four? It depends, at the start of a painting I'll go for longer. My six foot ‘Theo’ paintings I did in two days. But you can't force it: the worst thing is when you know you've got one spare day to paint, and you’re just not in the mood. And I'm sat there and I know I'm making it worse. It's this guilt, I think, that comes when I'm not painting.”
“Is it guilt for not investing time in your craft, or that you're going to let people down?”
“Letting people down. Whenever I have commissions I'm kicking myself that I'm not doing them all the time, even though I know I’ll get them done on time.”
“So it's not the fear of the expectation, it's the fear of not getting the job done for someone? Did you ever used to worry that they wouldn't like it?”
“I used to, I do when people come to me with the initial idea. Sometimes people, who are unaware of the process, will send me their favourite photo of their dog laying down and ask if it's possible to paint it sitting up, which would be like me saying to you ‘here’s a picture of a man, now paint my dad’. But, once I've got my canvas and I've got my picture, it always seems to work out alright. I think I've got better at 'no, this is what I do, and people will like it or they won't'. Something that is quite weird is that obviously I paint people, and often the people I paint, for my own studio practice, find it hard to look at because I portray them in quite a raw and honest way, perhaps accentuating features they may try to hide. And I pick my models based on the fact that they've got an interesting and unique face and facial features; if I see someone who has plastered on make-up, I have no interest in painting them. Or really good skin, it's just boring to paint. When I was at the beginning of my third year of uni, I was studying dementia: I went to a dementia home quite a few times and met a lady who I sat and chatted to, she showed me her artwork and I met three generations of her family. When I painted her she didn't recognise it. And her reaction was 'that's not me, that's horrible'. She was the first person who told me to my face that she didn't like it.”
“Do you think you'll get to the point where you're working on your art and commissions full time?”
“I am aware of Arts Council Funding, where you can get funds for up to £10,000 to develop your creative practice, and there are competitions: I’ve found some that are like £25,000 prize money, which is just next level! I think that someday I’d love to go full time, with my own studio and loads of paintings on the go! At the moment I do my commissions, some of my own work and then get to be quite creative as a teaching assistant with little ones, making fun craft activities and helping develop their little arty minds!”
“In the art world there's a big 'no go' on commissions. I was told at uni: once you sell yourself out to doing commissions, that's it, you're not going any further. Because commissions are doing what they want, rather than what you want. It was fairly unusual at uni to do portraits. We used to have group critiques, which is where your tutor and everyone in your studio review each other’s work and suggest improvements. I heard comments like 'portraits are so cliche, it's been done so many times before', and I'm sat there with all these abstract paintings around me, and I just thought 'well, everything has been done before!'. There is no prize for technical ability, it just doesn't matter, and that's something I've really struggled with because it's what I thrive to perfect. I don't understand the art world at all. I think it's all made up by people who have really strong, impressionable opinions.”
“To me it sounds like your focus is on the people.”
“And the journey of making the work. Because once it's done, I don't really need it anymore. It's always 'what's next?', I love an empty canvas! Commissions are good, really, because they just go. With my stuff, it just sits there and I have to look at it, which I don't like! Once it's done, it's done.”
“I make my own canvasses, now. I used to just buy them in, but they were really flimsy and primed with gesso, which is basically white paint. And the thing about painting on white is that you'll never make a white in your painting that is as white as the background. While I was at uni I did a canvas making course, which was really good but I hated using the tools, I had no confidence when it came to the workshop! Anyway, I found out that you can prime your canvas with rabbit-skin glue - which is exactly what it sounds like, and it stinks - and if you use that, your canvas stays that neutral linen colour, so your lights are lighter than the canvas and your darks are darker, which gives you so much more depth. So that was another reason I wanted to go into making them. It helps that my partner is a carpenter, and so to start with he was making all my frames for me. He's teaching me how to do it myself now: I have to use
the saw and the chisel, but I'm really bad with the drill so he still does that. Once the frame is made, I use a staple gun and a canvas stretching tool-"
“Hang on, this is a process ! How long does this take?” “Longer than the painting, every time.” “Do you use a handmade canvas for every painting?” “Yes, I do now. I’ve had to re-consider my prices, because before I wasn't charging people for the time it takes. And the materials, and the tools. Once I've stretched it, I've then got to make the rabbit-skin glue, which is crystals soaked overnight in a ratio, then put them in a water bath for 24 hours, heat them slowly at 60 degrees: if it's higher it breaks the bonds, if it's lower it won’t melt. Paint that on the canvas, a couple of coats, and then once that's dry I can print my picture, grid it up, draw it. And then I can start painting. And then I have to do it all again. But it just feels so heavy, and real, when you hold a canvas like that.”
“Okay, my last question,” I say, which on paper reads ‘if you had one day, what would you paint?’, as I was blissfully unaware of things like rabbit-skin glue and photograph grids when prepping for this conversation. Instead, I go for: “If you knew that tomorrow you had a whole day in a studio with a canvas and photograph ready to go, what would you want to be painting?”
“Definitely a person. A face. I'd really like to paint people who have really bad eczema on their faces. Or a scar, or a birthmark. But I've always felt like that would be something that I couldn't ask someone... I'll ask people who are friends of mine who have interesting skin, or unique looks, but to put something out there like 'I'm really looking for people who have skin conditions'... It's the flesh. I never really thought about it as flesh until I did research on Jenny Saville, who’s one of the artists that I really like, and she paints people who are in surgery, who've been really burnt or are having skin transplants. I think it would be quite interesting to explore the rest of the body because I only really do faces, and I have no interest in painting clothes. But I don't know how you go about getting big, fleshy, spotty, naked models, so for now I'm just focusing on the face. It would be a big canvas of interesting skin. And they've got to have good eyes. Someone with two different coloured eyes, that would be good!”
“So basically you want a big, fleshy, spotty naked person. With unplucked eyebrows and freckles and birthmarks and eczema. And two different coloured eyes.”
“I'm still looking for that special someone!”