Painting Stephen Morris is something I never thought I’d do back in 1986 when we seemed to have parted company ‘forever’. Stephen had just married Ljuba; we attended their wedding reception in North London. I had a fleeting glimpse of my colleague at their home in Brixton; thirty five years elapsed before we spoke again.
All of a sudden Stephen ‘appeared on my radar’ through the internet. Reconnecting this way is usually a pleasure, but risky as well, because the point where you left off (the conversation) won’t be the same. A lifetime’s experience and ‘the school of hard knocks’ changes the shape of someone’s character and the fully formed, adult ego can be intransigent – depending on the degree of intelligence.
As a student at the Royal Academy Schools, Stephen was gaunt, friendly, communicative (which was rare for that place). He kept his cards close to his chest. Well spoken, the son of David Morris who studied English at Oxford and his mother Olwen, a classical pianist, Stephen inherited his parent’s cultured outlook. We attended a cello concert at the family home in the 80s; music still inhabits the Morris household in Suffolk. As if I’m destined to be followed by grand pianos, it seems natural that sunny mornings in East Anglia should be accompanied by the sounds of Bach.
Ljuba ‘put the stiffening’ into Stephen during the late 80s, early 90s. With four children to support, like most RAS alumni he cast about for an income. The RAS had yet to introduce business studies to the curriculum. Survival was a matter of luck and social security. Exiting Art school at that point was not unlike going over the top, sans helmet. The idea you might sell your paintings for a living is almost risible; it was negligent and irresponsible of the Art schools I attended to leave students to figure it out for themselves.
Stephen did well for himself in business. Upon reconnection with him, it is fortunate his house in Suffolk is just a few miles from the care home where my mother is resident. As we sat by the pool one evening in Summer, we sketched each other. The second drawing I made seemed to get the essence of him. I showed it to my wife; she said ‘Yes, that’s him’. However, his nibs thought he looked a bit of a cad! My wife went on to say ‘He’s like a witch’. I noted Stephen’s features are quite female (he is of partial Welsh descent). He has a broad, genuine smile.
I could make a conventional portrait (realist, based on observation) but I like demonstrating to Damien Hirst and Catherine Howard, how much further they might take their spin-painting gimmick, with sufficient skill and imagination. I also like submitting empiricism to chance and experiment. In other words, playing Roulette with paint – and characters.
Painting should not attempt to mimmick reality. Plato called it ‘mimesis’ and reckoned it to be the lowest form of human production. He accorded higher status to artisans, carpenters and potters than artists, who he lumped in with women, labourers and slaves (at the very bottom of his social order).
Painting doesn’t have to be subject to some Greek bloke’s opinions. For myself, painting is a form of entertainment; I do it to reveal more than I beheld in the first place. It’s a form of expression and enquiry.
My portrait of Stephen Morris happened over several months. I got a projector and enlarged the sketch I did, tracing it with charcoal. I realised a more modest scale was necessary with a circular format. Using an exercise hoop and some ply-wood, I made a circular canvas about a metre in diameter, then repeated the projection, transferring my sketch to canvas.
I also traced the enlarged sketch onto clear polythene, to guide the process as I worked. Using photo reference I made a swash-buckling expressionist portrait, then applied latex liquid as an ‘isolating varnish’. After this, I set the work on my contraption, tipping ribald and jolly colours all around Stephen’s visage.
Similar to a Green Man revised, I put him on Lo-spin for colours! After which Mr. Morris ended up like a Chlamydosaurus Kingii (frilled lizard). More colours, more spinning, then I peeled away the latex mask to reveal the original painting. I think getting at ‘what lies beneath’ is what I like here. It’s similar to archaeology.
Overlaying the tracing I made, I considered how my sketch could be woven into the work; reiterating lines with oil paint whilst modelling form with acrylics.
The result is a challenging take on a man I never reckoned to rejoin conversation with. Born under the sign of Taurus, Stephen crashes into my consciousness with all the colour, flamboyance and force of will supposedly characteristic of his type. The artwork is a distillation of my sketch, reference photos, my own zany methods and a mental image of Stephen reformed over recent years and months.
It’s not flattering but remember, the Bible says ‘a flattering mouth or brush? works ruin’. Ljuba doesn’t like it, but I didn’t think she would. For me, the test is whether or not I can be at ease with what I’ve made, and I am. It is not adviseable to only judge artworks according to their on-screen persona. Paintings emit vibrations, they give off feelings and emotions which come from alchemy of colour, texture and material presence. My painting has done it’s job, it makes me see more of Stephen’s character; he thinks it’s good. Which is good!
If you would like a spin portrait of yourself or someone else, leave an enquiry on the comment form below. Your details will not be publicly visible.
Thanks to: Alex, Vicky and Richard
Stephen Morris has written a book about his life and travels in Russia:
‘Black Tea’ can be purchased on Amazon