Canadian artist Wilford Barrington (b.1981) draws people how we really see them, which is not with one face but with several. His works are fluid and alive with movement. They invite you to look and look again, and are revelatory in how accurately they capture the sitter, both aesthetically and emotionally. In this way his pencil is a microscope, magnifying and revealing.
The problem with talking to Wilford is this: No matter how articulate he is, or how interesting, it’s difficult to wipe clear thoughts that being in his presence is the art equivalent of lying on a psychologist’s couch…
It’s Nice That: Have you always drawn from life?
Wilford Barrington: When I was younger I became very interested in it, and I’ve placed an emphasis on working in the same way ever since. I did experiment a lot with working from photographs, but I found the process to be far less interesting.
INT: Because the actual experience is lacking. You don’t get to see the various sides of a person…
WB: Yeah, it’s one instant, which means you’re just copying. You can take liberties and employ different styles, but I enjoy looking at a living person, having someone in front of me to react to.
INT: Can you tell us a bit about how and when you started drawing in the way you do?
WB: I can think back to a moment when I drew a portrait of my father. I was painting in oils at the time, and he sat for me for about eight hours, perfectly still. At the end of sitting, when I looked back at the painting, it was not only very muddy, but was also just a picture of a really grumpy-looking man.
INT: He wasn’t enjoying himself?
WB: He was not enjoying himself at all, and it really came out in the portrait. The whole experience was completely disenfranchised. After that I realised that there are certain truths in the people in front of you, and that to reveal them you have to let them be as they are, in some cases guide them. For example, if I want to catch a smile on someone’s face, I need to make them smile more than once. A kind of mirroring goes on when you face someone, which I’m conscious of and use to coax out expressions.
INT: How do people react to being drawn in this way?
WB: A few weeks ago, I did a portrait of the art collector, Sue Kidd. She knew my work, knew what she was getting herself into, and agreed to sit for me. When her kids saw the drawing they told her she looked scowling and old. She didn’t like the drawing very much, although I think that was down to the way her kids reacted.
INT: Something we’re very conscious of is the ability we have now to curate our online selves. We’re able to present the one view we consider to be our best. But you reveal all sides of your sitter, which must be difficult for some people to take…
WB: We’re all very caught up in this. There are photographs on the internet of myself that I wish weren’t around. There’s one of me wearing a Goofy cap from about six years ago, and I just hate the way I’m dressed. But the reactions to my drawings depend on how much liberty I take, and how abstract the portraits become. The more abstract, the larger the scope for people to say: “Well, you know, that’s just his style, that’s just the way it looks, it’s kind of cool and quirky.” The subtler drawings are definitely more difficult for people.
I find it actually has a lot to do with how old the person is, or whether they’re a man or a woman. One of the things you’re taught when learning classical methods for portraiture is to remove blemishes, to smooth the surface. Even with painting, the palette for men and women has always been very different. With women you’d only use red and white. With men, you’d use yellow, because they’re supposedly out working in the sun. The emphasis was to embellish, to make a glossed-over portrait of somebody, perhaps to please a wealthy client. But I’ve never been interested in that sort of thing. Otto Dix is a great example of somebody who fearlessly portrayed people in a brutally honest way.
INT: And at a time when there could have been massive comeuppance…
WB: Exactly. He ended up painting these pastoral landscape pictures because he was so afraid of the Nazis getting hold of him.
INT: Which is something you probably don’t have hanging over your head…
WB: Yes, luckily.
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