Looking at Emma Hopkins’ hyper-realistic nude studies, it seems almost inconceivable that she has had no formal training in the fields of fine art painting and portraiture. Having studied for a degree in BA Make-up and Prosthetics for Performance at the University of the Arts London, Emma turned her anatomical vision and understanding of the human body to creating paintings suffused with the presence of living flesh. Her portrait, Sophie and Carla, which depicts photographer Sophie Mayanne with her pet dog, Carla, is one of four pieces shortlisted for this year’s BP Portrait Award.
For Emma, studying prosthetics offered an ideal way of marrying her creativity with her scientific curiosity. She recounts: “I was drawn to prosthetics because of my interest in understanding and depicting human life through art and science. I began teaching myself how to use oil paint while I was studying for my degree. The way I was being taught how to cast, sculpt and mimic the structures of the body directly fed into the way I approached making a painting.”
During her degree, Emma was taught to scrutinise the human body at close quarters, to pay attention to every minute feature and peculiarity, every crease, blemish and pore. “Life drawing was an important part of the course,” she says, “because in order to make a convincing prosthetic you need an understanding of human anatomy, both structurally and aesthetically. Another significant aspect of the course was learning how to create the illusion of real skin. If you want to make authentic looking skin then you need to consider weight, texture, transparency and imperfections. Without at least a few pores, wrinkles, veins, blood vessels, moles, freckles or scars, then there is no life.”
Emma decided not to follow a career in prosthetics – “my heart had been screaming at me for years to make my own artwork,” she says – and instead to pursue her nagging creative impulse. She tells us that, upon graduating, “I got a part-time job in a fine art supplies shop in London, taped a tarpaulin to my bedroom floor and painted every moment that I could.” Since then, she has cultivated an approach to painting that merges the clinical precision of the medical with an empathetic awareness of the physical and psychological intricacies that make up each uniquely embodied human life.
Speaking of her mode of working, which harks back to the anatomical scrupulousness of Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Emma says: “I want to understand as much as I can about what it means to be an individual human being and a species. I find I get to the deepest level of truth about what we are by looking at all the parts that come together to make us. The main topics I look at are the body, the mind, our emotions, our connections to one another and the world around us.”
For this reason, Emma seeks to achieve emotional resonance with her subjects as well as an intimate knowledge of their physical makeup and particularities. As she tells it: “When I paint somebody, I often do a project on them. I find that by creating an almost web-like series of works around them, I get closer to portraying what it means to be human. We are anything but one-dimensional. I usually paint people that I know – most of my family and friends have been painted or are in the pipeline. If I don’t know someone that I want to paint, then I will also meet with them outside the studio so that we can be free of particular roles.”
One of the most compelling aspects in many of Emma’s paintings is the starkness of their white backgrounds in contrast to the sharp palpability of her human figures – their sheer _there_ness. Her subjects’ living being seems condensed and concentrated within the painted contours of their bodies and in the acuity of visual textures, as if they have erupted into existence on the canvas. The void, negative space in which they appear, sometimes cut off at the waist, emphasises the intensity of their physical presence, to the extent that the people in her paintings appear more real than they perhaps would in life or in a photograph. They have a density and gravity. There is a vital flush of life in the rippling tendons, the faint mottling of flesh and the fan of veins beneath the surface of the skin. It’s in these minutiae of surface details that Emma seizes on the very substance of human existence.
In their simultaneous pride and vulnerability, assertiveness and tenderness, Emma’s portraits capture the particularities of not only what it means to be a body, but of what it means to be a person, and how these states of being are coextensive and intermingled. As she puts it: “I am inspired by everyday life, by the things that are so often overlooked but that are truly the most important aspects of our existence. I am inspired by the beauty that is in the design of our body and its functions, its organs, its ability to move, breath and remember, I am inspired by how the mind and body communicate, I am inspired by thoughts and how completely abstracted they can become, I am inspired by our spectrum of emotions and feelings, how they interact with our thoughts and are felt in the body. I am inspired by our basic human instincts and all the complications beneath them and on top of them. Basically, I am inspired by the building blocks of human life and our ability to observe and document them.”