Archive interview: Paul Digby

In May 2014, we spoke to East Street Arts member and studio holder Paul Digby about the paintings he was working on and his approach to art.

In May 2014, we spoke to East Street Arts member and studio holder Paul Digby about the paintings he was working on and his approach to art.

To accompany the video interview artist Alison McIntyre also wrote in depth about Paul’s work and her experience of it. You can read that writing below, starting with some descriptions of Paul’s work:

Painting of Gaynor

Paul Digby is painting some REALLY big portraits. The picture above doesn’t do the size justice so you’ll have to make sure you get to The Tetley to see it when the work will be shown there later this year or early in 2015.

A depression painting image

Paul has been making portraits for a while now. The earliest I was aware of were paintings of people with depression; portraits in the broadest terms featuring people with faces covered, often overwhelmed by their surroundings. Many of these were painted in 2008 and since then Paul has been immersed in an exploration of emotions, his artistic process and the idea of portraiture.

Mixed emotions drawing image

As you can see from the picture above Paul has been experimenting with different ways to make images, using a very flat, quite graphic approach in the earlier paintings and then turning to pencil and oil bars to make these large close-up studies of different emotions. His pencil technique was greatly influenced by Seurat, using small circles and cross-hatching to gradually build up areas of darkness and light. These images look very different close-up and only begin to re-assemble as faces once you get some distance away from them.

Gaynor’s picture combines these techniques to great effect, using a flat base then bringing out areas of detail with the more brush-like strokes of the oil bars. You can see the influence of Roy Lichtenstein in the slightly pop-art feel to this painting and Paul told me that he was very influenced by Lichtenstein’s work in a 1997 exhibition at the Athony D’Offey Gallery.

Picture of the old man

The project has progressed in line with Paul’s intellectual interest in emotions, in particular Charles Darwin’s Expressions of Emotions in Men and Animals. Darwin uses photographs, taken by French doctor/photographer Duchenne de Bologne, of someone simply referred to as ‘the old man’; a homeless man who apparently had no nerve-endings in his face so was able to have electrodes attached to his face to emulate specific emotions. The exploitation of this unnamed man is shocking and Paul has had this in mind when making his own portraits. His subjects have chosen to be drawn and have chosen the emotion they would like to portray. Some of the subjects are Paul’s friends and acquaintances, one of them a teacher from the school his kids go to. These latest large paintings are of people who use community groups, some of whom are or have been socially excluded. They’re just people, and not your traditional subjects for portraiture, where historically having your portrait painted was something only people with money and/or power could do, and presently is something we generally only see as photographs of celebrities.

Paul has also worked with lots of children in schools, where they have learnt his pencil technique and done their own portraits. I’m really hoping that, through this approach to community involvement in subjects and makers, he manages to fill the Tetley on launch night with people outside the usual suspects from the Leeds art world.

This is a difficult path for Paul to tread though, without becoming patronising or taking advantage of his own subjects, albeit in a much milder way than Duchenne! But talking to Paul it’s clear that he is acutely aware of this and goes to great pains to make sure his subject have as much control and power as he can give them within his artistic process. He teaches adults through Workers Education Association (WEA) and it was very important to him that they, and Leeds Adult Social Care, approved the project before he started looking for subjects. The University of Leeds School of Medicine are also involved and have been talking to the subjects about how it felt to be drawn.

So, whilst trying not to sound too cheesy, this has been a bit of a journey for Paul. Artistically he has moved around different mediums, each influencing the next approach until he has come to a point with these very large pictures where it’s not so much about ‘finishing’ but about testing that process and all the different things that have come through it.

The emotional journey could sound cheesy too, but having started six years ago with depression, he’s then moved through the mixed emotions of the pencil and oil bar drawings, and is now making enormous portraits of happiness and joy. As the size of the images have grown, the emotions have become more positive, I may be reading too much into it, but it feels life-affirming to me.

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