Discovery: Portrait artist Jonathan Yeo


Photobooth Selfie, Jonathan Yeo (part) From:

I have friend and fellow OCA student Stella Davis to thank for introducing me to the work of Jonathan Yeo. In my portrait of Adrian Lester as Othello I was trying to introduce fluid drawing lines into my work in acrylics and play with mixing different styles of painting. Stella picked up on what I was trying to do and pointed me towards Yeo.

And his work excites me…

He is an extraordinarily accomplished contemporary portrait artist (portraitist?) who works in paint, collage and print. He has painted many famous politicians and celebrities and also had his own exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – that surely must be as high as you can get as a  portraitist? . His political portraits have caused controversy e.g.  a  weary Tony Blair  wearing a bright red poppy firmly linking his legacy to the Iraq war  and  an unauthorised collage portrait of George Bush made up of pornographic images, referencing, in Yeo’s words, “the warped moralities of George Bush’s policies”.

He pushes boundaries. His work includes paintings of women having cosmetic surgery procedures challenging the notion of beauty and the endless search for perfection. He presents the faces of women in pre and post-op states, and bodies marked up with incision lines ready for the knife. Yeo talks of a  “wonderfully casual savagery…a squiggle here and there, then minutes later they’re going to be putting a knife through those lines.” He is perhaps drawing a parallel between the lines of the artist and the marks of the surgeon. Fascinating stuff!

His journey into art and portraiture is an interesting one. Whilst studying film at university, he developed Hodgkins Lymphoma, which ended his formal studies but led him to paint during his recovery. Having always drawn people’s likenesses as doodles and sketches, this interest became formalised as he began to work in paint, drawing inspiration from artists such as Picasso, Wyndham Lewis and Lucian Freud.

You can read more about him on his website here.

I’ve put together a Pinterest board here

Below I’ve tried to define the characteristics of Yeo’s painting that appeal to me…

Different weights of paint / styles of painting for different areas of the canvas including chequered lines, loose, fluid drawing lines and transparency applied to hair, clothes and backgrounds. This contrasts  with more photo-realistic painting of the face causing the features to appear in sharp focus ( like the light and dark impact of chiaroscuro).

I was definitely trying out something along these lines in my portrait of Adrian Lester… and now I can see these techniques in the hands of a pro.

And following in the fine tradition of portraying actors in character I notice that Yeo has painted Kevin Spacey as Richard III !

This mini research project has  been an enjoyable diversion and I know I will return to Yeo’s work for inspiration in future.





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