Excerpts of an interview conducted with Martyn by Cass Art, and published in conjunction with their 2017 'Face to Face' exhibition. The exhibition was staged at their flagship store in Islington showcasing work by artists nominated for the 2017 BP Portrait Award.
You have captured a lot of famous faces over your career as an artist. How do you capture a different side to them that we do not see in the public eye?
What you see in a portrait of mine is always just my impression of an individual’s personality on that day. If I am working with someone who may already be familiar to me from their depiction in the media. I just try not to let that influence me and concentrate on the person as they are, in that moment.
I just try to capture truthfully what I see when I meet someone. Any portrait is usually as much about the artist as it is about the sitter, so in one of my paintings, I think you are just seeing my interpretation of another person. You are seeing them, reflected off me. I also try not to flatter anyone that I paint or draw, I just try to be honest.
Your paintings are all monochrome. How do you think this influences the perception of work, and why have you chosen to remove all the colour?
I probably spend more time drawing than I do painting. I really love to draw, and whether it’s using pencils or charcoal, drawing is predominantly focused on just light and shade. I love the bold simplicity of it. My painting style maybe owes a lot to my fascination with drawing.
I love colour when I see it used in other people’s work, but in my own work I sometimes like to reduce the number of the elements involved. I like the idea of building something out of fewer parts, there can be a very satisfying purity to it.
My paintings are never entirely monochrome, they do have colours in them, but they are very muted. The focus is always on tone, but if a painting has no colour at all, it will tend to look a little flat. When I paint, I build up the image with multiple layers of thin glossy translucent paint, I scrub it into place with the largest brush I can get away with, and I hopefully end up with something that has a lot of depth, and a sort of lush richness to the surface.
I find paintings that are made up of a limited range colours can have a lot of drama to them, they can be very impactful. A monochrome image can have a weight to it, a sense of importance, it can seem old, but it can also seem ageless - Maybe I’ve just watched too many black and white movies!
Matt Berry sat for you in person, outdoors on a bright yet cold day. Do you think capturing your sitters from life changes the final composition and feeling the viewer receives from the portrait?
For a good portrait, I think it’s vital to have spent some time with the person that I’m painting. I think it's very important if I intend to try and capture something of the sitter’s personality and avoid any preconceptions.
Moreover, from a technical point of view, to capture a good vivid likeness, I think it’s vital to spend as much time as I can, just looking at the person I am painting. I need to be around the person, and see them move, in order to best understand the structure of the face.
For me, a good painting will always be the result of a particular experience, at a particular time. I like the idea that you are capturing how someone was, on one unique occasion. It's good to try and capture something of where and when I was during the sitting. The quality of the light on a particular day can give such a sense of time and space.
The structure and composition of a painting will invariably result from the actual sitting, I never really have too many preconceived ideas about what I want to achieve with a painting. I might have a basic plan, but I often find that in the end I arrive at something completely different. The final composition and feel of a painting will generally just evolve naturally from the situation and the space. I do like to use natural light if I can, I think it can root you to a particular moment.
If I can, I like ending up with paintings that are quite direct and uncluttered.