Charlie Schaffer: “What It Is to Be Alive”

In June, the young British artist Charlie Schaffer won the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award for “Imara in her Winter Coat.” Behind the splendor of Imara’s fur coat, and the tender introspection of her expression, lie four grueling months for both sitter and artist. We caught up with Schaffer at the National Gallery in London to find out more.   

Most of your works are portraits. Why portraiture rather than other art forms? 

I would say that I don’t actually paint portraits, which is maybe ironic given I just won a portrait prize! For me, a portrait has connotations of making a picture about that person — it’s meant to represent the essence of that person, whereas I don’t really care about that. What I want is to create a painting that is alive. 

I also get sad and lonely if I do it on my own, so it makes sense for me to spend time with people. When someone comes and sits for a painting, they come two or three times a week for three or four months. You close the door, you leave your phones outside, there’s literally nothing apart from them sitting down and me standing there making a painting. When you put someone in the chair and say, “tell me about your life,” they will open up. The whole point for me is to make real connections with people. 

Sitting is kind of like having a bath. We live in a society where you aren’t allowed to just sit down and do nothing. Whereas if you have a bath, because you’re technically doing something you can spend an hour sitting in the bath doing nothing, just reading or thinking. It’s kind of similar to sitting for a painting. There’s all the social and historical weight behind the idea of painting, so it allows someone to sit there and just talk. Essentially it ends up being kind of like therapy. If someone comes to a “safe space” twice a week for three or four months and you just talk to that person, you obviously get used to each other, and you learn about each other.

It’s interesting that comparison to therapy. Does the fact that the sitters know they are being painted change anything? 

The sitters only see the painting at the very end, after four months. The kind of person that I chose to sit is someone who is emotionally and intellectually open, and someone who is there for the experience of sitting rather than the final picture. That way it puts pressure on the picture, rather than on the actual experience. The picture itself doesn’t really matter — the sitter knows it’s happening, but in a way they forget about it because they never see it. 

For me, painting — any kind of painting, even if it’s abstract like a Rothko painting — is a record of an experience. If you look at a Rembrandt, a Freud, or an Auerbach, every mark that’s made is just recording the experience. I don’t mean trying to copy what is in front of you, but trying to understand and feel what’s in front of you. So the painting is essentially just a by-product: it’s the thing that allows that experience to happen, but the actual finished picture is pointless. You keep painting because you genuinely believe that whilst you’re painting, if you really focus, if you have faith in what you’re doing and you really genuinely believe in it, it might give you the answer to something. In that sense, it’s like a religion. It’s the only reason you keep painting, because you think it’s going to show you something more, maybe give you the reason to life or something ridiculous like that! Then at the end, you turn the painting around and look at it, and you’re like, “Well, it’s just a fucking picture!” So you start another one… 

That’s what happened with Imara, the girl that I painted for this award. She sat three times a week for three hours at a time for four months — without fail. We were both going through quite an extreme depression at the time and it ended up being both of our connections to the outside world. Without that, we had no connection, so we both needed it. The painting itself was kind of superfluous, but it allowed us to do that, and it stopped at least one of us from doing something stupid. As soon as we’d finished, Imara turned the painting around, looked at it and just said, “Yeah, it’s alright!” So we put it away, because it didn’t serve any purpose to us, and just started another one.

“Portrait of an Actor”, 2016. Oil on canvas, 41 x 51. Private Collection. © Charlie Schaffer

It sounds like you were really living out what was theorized in art across the 20th century, which was this focus on art as process rather than art as a final product? 

Yeah, we live in a world of billions and billions of images; there are enough images out there, so there’s no point making an image for the sake of it. At the moment, I’m painting a Titian painting in the National Gallery: “The Virgin suckling the Infant Christ.” I come in every Friday for three months. But I don’t want to just make the picture look like Titian’s picture, so at the moment I’m going down a kind of “spiritual” route. Language always fails, and I’m not sure what I mean by “spiritual,” but I’m painting the picture to try and figure that out. I think spirituality is a connection to something beyond the self — usually the world or other people — and I realize that painting for me is a spiritual quest as such, because I want to connect to something beyond myself. 

That’s what I want to get across in this Titian painting. When you look at Titian’s picture, there’s a tenderness, a glow, a life that goes beyond. There are these two things that are blurring and molding together, and that are kind of glowing and alive. I don’t really care that they are individual things, I want them to combine and become this glowing mass. I want to keep going until the features disintegrate. 

Isn’t there also a kind of dialogue with Titian’s “Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro” in “Imara in Her Winter Coat”?

That was more retrospective to be honest. Everyone picked up on that aspect of the portrait, because it’s easier to write about that than to write about depression. The way the BP Award works is that you enter a photograph first, and then you give them the physical painting a couple of months later. With my paintings, I start from one point and then spread out, so I can’t really control proportions. I don’t block in anything, I don’t sketch it up, so I have no idea what a painting is going to look like when I start. If I start on a small canvas, it’ll just be cropped, so I decided to start on a huge canvas and thought I would just cut it to the size. I did the head, a bit of the fur coat, took a photo and sent it in. Then it got through, and I thought I’d just cut it there. I liked that it was very emotional and tender on the face and thought it’d just ruin it. But no, I had to finish it. Considering it took me three and a half months to get to there, I then had two and a half weeks to do another two thirds. I think that’s what made me ill to be honest! I was doing 16-hour days, just painting a fur coat… I hate fur coats now, I’m just glad we’re in summer! 

Were you thinking consciously about the kind of symbolism or connotations the fur coat might have?

No, I think if anyone ever puts a concept in before doing the work, it becomes gimmicky or tacky. I think concepts arise through the doing of it. When I spend time with someone, every single bit of paint I put down is directed by our experience. Those might be physical or mental things — it could just be that I’m tired or they’re happy or I’m sad. 

“Imara In Her Winter Coat”, 2019. Oil on canvas, 90 x 120.© Charlie Schaffer

If the picture was just the head on its own it might be more sympathetic or tender, but it’s not going to grab the attention of the viewer. The fur coat brings you in and then, because it’s a pyramid structure it leads you upwards to the face, and you realize that it’s actually, hopefully, empathetic and sympathetic. In many respects, it’s a painting about depression because it was done during a time when we were both in a depression and the experience saved us both. But I don’t look at it and go, “I pity her.” The coat is this glorious, wonderful thing that brings you up, then you see that this person is quite introspective, but in a beautiful way, rather than a really sad, pitiful way. So maybe it’s saying that being down isn’t actually a bad thing, we just live in a society that tells us it is, but if you can work through it, then you can always grow: you become someone else, or a better version of yourself. 

In an interview, you said that every good work of art is, in some respects, also a self-portrait. Does “Imara” also contain a projection of yourself or perhaps an amalgamation of the two of you?

Yes definitely, and that’s why I say I don’t paint portraits, because in portraits you’re trying to be completely and utterly true to that person, whereas I don’t really care about that. I’m responding to that person, or to the experience of us both being there. The painting might nominally look like the sitter, but it is not just of the sitter. It’s entirely directed by them, but also by me, because we’re both in that room, in that experience. 

When you stop separating off your sitter as this entirely distinct “other,” and stop trying to depict him or her objectively, is there perhaps a more truthful recognition of how our identities are co-constructed?

Yes, it’s a recognition of both the constant battle and the coming together of two people at the same time. In “Knulp,” Hermann Hesse talks about how two souls are kind of like flowers: they want to be together, they’ll lean towards each other and send their seeds out to each other, but they’re always rooted separately. We’re always intrinsically alone, not necessarily in a depressing or sad way, but maybe that is what love is: it’s just helping people exist on their own. 

That’s hopefully what comes through in the painting as well. That’s what I aim for anyway: an understanding of the other. It depends how blunt you want to be, but it’s just two lonely people spending time with each other and giving each other purpose. 

Given what you’ve been saying about the importance of the experience of sitting, are there artists who have influenced you here? 

Yes, massively so. Before painting “Imara,” I’d gone through many stages of artists that influenced me, although I was never trying to make a painting look like someone else’s, I was just in that mindset. I read “Man with a Blue Scarf” by Martin Gayford which is about him sitting for Freud. That was my first eye-opening experience of what painting can be, because it was about the experience of sitting and how you get to actually know each other. It’s essentially about the relationship, about spending time with someone in the real world and trying to record that. And then there was Frank Auerbach, then Leon Kossoff — they were all recording an experience. 

Kossoff has only recently died, and I just think he was one of the most brilliant painters ever. You look at a Kossoff and you can’t really tell what it is — same with Auerbach a lot of the time — but that doesn’t matter, they are there, in that moment, responding to that and recording that. Sometimes you can figure out what it is, but that really doesn’t matter whatsoever; it’s their experience of being in it, and therefore their experience of being alive, and therefore the most brilliant piece of art, because it means that if you can actually understand or connect to what’s happening, you understand what it is to be alive. 

If you look closely at a Rembrandt, I stand by the idea that they just happen to look like people. You look at the marks and think “what even is that?!” But it happens to make this person who is so alive and so now, because it’s not making something that looks like a person, it is the experience of a person. Same with a Rothko. He wasn’t exactly the most uplifting human being in the world — for him, life is all about drama and melancholy and tragedy — but if you look at his painting, you think “yeah that encapsulates all of that… And I don’t even know what it is!” So that’s what I want. And I just happen to paint people, and mine happen to look more like people than certain others…

What inspired you to become an artist in the first place? 

I only did art because I was contrary! I grew up in a place where everyone was either an accountant, a lawyer or a doctor; we didn’t even have pictures on the wall. So I went to art school and I guess it was a bit of a middle finger to the world I grew up in. And that’s why I work harder than anyone I know — I didn’t have any talent, the idea of talent I think is complete bollocks as well. I just work more than anyone else, get up earlier, stop painting later, and I sacrificed a lot of things in order to be able to paint. I’ve lived in horrible, weird places for the last four years of my life, away from the people I know and love. That obviously hasn’t helped my mental health, but it has allowed me to paint, and you can decide which one’s more important. I’m not sure I know which one is more important yet. But you know you can always get to where you want to go if you’re willing to sacrifice things and just work harder.

There’s a lot of mythologizing around art and artistic genius, people don’t realize how much effort and hard work is involved. 

That’s also why I get people to sit. I’ve never been one of those people who can just get up in the morning and do work on their own, but if someone comes and sits, you have to work. It does not matter what emotional or physical state you are in, if they come and sit you’ve got two or three hours where you are painting them. So you don’t have the option, and that means that your paintings are an amalgamation of all those feelings, which is all of life. Life should encapsulate the boring, the really difficult, the easy, the sexy, and the downright shit. All of that — that’s what you want. 

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.