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Geoffrey Harrison

'Artists can be the luckiest people in the world, because they carry with them a kind of toolkit for living meaningfully.

No matter where the artist is, even if they don’t have a pencil in their hand, they can be doing art. Their perspective on the world, through the prism of ‘art’, means there are ideas and inspiration everywhere. Even a bad day can be fruitful. Even in the midst of a creative block, the world is interpreted in a way that has artistic resonance. This isn’t always easy and art can be painful, but I’ve never heard an artist reflect that they felt their life lacked purpose.'

Geoffrey Harrison works from his studio in London, UK. He has been a finalist in many prestigious awards and has exhibited nationally and internationally, and has work in collections worldwide. Known as a figurative artist and portraitist, he has appeared on Sky Arts Portrait of the Year. Much of his practice involves self portraits, through which Geoffrey explores views of masculinity and identity.

Where is your current studio? What would be your dream studio?

Currently my studio is a room in my home in Bloomsbury, central London. It’s a nice big room with good light. It’s a bit untidy and I don’t have everything I need in there, but it is a place I have made some good work. My dream studio would be in a much bigger building. It would have a very large, well lit, messy working space with an adjoining workshop with all the woodworking etc tools. There would also be a small, clean quiet room for sitting and reading and maybe sleeping. My dream studio comes with an admin assistant, so there would be an office too. There would be a place for a lot of people to sit around a large table to work together, talk about art, eat and drink. Sometimes though it would be just me in there, doing my thing. There would I suppose have to be shower and toilet and kitchen facilities. I think I am basically describing a big house… Do you prefer to work in silence or does certain music inspire you?

I used to listen to classical music and jazz, but probably only because I thought I was supposed to, you know; because I was an artist and it might get me in the zone or something. In the end, I used to just tune it out though and ultimately turned it off because, when it did get through, it was irritating. Now, I like podcasts and have audiobooks on in the background a lot. I’ve recently been listening to the complete Sherlock Holmes collection, read by Stephen Fry. Its more than 70 hours! BBC Radio 4 is also great because there are some good current affairs, news and documentary things in there. I tend to leap up and switch off the drama serials, and the Archers, which I find intolerable. Sorry! I’m not sure how much what I’m listening to influences what ends up on the canvas. A lot of my creative process happens before I start painting, so when I am just ‘colouring-in’ this isn’t a worry. That said, maybe there is a part of the unconscious still at work in these supposedly non-creative activities that somehow gets infused into the paint giving an added a flavour…

'Self Portrait with Drawing'

Studio life can lead to isolation, how do you address this/ keep a balance? Oh, I love isolation! I love people too, but it’s great to be allowed be able to choose when to interact and when to shut oneself away. Portraiture is ideal for me. I can go and interact with people, especially interesting ones, on a one to one basis. Sometimes it’s quite intense and that can be especially nourishing, but I also like being in my studio, alone and losing track of time, immersed in the doing. I also spend a lot of my time working on self-portraits, exploring the more philosophical bent of my work about masculinity and expressions of identity, which can be really introspective. In absolute contrast, I love a private view, where I can hang out with loads of people and have multiple stimulating conversations. COVID has thrown a lot of this into sharp relief. Its made people so much more aware of the privilege that it is to have control space and proximity, how much actual agency we ordinarily enjoy and what happens to us when that is denied. How has your style evolved and what contributed to the changes?

My style is constantly evolving. I used to think that it wouldn’t be possible to identify my work easily amongst other people’s because I felt it was so different all the time. I’m wrong about this and people have pointed out that they can totally tell my work from one piece to any other. I think it’s because, as artists, we get so close to our work that tiny subtle changes can feel seismic to us. Its good to keep noticing and encouraging change though, otherwise you might not be improving and I cant bear the idea of not getting better at what I do. I also like to deliberately experiment with things I see in other people’s work. London is a brilliant place to look at other people’s art, but so is the internet and especially social media. I started doing Instagram 5 years ago and its been great to see my own improvement, but it has been such a visual feast and even though it’s not a very good idea to continually compare oneself against other artists (we’re all just doing different things), it is good to benchmark occasionally and see just what the level of talent is out there. It totally made me up my game. There may be something tyrannical about the grip SM has on us to represent our best selves, fabricate lives and worse, but there’s also a discipline in it that I have benefitted from. It gets you to do work and post it up there regularly. It’s almost entirely positive feedback though, which is a great nursery for ideas before they hit the real world, but I do welcome the crit from time to time. Nature versus nurture- do you believe you have inherited abilities from creative parents, do you have creative siblings? Can you identify environmental factors or influences which led to your choices or directions?

I am really interested in this question. Both my parents were illustrators - my mum is now an artist, and my sister is an artist as well, so people do assume that its ‘in the blood’. I also have two step siblings, and while we didn’t share the same upbringing, they are both are also very creative through their work, being a writer and a mathematician. I don’t think it is much of a surprise that I do art, but I don’t believe there is any overriding genetic cause for this. There might be some particular hand-eye thing or a temperament for the patience needed for the work I do, but art is such a broad church, with room for all types of person, mood, approach, technique and medium that the ‘right’ personality and physical attribute could describe the whole population. I think the difference between me and people that don’t call themselves an artist might be that I grew up surrounded by art materials and the idea that visual expression was normal. This wasn’t an especially active thing on the part of my parents. I don’t recall them pushing me to do art, nor telling me the opposite, that I might be better off doing something else. They just did their thing and that to me was, like, whatever. I never sought to make a living through art though, at least not until recently and distanced myself from the term ‘artist’ until I was about 30. I would always have referred to myself as someone who painted and drew and this has always been very important to me, but it was my partner, telling me that it was important to refer to myself as an ‘artist’ to others, that I could thereby inform and convince myself. This kind of NLP has been key to my self-belief and, even if I am not making a living solely from art, it means I am as serious about the work and as committed as I could be to my creative output.

'Self Portrait with Orange Watch'

Is there something you regard as essential to your preparation or process?

Sketchbooks are essential to my process. They are where the ideas that are in my head first make landfall. They go in the sketchbook and get forgotten or maybe remain potent and demand exploration. I take a sketchbook everywhere with me. I draw from life in them and I make notes. I put shopping lists in them and stickers from kid’s toys and stuff so they become a way of accumulating all sorts. They are a rich seam to be mined occasionally. They are also a sort of archive. Detail a moment which was the highlight for you, thus far. I admit to craving approval and endorsement! My ego is so fragile! Getting a painting into the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ exhibition in London this year has made me feel legit. I’ve had other moments, like when I was awarded residency funding from the Leverhulme Trust or when I was shortlisted for the RP Bulldog Bursary, but somehow, the RP exhibition, which I have tried to get into a few times gave me great satisfaction. Also, because it was so much fun, I loved being on Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year and then to have the honour of being invited as a guest artist on the Facebook and Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Week to paint live, was really cool. If you could time travel, what advice would you give the younger you, regarding pursuing your artmaking? For when I was a little kid – Keep going! For when I was at art school - Don’t try to make THE picture, just made A picture. Also; Stop dicking around and do more work, because the resolution leads to more understanding and you’ll catch up with your ideas. For when I finished University and thought I had to get a job – Believe in your art voice. Keep doing it. For when I basically gave up drawing and painting – Don’t give up. For when I decided to be an artist – take risks now, because they become harder to take when you have more responsibility For when I started painting portraits – do more of these, it’s what you’re good at For yesterday – stay focused

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