With a fascinating and progressive approach to painting, celebrated visual artist Marcus Callum speaks to House of Coco’s Emma Harrison about his artistic style combining the techniques of the Old Masters with a contemporary approach, his biggest artistic influences and why he wants his work to evoke an emotional response.
Can you tell our readers a bit more about your work as a visual artist – what does this entail and what are your areas of speciality?
I’m a realist figurative painter specialising in portraiture. Having studied traditional academic drawing and painting with contemporary art theory at three very different art schools in Sydney and New York, my paintings fuse Old Masters oil painting techniques with a contemporary aesthetic.
My fascination with meditation, hypnosis and the subconscious has become a recurring theme in my work. I think understanding how to control our subconscious mind and learning how to program it positively, will allow us to control individual and collective destiny more effectively and responsibly. I try to put this into my art.
My paintings take anywhere from 4 hours to 6 months to complete so the process of painting is a meditation. It’s a self-hypnosis and brainwashing of my subconscious with images and thoughts that filter into each painting – I’m seeking a state of mind where I’m in intuitive flow.
I begin with a monochrome underpainting followed by multiple layers of oil colour. I love the Old Master techniques of glazing, scumbling and sfumato (softening of the transitions between colours). By combining these techniques, I’m able to control how the painting is viewed and to a lesser extent, how it feels to view. I think these methods allow a painter to imbue paintings with a powerful emotional charge so that a relatively simple image can say a great deal more than is apparent.
Although my paintings are apparently single static images, they’re actually a history of moments fused into one image, a history of paint layers added day after day, a history of my feelings in response to the subject, a history of the subject as it changes day to day – its past, its present and its future. It’s like compressing all the stills from a movie into one image – which now embodies all of the images in one and has adopted an energy of its own – separate to the original but also connected.
When did you discover that you had such a talent for art?
I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was 8. I remember drawing my left hand at school and realising it wasn’t just a hand but was actually my hand. I was given a set of oil paints for my 14th birthday and couldn’t believe how amazing they were – I was under their spell from that moment on.
Can you tell us a bit more about your training in Australia and America (where you won a scholarship)– how has this helped you with your career so far?
I studied traditional academic painting and drawing at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. I heard a story about how the Old Masters gave their apprentices a bone with instructions to memorise it so that they could visualise it in 3D and draw it from any angle. This was how I approached my art studies. I focused on solid drawing skills to begin – this still forms the basis of my paintings today.
During my studies I was fortunate to be selected as a finalist in the Archibald Prize, Australia’s most well-known art prize for portraiture. I was a finalist in this prize for the following two years in a row. The Archibald Prize has such huge publicity and exposure that it was enough to kick start my career as a professional artist.
I won a scholarship to study at the New York Academy of Art in Manhattan in 2016. Co-founded by Andy Warhol and with a Board of Trustees including Eileen Guggenheim and Eric Fischl, the Academy offers in depth academic training combined with contemporary critical theory and discourse. The school chooses only fifty of the world’s best artists to study each year and many consider the Academy to be the best figurative art school in the world. I met incredible artists, many of whom are now forging out successful art careers in New York and worldwide. I studied under many inspirational contemporary figurative artists such as Vincent Desiderio and Michael Grimaldi. These studies not only helped me to learn technique, but also to see my work from a broader perspective and to position it in relation to the established canon of Western painting and it’s place in the contemporary art world.
What or who has influenced your style so far and how has it evolved so far?
In the early days, my main influences were Rembrandt for his extraordinary use of paint and the life and energy of his portraiture, Velasquez for the way he manipulated edges to create such amazing illusions and Holbein for his realistic drawing centric portraits. I’ve always loved Picasso for the sheer volume and variety of his work, as he moved from a strong academic training to become increasingly experimental. I’m also inspired by contemporary artists such as Gottfried Helnwein, Wim Delvoye, Damien Hirst, Kader Attia, Gabriel Orozco, Georges Bures and Cardiff Miller. The list of influences is endless really – I might be inspired by a photo on the internet, by another art work, an object in a museum, an experience or an idea. There doesn’t seem to be any limit and I’m happy to be led wherever my imagination or intuition takes me.
Your work aims to evoke an emotional response – how do you do this?
There are several parts to this, but I think the key lies in the use of multiple layers of paint. Unlike a photo, light bounces back to the viewer’s eye at different speeds but it happens far too quickly for them to notice what’s happening consciously. This creates a vibrational painting surface – our subconscious mind picks up on this and responds. I see every part of the painting as an abstract and I do my best to make each tiny section beautiful so that the viewer can extract something from the painting up close and from a distance. Another element to this is the treatment of edges (as one form connects to another or transitions into a background or foreground). By manipulating the edges in different ways, I can soften or harden edges to direct the viewer around the painting.
I also hope there’s emotional response to my interpretation of the subject. I want a likeness but I’m not trying to merely copy. There’s a level of letting go of accuracy and in its place, I’m simply trying to make a good painting that people respond to. I want to give a sense of the person I’m painting, I want you to know who they are, what they’re thinking – there has to be empathy between the artist, the viewer and the subject of the painting, especially with a portrait. I’m very interested in psychology and like to think I’m translating something of my subject’s thoughts in the work.
You have won a multitude of awards including the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Prize and have been a finalist on TV’s Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year – how important are these accolades to you?
Like many artists, my path has been a long and difficult one. I’ve had my share of doubt and financial hardship, so the prizes and TV appearances, apart from being a lot of fun, have helped reassure and motivate me to stay focused on my long-term vision.
Who typically buys your work and how do you cultivate a collector base?
My collectors are from all walks of life. The exposure prizes and group exhibitions provide have helped promote me as an artist and buyers have up to now contacted me directly. In Australia, I mostly worked on commissioned paintings but now that I’m back in England, I’m looking into gallery representation as a means to develop my practice further. I think my collectors appreciate my technique, attention to detail and emphasis on ‘beauty’. They react emotionally to the work and value this in a painting. Until a few years ago, I focused on studies rather than marketing but ultimately, artists need to get their work out there and social media offers a great way to do that. I’ve only recently become more active on these platforms, but I can certainly see their power.
How long does a painting take from the first sitting to final completion?
Anywhere between 4 hours and 6 months. I don’t put a time limit on my paintings – they’re finished when I can’t find anything else that will improve the painting.
I particularly love Samsara – can you tell me a little bit more about the concept of this?
I used to visit the MET in New York often – I was fascinated by their huge collection of Medieval armour and it seemed to me that the inhabitants of the armour were somehow still present, including the horses who had their own armour. I wanted to use this as a basis for a painting. I had the idea of the horse armour and human armour as a diptych but as I worked on it, I added the third central panel of a landscape. I wanted this landscape to represent the organic, the living – to symbolise the ‘perfect’ world in which we wage wars against each other, the armour lives on after the wearer dies, as does the aftermath of war in our collective memories, hearts and minds.
Your work is really intriguing a juxtaposition between the Old Masters and contemporary art – how easy (or indeed difficult) is it to blend these two distinct worlds?
I see myself as continuing on from where the painters of the 14th – 19th Centuries left off. Today artists can once again learn traditional academic painting skills at schools around the world and combine these techniques with ideas from a contemporary aesthetic. I am surrounded by the contemporary and intrigued by contemporary art, so it seems only natural, having always been obsessed with the power of Old Master realism, to combine these two elements into something of my own that continues the dialogue of painting. I want my art to reference multiple things at the same time, to work on many different levels but I’m also happy if they work on just one!
What artwork that you’ve created means the most to you and why?
The portrait of my son Sebastian has the most sentimental value. All of my works are important to me for different reasons – especially the failures. Ultimately, the painting I’ve just finished is always the most important – it’s my greatest teacher, the work that sits in the studio revealing everything I’ve learned, how far I’ve come and how far I still have to go.
Do you ever get artists block and how do you get yourself out of it?
It’s more a case of not being able to paint my ideas fast enough. It’s easy to become distracted by life, admin, emails etc but once I start painting, I’m in flow. I believe everything we watch, hear, say, read and repeat forms large parts of the subconscious mind. As such, we can program ourselves to meet our goals. I have notes and reminders all over my walls. I listen to motivational videos – once I get over the initial corniness, they really help keep me on track. I avoid listening to or watching things that don’t serve my vision. Ultimately, simply placing the paintbrush on the canvas with the first blob of paint is all I need to do – everything else follows. Of course, there’s a lot of time spent not painting – I need to visit galleries, to learn new things, to find inspiration but it’s not a block, more a part of the artistic process.
What advice would you have for our readers in order to grow their artist practices and get their work seen?
Do the work every day, keep working on it when all seems to be failing, never listen to negativity, ignore those who doubt and keep going at all costs. Do accept constructive criticism, develop a thick skin for this, you need it more than anything if you truly want to improve. Never stop learning about art, try to learn everything but take it one step at a time. You can make it – you can make a living as an artist if you keep going and take up all opportunities that come your way.
When you compare yourself to the best that ever lived, you’ll know there’s a lot more to learn and still more work to do. Be humble. Have a long-term vision for your work and stick to it. Enter prizes, lots of them. Use social media to promote your work. Think about themes that run through your work, what’s important to you in your life, what interests you – try to build these into a coherent group of artworks. Galleries respond more easily to a series of works that communicate with each other.
What’s next for you?
Apart from a few portrait commissions, I’m beginning a series of figurative paintings that will consider our anxieties around Artificial Intelligence and predictions of the Singularity. We live in amazing times and I hope to offer my small contribution to the commentary.