Sourcing his subjects is a very specific process for artist Matthew Penn.
Features such as aged skin or prominent bone structure grabs his attention and as such he picks his models at random for the characterful nature of their natural expressions. Having already painted a number of male faces in his series Effigies a visit to the 2014 London Tattoo Convention sparked a new series which began with a work entitled Human Canvas. In this the artist’s subjects were men and women bearing tattoos of varying magnitude and detail.
When setting up his compositions Penn’s main consideration is how the subject’s facial features will look under a chiaroscuro lighting effect. Photographing them in a blackout studio with just a single spotlight he manipulates the beam to sculpt the structure of the face and body. This is a distinguishing element of the artist’s powerplay between light and dark.
Aluminium panels are used as the canvas, and primed with acrylic base tone wash before a pencil drawing is done as a guide. Matthew deconstructs the layers of the skin before starting, as it is the forensic layering of the skin he wishes to mimic with the oils. The base layers are started looser and coarser, and as these layers grow the detail becomes more refined and intricate, weaving colour tones and fine detail together as they reach the surface of the painting and skin structure.
Matte varnish is used giving a natural and realistic quality to the skin tones, enhancing the living, breathing quality of the hyper-realistic style. Around thirty layers of oil paint are required to build each of the works which means the painting process is a long one, especially the drying time of each layer. This allows Matthew to revisit the work with a fresh eye, correcting and altering as he goes, and reflects the time and layered quality of the skin it mirrors.
The completed paintings are hung in a black studio and lit with ERCO narrow beam spot lighting of different effects, rather echoing the way in which the subject was initially photographed. A set of specifically tailored lights are directed, manipulated, and sculpted towards the painting dramatically illuminating certain features and casting other aspects in darkness. This enhances the tenebristic aspect Penn so admires in Caravaggio and other Old Masters.
EMBRACE – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection
CANVAS – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection
GRIFFINS HEAD – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection
“The focal points of my paintings are the eyes. You can really draw out the sentiment and character from a person’s eyes so I concentrate on the eye as a window into the history and emotions of my subject. The photo shoots are long and often silent, as well as in a blackout studio casting a sombre atmosphere with just a single light. I think this really allows the subject to relax and get lost in their thoughts and feelings, which is when I find the most evocative and intimate expressions come out; those which I wish to capture in my paintings.”
– MATTHEW PENN
SCARF – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection
THE SCARF 2 – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection
BOOK MAKER – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection
LOST IN TRANSLATION – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection
DAD’S ARMY – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection
RESTORER – Oil on aluminium panel – Private Collection