Q&A: Jonathan Yeo

The artist talks about the art of self-portraiture, the Art Fund's Van Dyck campaign and his current exhibition at The Lowry.

As a largely self-taught artist, what first drew you to portraiture as opposed to any other subject matter?

I find portraits more interesting to look at that any other painting genre, but I didn’t think I would spend the rest of my life doing it. There is a power to a really great portrait that I think is hard to match. We are biologically designed to react to other human faces in a much more complicated way than anything else and my favourite portraits share that instinctive nature.

You have painted some of the world's most famous and iconic faces, but have more images to contend with than ever – how does the culture of the selfie impact your work?

It is a great thing because it teaches people of all ages to be more sophisticated readers of portraiture. Although generated with camera phones rather than paint, the act of looking and capturing doesn’t change. We are more in-tune with each other than at any other time in history. We understand the vanity, and the complex play between what we reveal and what we decode about other people.

The Art Fund recently helped the National Portrait Gallery to acquire Van Dyck's final self-portrait. Do you have a personal opinion of the work?

It’s a fabulous, vivid and enjoyable painting with great energy and life. It gives a real sense of a living, breathing, if possibly over-confident personality. Van Dyck clearly knows his skill and is showing off in this painting. Self-portraits are a different genre to other kinds of portraiture, because it is how you see yourself rather than how the world sees you. So to see one of the greatest portrait painters of all time, at the top of his game and through his own eyes, is a special thing.

How do you compare self-portraiture to your process of working with a sitter? Is it more difficult?

It is easier in a way because you don’t have the sitter falling asleep halfway through! But it is harder to know if you are getting it right or not. The most useful part of a sitting for me is when I'm observing someone who is caught off guard. It is harder to have those moments with oneself as a subject.

Traditionally portraiture has been used as a political device –this is something you have reinterpreted in works such as Proportional Representation. Have politics and art always been entwined in your practice?

Not consciously, but I'm not afraid of politics or politicians. Having grown up around them, I see them in shades of grey, not black and white. I view their strengths and weaknesses as a performance, which helps me enable them to drop their guard. I'm also competing with sophisticated political cartoonists, but a portrait has to have a fundamental truth to it years later, so it forces one to be careful about what you are translating. That's not always easy with these very good actors.

You painted the first portrait of Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai in 2013, and recently auctioned off the work, with proceeds going to her charity. How did you go about conveying her story as both a human rights figurehead and an individual?

First and foremost it was about spending time with her. I went in not knowing more than anyone else. I didn’t know if I was going to find a fully formed political mind or a schoolgirl and it turned out to be a mixture of the two. She has a wisdom and serenity beyond her years, and a lack of bitterness towards her enemies that I hope comes through in the picture. These attributes will make her a powerful figure in years to come.

You currently have an exhibition at The Lowry in Salford, which shows several new works. Do you have a favourite piece in this show?

It has got several favourites from over the years. It's the first time I had seen many of these paintings in a room together, so this suggested great juxtapositions of images, such as the portrait of Tony Blair, and my first porn collage of George Bush, both made in 2007.

Jonathan Yeo – Portraits is at The Lowry, Salford, until 29 June, free to all.

Back to top