Race: painters and the people they paint

This post includes very simplistic terminology in regard to race and ethnicity (“black”, “white”, “non-white”). These categories are problematic to be sure, but for now they seem to be the simplest way for me to talk broadly about the topic of race (another troublesome word) in connection to contemporary figurative paintings, and the painters who paint them.

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1601?? Black Profile (2016) oil on paper 24 x 18.7cm

When I began this painting I was imagining my own profile in silhouette. Then I saw that it looked more like a black man, and I completed it that way. I like it. However, as a white man, I feel self-conscious about painting an image of a non-white person.

Painting is different from photography. Photographic portraits are sometimes misleading, but they are at least a document of a real person at a given moment, and often that person has some control over how they present themselves. In painting, it’s possible to depict any type of person in any way, with no collaboration involved. That freedom comes with responsibility. If an image of a person is taken to represent a larger group then all sorts of messages can be interpreted and attributed to the painter. For white painters, there are difficult questions in regard to the complex and troubled history of white representations of non-white people. Thinking about this made me consider contemporary figurative painting in terms of how painters represent themselves and other people.

Out of curiosity, I’ve made a superficial and completely unscientific study of who is painting who in contemporary art. My sources are two survey books:

100+ painters surveyed in Painting Today (“The definitive guide to the last 40 years of international contemporary painting”) (2009);

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And 115 painters surveyed in Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting (2011).

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(The ethnicity of the authors, editors and publishers of these books is a whole other question, also the gallerists, collectors, critics, etc)

The paintings in these books contain a lot of images of people. Some of them aren’t identifiable as any particular race, ethnicity or nationality (ie. because they’re green, have no face, etc.). Putting those aside, I counted approximately 794 images of people who I felt could be grouped, by appearance, into three very broad and imperfect categories: white, black, and Asian.

Of that total:

67% were images of white people painted by white artists
18% were images of Asian people painted by Asian artists
9% were images of black people painted by black artists

3% were images of white people painted by black artists
2% were images of black people painted by white artists
1% were other combinations

What’s striking to me is that 95% of this sample are made up of artists painting people of their own ethnicity. Of course, they’re entitled to paint whatever they want, but I can’t help feeling a little sad that among these painters, collectively, there seems to be very little interest in painting people who are racially or ethnically different to themselves. Many of them are based in multi-cultural cities with diverse populations, but this isn’t reflected in their pictures. How come?

It also becomes evident that, proportionately, the black painters are ten times more likely to paint white people than the white painters are to paint black people. Why?

Other questions:
Do painters not feel entitled or able to create images (or “representations”) of people whose race or ethnicity is different to their own?
Do we have a special interest in painting people of our own ethnicity?
When we paint people who look similar to our own colour, race, or ethnicity, are we in some way making self-portraits? What does that say about the way we see our selves in relation to others, and Others?
When we look at figurative painting, what role does “race” play in the way we think about the people we’re looking at (or the person who painted them)?

While collecting the data for my “study”, there were a few paintings that defied categorisation in interesting ways. Nina Chanel Abney’s figures appear to be composed of mismatched parts: a white body with a black head; a black face with a white nose and mouth. This could be a depiction of the skin condition vitiligo, but seems more like a deliberate strategy to derail assumptions about the people and scenarios that Abney is presenting. Gender signifiers are also scrambled.

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Nina Chanel Abney Beauty in the Beast (2009) acrylic on canvas 139 x 169.5cm

Most of the figures in Khalif Kelly’s paintings are identifiably African-American, but in some paintings the candy-colours he uses are so far from any human skin tone or hair colour that I find myself unsure whether I’m interpreting the ethnicity of the figures based on their appearance, or on my knowledge of other works by Kelly, or on the fact that Kelly himself is African-American.

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Khalif Kelly Threshold (2009) oil on canvas 198 x 228.5cm

All the thoughts and questions in this post are open-ended. I’ll be returning to this subject for sure.

Cherry on top

Thinking about the different roles paintings can play in life. I’ve known this painting for years, and although I’m a little queasy about Koons, this painting has a special place in one of my neural pathways. I often eat cherries with yoghurt, and literally every time I put the cherries on top I make them look a bit like this, and think about how delicious it looks in the painting, and how happy I am to be eating something similar.

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Jeff Koons Loopy (1999) 274.3 x 200.7cm

I’ve tagged this post “associative pleasure” because I think there’ll be more posts in future about this aspect of painting: images that evoke pleasures other than simply visual. I’m thinking of Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of desserts, or really any painting of appetising food, or a person that is physically attractive, a space that would be pleasurable to inhabit, etc.

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Wayne Thiebaud Pies, Pies, Pies (1961) oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2cm

Colour and depth

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Lisa Yuskavage Outskirts (2011) oil on linen 218.4 x 304.8cm

In the middle section of Outskirts, and in several other paintings, Lisa Yuskavage creates depth and hazy light by putting a visible light source in the background (in Outskirts, a low sun) and silhouetting objects in the middle and foreground (trees and a hill on the right, the back-to-back children in the centre, the kneeling girl on the left). Distant objects show as lighter silhouettes and closer objects as darker – but still richly coloured – silhouettes, all in the Green-Yellow-Orange-Red-ish part of the colour wheel.

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Lisa Yuskavage Outskirts [Detail] (2011) oil on linen 218.4 x 304.8cm

I thought this might be a fun effect to try painting, creating silhoue from my imagination. I was also thinking of this painting by van Gogh, and of Josef Alber’s studies of colour (something I definitely want to learn more about).

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Vincent van Gogh The Old Tower in the Fields (1884) oil on canvas on cardboard 35 x 47cm

Study for Homage to the Square: Departing in Yellow 1964 by Josef Albers 1888-1976

Josef Albers Study for Homage to the Square: Departing in Yellow (1964) oil on fibreboard 76.2 x 76.2cm

My idea was to try for a similar kind of depth, but using colour very simply, mostly straight from the tube, differentiating depth by working round part of the colour wheel (Purple – Red – Orange – Yellow) from front-to-back (foreground – middle ground – background) using the colour’s natural tendency for yellow to be lighter and red / purple to be darker. I think the sun is Lemon Yellow Hue or Chrome Yellow Hue, the sky definitely has Cadmium Yellow Hue in it, the middle ground figure is Cadmium Red Hue and I don’t remember how I mixed the murky colour of the spade and mound in the foreground, but it isn’t the purple I originally had in mind.

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160719a (2016) oil on paper 24.5 x 35.5cm

As a first effort, it’s effective enough to keep me interested in experimenting more. I invented the contents of the picture as I went along, and on reflection I’m surprised by how much narrative seems embedded in this combination of arbitrary objects.

In Yuskavage’s Outskirts an unseen light source, whiter than the sun and coming from the right, illuminates the upright figure in the foreground left. Parts of her hair, cardigan, torso, socks and surrounding flowers are not silhouetted nor reduced to the ambient background colours of Green – Yellow – Orange – Red-ish, but are modelled and show their own colours, including white, blue and cooler pinks (I’m winging this, so forgive me if my colour-blindness is causing me to see things differently from you).

I tried making another painting, this time with a visible blue light source in the foreground and a yellow sun in the background, so that front-to-back the colours went round the colour wheel, Blue – Purple – Red – Orange – Yellow. This effect didn’t really come off, but it’s close enough to encourage me to try similar exercises in future.

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160719b (2016) oil on paper 24.5 x 35.5cm

Then today I saw this back-lit Vuillard, with a wonderful use of Pink – Orange – Yellow in the same configuration. Definitely there is more to explore in this.

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Edouard Vuillard Elegant Lady (1891-92) oil on cardboard 28.4 x 15.3cm

New material: oil bars

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Trying out oil bars. I like the idea of being able to draw alongside the paint with a material that is essentially but in a different consistency. This is my first go with them, using them like big crayons and drawing over a page that was already covered in paint (dried).

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160726a (2016) oil on paper 25.5 x 35.5cm

So far the marks are reminding me of paintings by Basquiat, Condo and Mark Grotjahn.

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Jean Michel Basquiat Untitled (1982) acrylic and mixed techniques on canvas 207 x 176cm

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George Condo Double Heads on Red (2014) acrylic, metallic paint, charcoal and pastel on linen 198.1 x 279.4cm

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Mark Grotjahn Untitled (Black Over Red Orange “Mean as a Snake” Face 842) (2009-10) oil on cardboard mounted on linen

Paul McCarthy: Painter

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Paul McCarthy Painter [still from performance/installation] (1995)

Someone has uploaded the full 50 minute video from Paul McCarthy’s 1995 performance/installation Painter

This is Ulrike Groos’ description of Painter1.

“The video sketches a stereotype of the artist genius as a backward, behaviourally-disturbed, infantile eccentric incapable of normal human interaction, who disregards norms and rules since his only means of expression is in the obsessive, impulsive pursuit of his art.”

As an aside: Painting has subsequently become a part of McCarthy’s practice, separate but related to his performance and installation work. Here’s an example.

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Paul McCarthy ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ (Déjeuner sur l’herbs) (2014) acrylic paint, collage and soft toys on panel with gessoed canvas 243.8 x 335.3 x 8.9cm

Back in the 1995 performance, McCarthy’s painter chants, “de Kooning, de Kooning” as if hoping to channel something (genius? critical success? a place in the canon?) from the late Abstract Expressionist. While not quite pastiche, the paintings produced during McCarthy’s performance bare some resemblance to some of de Kooning’s work.

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Willem de Kooning Villa Borghese (1960) oil on canvas 203 x 178cm

The closest I’ve come to this kind of gestural abstraction was last year, doing an exercise from Wendy Ann Greenhalgh’s book Mindfulness & the Art of Drawing2 (in retrospect, this exercise also kicked off my interest in automatism). She suggests drawing with eyes closed, for between 10 – 20 minutes, on a “piece of paper … securely attached with masking tape to the floor, wall or table”:

“… with your eyes closed, you’re going to draw with your awareness on your whole body as you make marks. Drawing on a large scale will assist you in this, as drawing from one side of the paper to the other will require shifts in weight, movement of legs, back etc.”

I tried with acrylic paint and this was one of my results.

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1512?? (2015) acrylic on cardboard 44.5 x 63.5cm

McCarthy’s Painter features a scene (at 34:36) with two art collectors describing their collecting history, which progresses chronologically from Constructivist El Lissitzky (1890 – 1941) and Abstract Expressionist / Colour Field painter Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970), through to Sigmar Polke (1941 – 2010), Markus Lüpertz(b. 1941) and (occasional McCarthy collaborator) Mike Kelley (1954 – 2012). It’s a stereotypically on-trend collection for the time, but also offers some context for the paintings made by McCarthy’s character.

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El Lissitzky Proun 30-T (1920) oil on canvas 50 x 62cm

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Mark Rothko No.36 (Black Stripe) (1958) oil on canvas 157.1 x 170.1cm

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Sigmar Polke Laterna Magica (1988-96) artificial resin, lacquer, paint on transparent polyester fabric, verso/rector 134 × 154cm

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Markus Luepertz Donald Ducks Heimkehr (1963) oil on canvas 205.7 x 205.7cm

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Mike Kelley The Thirteen Seasons (Heavy on the Winter) #10: The Decay of Year End (1994) acrylic on wood panel 158.8 x 101.6cm


  1. Ulrike Groos, ‘Painter’, in Paul McCarthy: Videos 1970-1997, ed. Yilmaz Dziewior (Hamburg: Kunstverein in Hamburg/Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koenig, 2003) p.145-6 
  2. Wendy Ann Greenhalgh Mindfulness & the Art of Drawing: A Creative Path to Awareness (Leaping Hare Press, 2015) p.32 

The evil eye

I began oil painting in January 2016. For the first six months I painted only in black and white. This picture is from that time.

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1601?? Foot and Eye (2016) oil on paper 17.5 x 28.2cm

When my friend saw this he said, “I like the evil eye”. Until then, I hadn’t noticed that the brush strokes in the middle look like an angry eye, staring malignly at the viewer through a hole in the paint (unintentional figuration again).

This reminded me how the mind seeks out facial features in forms that bare only a passing resemblance, like this water draining from a sink.

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Untitled (2013) Liamm / Reddit

The unintentional “evil eye” in my picture also reminded me of the furious eyes that appear so frequently in George Condo’s paintings, often peeping through radically reconfigured facial architecture. Of all the eyes in Condo’s work, my favourite is the one on the left in The Puerto Rican (2009).

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George Condo The Puerto Rican (2009) oil on linen 165.1 x 165.1cm

Condo uses the phrase “psychological cubism” to describe how his paintings of faces present not only multiple angles, but multiple psychological facets.  In The Puerto Rican, the right eye fixes us with a tense almost apologetic grin, but the left reveals something more menacing. Rendered in disparate economical marks, it glares manically, two dark arches acting as a doubled frowning brow, jaw gaping with small teeth, seemingly motion-blurred, suggesting predatory movement. As a portrait of barely repressed (partially obscured) psychosis, it has a kinship with Francis Bacon’s screaming popes.

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Francis Bacon Study after Velazquez (1950) oil on canvas 198 x 137.2cm

William Eggleston’s portraits

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William Eggleston Untitled (Boy in red sweater) (1971) dye transfer print 31.8 x 45.4cm

This is currently on display in an exhibition of William Eggleston’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London. The dye transfer colour prints are worth seeing in the flesh if you get the chance.

By coincidence, I painted this similar scene yesterday. It came out of the complimentary colour exercises.

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160725a Red Jacket (2016) oil on canvas 29 x 22cm

Derain’s colour

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160724d (2016) oil on canvas 31 x 32cm

Still experimenting with complementaries, now in a less structured way than with the colour wheels. I was never attracted to Fauvism before, but doing these exercises has made me look again. I like how doing painting is changing the way I look at painting.

Today I’m especially digging André Derain’s paintings of London. One-hundred-and-ten years old and still looks fresh as f@#k.

André Derain - Barges on the Thames

André Derain Barges on the Thames (1906) oil on canvas (anyone know the dimensions? let me know)

James Kalm’s video reports

James Kalm is a New York based art vlogger. He makes regular video reports from current exhibitions, usually of modern and contemporary painting. His YouTube channels (James Kalm report and James Kalm Rough Cut) are a great archive of what’s been showing since 2006.

James (aka. Loren Monk) is also a painter himself, with a real passion for New York’s artist community, past and present. Here’s a recent video report from a show of Asger Jorn paintings.

At 16:32, the painting titled Animaux anime reminds me (a bit) of the brightly coloured, child-like “landscape” I painted last week.

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Asger Jorn Animaux animé(s) (1944/46) oil on canvas 74 x 99cm