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The portrait as society glue by Art & Soul

February 22, 2021 2 Comments

Art & Soul blogging logo for Stella Tooth artist

Just how integral figurative art has become to our lives in lockdown is shown by the response to a call by some of Britain’s best-known artists and institutions to turn our front windows into a gallery.

The Great Big Art Exhibition, inspired by last year’s NHS rainbow campaign, launched at the end of January and has already prompted thousands of responses around the country.

A gift to communities around the country

For residents of Ealing, where I have my home/studio, the national exhibition has become a source of joy when exercising, encompassing original art by children, amateur artists and professionals alike. 

And after a year of open studios which were unable to open, exhibitions which have had to be postponed, Christmas art markets that have had to close their doors early and galleries that have had to develop online counterparts, it’s a simple pleasure for professional artists like me - and some of my colleagues in Skylark Galleries and the Lots Road Group of portraitists - to show our art once again. 

Animals: first theme of The Great Big Art Exhibition

Running till the end of April, the national exhibition’s theme for the first two weeks was animals.  Sculptor Antony Gormley, who suggested it, asked everyone to let our imaginations run, beyond real animals to the imaginary if we wished.  Judging by the artworks that have appeared in instagram under #thegreatbigartexhibition it was a thought that many children gleefully embraced.

Portraits look out from windows around Britain

And now, the theme, courtesy of Sonia Boyce who will be representing Great Britain in the next Venice biennale, has changed to portraits.  I find it moving, passing windows where I live with drawn and painted faces looking out.   Some speak of the miseries of lockdown - the yearning for face-to-face interaction with friends and family.  Others, literally, present a happy face to the world - a toothy grin, an ear-to-ear smile - or eyes that connect with ours.  Happy or sad, I'm drawn to these faces - which I note, almost with a start, are so often unmasked - unlike those in last year’s #portraitsfornhsheros initiative.  

The portrait that stares out from my own window until 28 February is one of musician Paul Kissaun who entertained the neighbours in his cul-de-sac during the first lockdown for half and hour every Friday night for 15 weeks.  He shared his performance online on socially distanced fest, allowing others to enjoy remote viewing of his socially distanced gig.

Stella Tooth's portrait of musician Paul Kissaun for the #GreatBigArtExhibition
Paul Kissaun lockdown musician oils on canvas by artist Stella Tooth

Facial recognition develops early

Our brain is hardwired to respond to faces. From the moment we are born, we seek faces out, desperate to look at them. Face recognition develops early, with emotion recognition giving us important clues about how others are feeling and reacting to ongoing events.  

Portraits: from the pocket ... to windows nationwide... and to your walls

Such is the power of human face in our lives that from the 16th century, the portrait miniature was developed as a portable way to record the appearance of someone in realistic colour. Growing national wealth in the 18th century encouraged the market for such portraits, offering clients keepsakes of their loved ones. Miniatures were created by amateurs as well as professionals but those that looked like oil paintings involved painstaking work that few could afford.  The advent of photography in 1839 changed all that, providing a wider public with affordable, accurate likenesses.  With today’s mobile phones you can have a whole gallery of portraits in your pocket. 

And yet, painted and drawn portraits have always been more than just a record. They have been used to show the power, importance, beauty, virtue, taste, wealth or other qualities or emotion of the sitter.  And this is why this unifying celebration of national portraiture - which can be viewed safely from outdoors - has such power at a time when we miss human connection.

The Great Big Art Exhibition, which runs until the end of April, shows that everyone can be involved in creativity - and its therapeutic value is well-known.  But it also shows the power of British figurative art - and portraiture in particular - to reconnect us with each other.

If you are interesting in commissioning affordable art - a portrait to record a life lived during these extraordinary times, or a posthumous portrait of a loved one lost, do click here to discover the process involved and how much it will cost.  Both Claire Thorogood and myself take drawn and painted portrait commissions.  And Vivien Phelan takes 3D portrait commissions with a humorous twist.

Pat Malkin posthumous commission pencil on paper by Stella Tooth

Pat Malkin pencil on paper posthumous commission by Stella Tooth

Sea glass 2 by Linda Samson

Sea glass 2 by Linda Samson

Cheeky by Claire Thorogood

Cheeky portrait commission by Claire Thorogood

She never forgets ceramic by Vivien Phelan

She never forgets by Vivien Phelan

Art & Soul blogger Stella Tooth

2 Responses


February 23, 2021

Such an interesting read and so insightful about how art is therapeutic and has the ability to connect and uplift people.

Amanda G
Amanda G

February 23, 2021

What a fantastic idea The Great Big Art Exhibition is! A really interesting article and I am so impressed by your portrait of Paul Kissaun, particularly how you’ve captured that velvet!

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