Artists in Shirts in Studios Conversations
Artists in Shirts in Studios: Charlie Schaffer
By Nathan Sharp
Jul 13, 2022
Last year, we visited BP Award-winning artist Charlie Schaffer in his Brighton studio, to discuss his unique approach to portraiture.
Photography by Kevin Davies.
Nathan Sharp, Drake's: What I want to ask you about first of all is your process – what are you doing when you sit down to paint?
Charlie Schaffer: Painting for me is entirely about the relationship, it’s very much about the process of painting. Once you actually finish a painting it’s just a massive anti-climax. I never know what it is I’m doing when I’m painting, I have no idea how to paint, I have no idea what it is I want to paint, I just know that I want to paint a person, and the actual act of painting is the thing that allows me to spend time with that person. If it weren’t for the fact that they were coming to sit for a painting, I would not be spending maybe 6 hours a week with that person in an intense fashion – kind of like this where you are in a room with no other distractions, you’re just sitting and talking to each other.
Inevitably if you sit someone down on a chair and you say, ‘Speak, tell me about your life,’ you end up being very open, they end up being very open, and you form a very intense, very specific bond. It’s kind of weird when you see sitters outside of the studio, because obviously in here it’s so open and so safe, and in the real world you don’t actually know how you’re meant to react with each other. But the paintings are always entirely directed by a relationship.
If someone sits for that long you inevitably see something, [and you] put it down: when they’re happy, when they’re sad, when they’re excited. All of these things physically dictate the mark you’re going to make. If they turn up late, and you’re a bit pissed off, you’re going to be putting down paint in a slightly different way, and all of that culminates in the final image.
NS: Is that what drew you to portraiture, then? Because art is typically seen as quite a solitary pursuit, but then portraiture is unique in that it’s a conversation.
CS: I basically only did art because I was contrary. I didn’t care about art in the slightest, til about final year of university. I grew up in north-west London in a Jewish family where [the expectation was] you become an accountant, or a lawyer, or a doctor, and you follow a specific route, and then you go to university and you marry the girl you met when you were 12, and you have kids and you settle down by the age of 30, and everything’s sorted. Strangely enough that didn’t appeal to me and I was just reacting against that and thought, ‘What can I do? Art seems fun. Let’s go to art school.’ When I actually got to university in Brighton, here, it was only in my third, final year that I did a painting, from life, that I actually connected to, which was a self-portrait. Then I started getting my friends to sit.
NS: You say it was quite late in your uni career that you started painting in earnest. What were you doing before then? When I look at your paintings it’s clear that you’ve got a lot of technical ability. Does it just come more naturally to you?
I’m very aware and dubious of the word, or the idea of natural in-born talent, you know? It’s more a disposition towards putting in the time and care for something. The technical side of things comes just from doing it all day, every day; reading lots of things. And technique should only ever be a means to an end, it should not be the thing in itself. Like I said, it’s the process that is what gives me that kind of feeling of worth or being – basically feeling alive, it’s a constant existential crisis. If the person is not there sitting and I’m not there painting, then do I even exist? That whole rabbit hole that you can easily get down.
My paintings now, I want them to be quiet, calm, peaceful, but more present than they’ve ever been, kind of spiritual, in a way. I’ve no idea what spirituality means to me yet, but I’m hopefully through painting kind of exploring it.
NS: So that’s what you’re in pursuit of, then, when you paint?
I decided to look into spirituality, because I want all my sitters to be emotionally and intellectually stimulated. And I never really acknowledged the spiritual side of things, because that’s just never been a part of my life. Although I grew up in a Jewish household, spirituality was the last thing that was ever spoken about
But I wanted to explore it, so I sent out an email to 40 vicars, priests, and rabbis, to see if anyone would just meet up and chat – preferably to sit for a painting, but no one did that. And the only people that got back in touch were rabbis: somehow I feel like they just knew I was Jewish, very strange [laughs]. And I started having lessons with a rabbi every Wednesday, thinking that to learn about spirituality it made sense to go to someone that has dedicated their whole life to, I suppose, a spiritual endeavour. Turns out it’s the worst place to go [laughs], because spirituality does not exist in organised religion. It might have been a starting point a long time ago, but it’s gone way beyond that. And I started to realise that for me the idea of spirituality, or a religious act, is [to follow] these certain sets of rules with such an extreme belief and faith, that if you follow those rules it will show you the answer, it will show you something more, it will lead you to something that you would otherwise never know, something beyond yourself. And I realise that’s what I do with painting: when I’m painting I very much, genuinely, fundamentally believe that if I concentrate and have faith in what I’m doing to such an extreme degree that at some point it will show you something. And every time you’re doing it there’s always this little glimmer, you know, you have this little glint of something, which is always fleeting and passes straight away, but that little glimmer is what keeps you coming back to it. And spirituality, I’ve come to the conclusion, is something within yourself that connects to something beyond the self, beyond the ego, to something greater than the self, and that gives you existence, in a way, and I mean existence in that existentialist way of feeling like you actually connect to the world
And that’s what I want to gain from my paintings. I want to see if that can now actually be reflected in my paintings. Fuck knows if it’s possible, and I have a strong feeling it’s not [laughs], but I’m willing to dedicate the next ten years of my life to trying.
NS: Are you starting to see [this quality] in the finished product?
CS: I started seeing it in the last painting of Imara [Imara in Her Winter Coat] – there was a slight glow in the face. What I want to do at the moment is I want to keep painting with such an extreme concentration and dedication that hopefully the face, the features of the face would just disintegrate and kind of ignite, or take flight, and you’d just be left with this glow, the thing-ness of a person, whatever it is. I really just want it to, I don’t know, emerge, submerge, disintegrate, ignite, all of these words, so you’re just left with, I don’t know, a shadow? It’s hard, language fails me when it comes to this. That’s why I’m a painter [laughs]! That’s the aim, anyway.
NS: Do you find that you’re able to keep pushing through these things, or are you meeting obstacles?
I think one always meets obstacles, I think that’s the importance of a routine. I could sit here and have theories but then if I didn’t have my routine there would be a day when I’d wake up and think, ‘Well, it was all bollocks.’ Whereas if you know you’re getting up at five in the morning, you’re painting a certain thing at this time. And when you have sitters coming that you book in on a Sunday, no matter what you’re feeling, you are painting, and you have to do it.
But the main thing is momentum – to constantly make sure you’re doing something, even if that’s just drawing, you know? Always make sure you’re doing something.
NS: What drew you to figurative art?
CS: It was mainly through seeing Auerbach, Kossoff, Freud, it was seeing that and seeing what can be done. Because you look at the difference between the three, it’s huge, and it’s all about paint, and it was me realising that Kossoff and Auerbach have painted the same sitters for the last 40 years, without fail, and Freud obviously painted many more people, but it was always about the relationship. They wanted to paint, and there was the game of painting, but it was about the experience of having someone there, of living, of being alive and having someone in front of you and trying to capture that in some way or another, and through trying to capture it it gives you the experience of trying to capture it, so it’s this thing that goes round and round.
And going and seeing things like Rembrandt, and it still being so potent and so alive, it makes me realise that I don’t really care about how the image ends up looking, I’m not painting a figurative thing because I want it to look like a person, it’s just for me that’s my route in. [Rembrandt’s work] has that spiritual sense that it’s got this inner life, this inner thing that connects to the viewer, so it must have this spirituality because you can connect to it. So figurative art, for me, is purely my way in, but I do not think it is the be-all and end-all and I don’t think it works for everyone at all. I love many other types of art as well – Rothko is one of my heroes – I think it’s just whatever allows you to connect to something beyond yourself, I guess, and for me that is figurative art.