Emma Towers-Evans was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work Matriarch–an intimate, detailed portrait of the artist’s grandmother at 90 years old. Here, Emma talks about her definition of hyperrealism, the qualities of graphite and the making of time-lapse videos of her drawing process.
Above image: Melody, 2018, Emma Towers-Evans, Graphite pencil and black pencil (carbon graphite mix) with white pastel highlights on Bristol Board paper, 41 x 41 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Emma: I have been drawing for as long as I can remember. As a child, I was obsessed with animals and spent a lot of time drawing them–both copying photos and drawings from books and then trying to draw them from memory. I spent a lot of time exploring different media: Acrylic, oils, watercolour, pastel, charcoal, embroidery, the list goes on! This developed into an interest in drawing people; first family members and then musicians and actors.
Growing up, I didn’t have any formal art training, but I did spend a lot of time playing music (piano, violin, singing) and ended up studying at Birmingham Junior Conservatoire. This formal music study influenced my approach to drawing – I began to pastiche artworks I admired, breaking them down and trying to find different techniques to achieve similar effects.
I continued my musical studies at university, but never stopped drawing for enjoyment. At this stage I really began focussing on monochrome media (often charcoal) and portraits of humans. I would draw portraits for friends and family to help fund my studies. With each portrait I’d try and achieve a higher level of realism, finding different techniques along the way.
In 2017 I studied under the hyperrealist Dirk Dzimirsky to hone my hyperreal technique in pencil. Since then I’ve continued to refine my approach, developing techniques particularly relevant to rendering textures specific to animals as well as people. I still aim to learn something from each and every portrait.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Emma: Once I’ve had an idea for a piece, it begins with photographs – many, many photographs! The lighting is hugely important in creating the right mood and the facial expression is paramount, so I end up taking many photos of the subject to get exactly what I’m after. I often combine photos (particularly with animals) to create the exact effect I desire. At this point I consider the tonal palette of the piece, how light or dark I want the portrait to be, and what level of contrast suits it best. I explore this digitally until I find something that works.
Next I move on to the physical media. I decide on a paper. More textured paper may work better for pieces which require large areas of consistent tone, whereas a smoother paper is better for detailed work. I generally always use the same kinds of pencils; a combination of Faber-Castell 9000 series, Staedtler Lumograph and Staedtler Lumograph Black (a carbon graphite blend). Once all this is decided, the drawing begins!
I start by plotting my outline and often adjust proportions of the subject to alter the mood of the portrait. Then I work the block tones into the paper – shading and blending large areas to create the base tones and a smooth texture to build on. This is often the most time-consuming part of a work, but is critical to the realism of the final result. Getting this step wrong results in distorted, sometimes creepy portraits! I sometimes complete the background at this stage too, which can also be very time consuming, particularly on smooth papers. With my portrait Hunter Hunted I spent hours and hours refining the background to get it consistent – a real mental battle.
Finally I build up the detail, generally in several layers. Each layer gets more high contrast and sharper. The exact order in which I complete the portrait is decided before I begin, as it has a huge impact on my time-lapse videos. I consider the time-lapse videos a performance of the artwork being created, so the order of my drawing process is really important to me.
Clare: The time-lapse videos that you make of your drawing process are such an interesting part of your practice. Can you tell us about how you make these? How does being able to look back at the development of your work affect your practice?
Emma: Thank you! I see them as equally important as the final portrait – a piece of art in their own right.
I create each video from hundreds, sometimes thousands of photos, taken throughout the drawing process. My time-lapses are ‘hand free’ so the viewer can see the portrait come together without the distraction of my hand/arm flying about the screen. This gives a sense of the portrait creating itself.
Once I’ve completed the portrait, a great amount of post-production goes into making the videos as seamless as possible. It’s very easy for this type of video to be juddery and/or change perspective from frame to frame, which for me detracts from the viewing experience. I also write the music that I set the time-lapses to, giving me full control of the atmosphere.
Watching back my time-lapses allows me to see where I changed my mind – I can see where I have gone back over something, making adjustments to alter something I didn’t like or to make corrections. Being able to reflect like this can refine the process for my next portrait. It’s also interesting to see a portrait at various sizes – when viewed on a phone screen, different things jump out at you compared to when it’s filling your entire field of vision on the wall in front of you!
Clare: Can you talk about what elements or techniques elevate a portrait beyond realistic to become hyperrealistic? What techniques do you employ to make your work hyperreal?
Emma: Drawings can look realistic in a range of forms, so long as the proportions are close enough to reality and the impression of light and dark mirrors the behaviour of light on a subject. At the other end of the realistic scale you have photorealism, which results in a piece indistinguishable from a photo (which in my case would feel fairly futile given that I start from a photo!).
To me, hyperrealism uses the rendering techniques employed in photorealism, but augments the proportions and the behaviour of the light enough to create character that was not there in the photo, but not so much as to stop it from being convincingly realistic. This might be increasing the size of the eyes to draw your attention there first, or deepening the pores to make someone seem more ‘weathered’. It also involves a lot of rendering of textures in a greater level of detail than might be present in the original photograph – a lot of interpolation.
The best descriptor of my approach I’ve found is 2D sculpting. Building up the piece in layers is crucial. The first layers of tone create a smooth figure, but the proportions should feel correct even at this stage – like a smooth block of marble. Then, with each layer I use light and dark to turn elements of the subject towards or away from the light source and create texture. Each layer ‘chips’ into the smooth of the earlier layers helping it to jump off of the paper and come to life.
Clare: Where do your subjects come from? Are they people you know? Do you work from photographs? And if so, do you go undertake many preliminary sketches before you start the final piece?
Emma: Unless I’m drawing a commission, my subjects have always been people I’ve known – friends and family. I wanted to document each generation of women in my family, so I have drawn my grandmother, mother, myself and my sister. I’m looking to expand the pool of people I draw further.
I always work from photographs – it can take 50 hours to complete a portrait and I’m yet to find someone who can sit still for that long! I would love to find a way to create hyperreal works from sitting models in the future, as I think this would be really exciting!
I sometimes sketch my ideas when I’m conceiving a portrait, to help plan for the photoshoot. Once I have photographs the remainder of my preparation is digital. I experiment with tone, composition and contrast in Photoshop. I find this allows me to quickly explore parameters in a way that I couldn’t do on paper.
Clare: What can you tell us about your monochrome palette? Why do you choose to work this way and how does this inform your work?
Emma: Something about the monochrome palette feels timeless, or more specifically impossible to place in time. When you strip the dimension of colour from an image, it feels unfamiliar or other-worldly making it hard to place. When you look at an old black and white photograph, you are looking back into another world. For me, graphite achieves this same effect.
As a medium, graphite has some unique qualities – the way it blends, the ability to erase it, and different hardnesses of pencil being available – allowing for very intricate work. Of course it is monochrome by nature, which might be considered a limitation, but I find having limitations greatly aids my creativity.
Beyond this, much of my work is seen online on social media platforms such as Instagram – a place bursting with colour everywhere you look. If you can capture someone’s attention with no colour whatsoever, it feels like a real achievement.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Emma: There are few tools I love more than my cameras and lenses – a Pentax ME Super, Canon 70D, and Sony A7, plus a selection of prime and zoom lenses. I spend as much time photographing people and animals as I do drawing them. My reference photos are such a critical part of the process and some of my drawings have been born from unplanned photographs, such as my drawing Embrace. This drawing was derived from a few quick photos I took of a pair of lemurs I encountered at a wildlife park. I saw them cuddled up together, looking scared and curious at the same time, quickly photographed them, and came across the pictures months later. As soon as I saw them I knew I would have to create a drawing from them.
My helical sharpener is incredibly useful in sharpening pencils to specific levels of sharpness. Only in the later stages of the drawing do I want a sharp point. Before this, a semi-blunt pencil is ideal and this sharpener can give me this result. I also always wear a pair of fingerless gloves to stop me from smudging the graphite. I have a few pairs all handmade by my Mum, so of course they are a favourite!
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Emma: Critically, lockdown has made it nearly impossible to get new photographs. As a result, I’ve spent time going through old photographs and have found some gems. My drawing of Anna for instance, was from reference photos taken over a year prior to me creating the drawing in April. I hadn’t had the time to sit down and create this piece as I knew it would be a time-consuming one – I wanted it to be big.
After drawing Anna, I’ve drawn more larger works that I don’t think I’d have given myself time for had we not been on lockdown.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Emma: I love the drawings of Leonardo Da-Vinci, which first captivated me in my early teens. His work, along with the work of M. C. Escher, encouraged me to move towards drawing monochrome media.
There are many contemporary artists whom I admire. It goes without saying that I draw a lot of influence from Dirk Dzimirsky, who’s work I have followed and studied for many years. There are few pencil artists whose works surpass Dirk’s, and he uses light to great effect to create dreamy and somewhat eerie atmospheres. Dennis Wojtkiewicz’s paintings of illuminated fruit are captivating, and often make me think how I could be changing the perspective of my pieces, and use light to greater effect. I also love David Yarrow’s high-contrast wildlife photos, often shot on prime lenses. They have a level of intimacy with the subject that I haven’t seen in any other wildlife photography. I often try to recreate this ‘almost too-close-for-comfort’ atmosphere in my pieces.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Emma: A good day in the studio for me always involves listening to something – albums, podcasts or audio books. It’s a good day when the thing I chose to listen to pairs well with my mood and lets me get into a real flow state – it can be hard to get into a piece at the beginning of the day because of the level of detail/focus.
Because I am constantly photographing my work as I go, I black out the room entirely, so it helps when it’s not too sunny outside, otherwise I feel like I’m missing out.
Mostly importantly, it’s a good day when my two cats (my helpful studio assistants) aren’t constantly pawing at me for attention!
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Emma: I want to use my artwork to help causes that I care about – particularly environmental and animal conservation. I’ve just launched a print run in association with the Born Free Foundation and plan on working with them and others in the near future to help raise funds for charitable causes.
Because of the uncertainty around COVID, I don’t have any plans to exhibit my work any time soon but you view (and acquire!) my completed works on my website eteportraits.com and you can see my works come together on my Instagram @eteportraits.