There’s No Such Thing As A Boring Face.
Both serious and smirk, London-based artist Wilfrid Wood renders facial expressions in a relentless quest to trespass the superficial and reveal what lies within us. Many of his characterizations, including those of babies and dogs, have a protruding nose that takes centre stage, a significant laughter exposing gums that are pulling away from their teeth, and a pair of watery eyes that do as much talking as their neighbouring mouth. No wonder that Wood coincides with artist John Singer Sargent in his description of a portrait as a likeness in which there is something wrong with this oral cavity. Attracted by “the fruity combination of how people look and how they act”, the artist’s delineations personify peculiar personality quirks such as exhaustion, loudness, or stubbornness by means of loose lines that outshine mere physical resemblance. Having been raised in a family of illustrators, Wood began drawing at an early age but soon found a distinctive voice by incorporating sculpture into his practice. His intergenerational individuals are created from either reference photographs or live sessions using just one material of choice: clay, charcoal, pencil, plasticine or watercolour. In his real-time responses, Wood relishes the personal connection held with the sitter, and gives equal importance to those known or unknown. When asked about the driving force behind his depictions, his reply turns out to be as honest as his art: he is moved by a desire to execute worthwhile work, and not a “half-arsed” one. Making each one look nothing like everyone, the artist proves that there’s no such thing as a boring face.
Having approached sculpting during your former job as a head builder for the TV programme Spitting Image, you have delineated celebrities since. Did you become gripped by cartoon drawing and social commentary during this period? Have you continued to depict public figures with a satirical angle since?
I dip my toes into satire, but it’s not my main thing. I’m not very political or radical. What I’m interested in is the fruity combination of how people look and how they act. It’s more about individuals than the behaviour of groups. I don’t follow the tendency to think anyone in power is an idiot. I’m relieved I don’t have to make all those impossible decisions.
Did growing up in a family of illustrators prompt your inclination towards this profession? By transitioning to sculpture, did you find the possibility to distinguish yourself from your predecessors?
Exactly right. There are pros and cons to working at the same thing as your Mum and Dad. In my youth the key problem was finding a distinctive voice, and since no one in my family was a sculptor, I eventually chose that, just to be different.
Growing up in Sussex, you relocated to London to study Graphics at Central Saint Martins. Did this move to a highly populated and multicultural city increase the variety of models you had access to portray?
Yes, definitely. The variety of faces in London is a constant source of inspiration.
Your show “Dogs”, which took place in 2016 at Beach Gallery in London, gathered your canine illustrations, an animal that you have continued to examine. With optimistic smiles and guilty eyes, is it your objective to give these pets a human-like appearance?
My stuff is all about characters and what could be more characterful than dogs? Big, small, aggressive, pathetic, funny and frightening, every doggy type has a human equivalent.
Your book “Drawings of my BF” published in 2019 comprises a series of sketches of your partner Theo, one of the few subjects you have repeatedly sketched. Does establishing a close bond with a sitter and going back to them frequently enable you a greater freedom to experiment?
Drawing one very patient person hundreds of times loosened me up and enabled experimentation. I want to be as free as possible when drawing. I use cheap materials and don’t want to worry about what the model will think. Theo seems to actively enjoy being depicted in distorted ways, and I never felt anxious that I might upset him with an unfavourable drawing. I owe him a lot.
Your Instagram posts showcase pieces that have been sold or are not yet for sale. Bearing in mind that the social platform frequently serves as a tool to encourage purchases, why have you discarded its habitually commercial function?
In fact, lots of the work I show on Instagram is for sale! I’m not as pure as you thought.
Having explored a range of techniques including drawing, sculpture and watercolour, is there a reason for not having combined these in a single piece or exhibited them all together in solo shows?
I’m not very excited about ‘multimedia’ type work; it usually feels like the artist is avoiding simplicity with fancy technique. I’d rather the viewer thought about who I’ve depicted, rather than how I’ve depicted them.
Over the years you have spoken widely about your practice. Did you develop the ideas exposed during these interviews in parallel to your creations, or matured them later on? With your work not seeming conceptually-led, what would you say is your predominant motivation to make?
Interviews can be quite useful in that they force you to explain yourself to others, and sometimes to yourself. My driving energy to work hard is a permanently nervous feeling that I’m not worthy and that this is my last opportunity to do something worthwhile. I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life doing half-arsed work.
Is it your intention to render those with a broad public recognition, namely musicians ABBA or David Bowie, in a novel way? How does it differ to illustrate well-known icons from that of anonymous individuals?
I usually attempt to present a slightly unusual slant on famous people. Doing celebs is distinct from ‘ordinary’ people in that they are by definition public figures; they’re generally seeking to be looked at. With them I feel I have more licence to be provocative to some degree. Anonymous individuals have come to my home and given me their time, so I am liable to be more tender with them.
Is there a correspondence between the way in which you represent well known characters and what you mean to convey about them? To reinforce personality traits, do you resort to the core aspects of caricature, such as exaggerated facial gestures?
It’s quite rare that I set out to make someone look ridiculous because I don’t like them, except Madonna. In the same way I try not to flatter people I like. I aim to look at people fairly equally – as other humans who exhibit the foibles and peculiarities that we all suffer from.
What satisfies and frustrates you the most about the opposed substances that you work with, which range from the impermanence of plasticine to the durability of polymer clay?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten lazier and more impatient, so I’ve shifted from awkward and slow polymer clay to immediate and trouble-free plasticine.
In your explicit studies of masculine genitals, do you mean to inspect male identity, sexuality or vulnerability? Have you ever felt a pressure to censor any explicit content?
Cocks are one of life’s greatest joys, so I’d hate not to include them as much as possible. But I don’t think about things like ‘male identity’ when I’m working, that’s the kind of language curators use afterwards.
What differences can you signal between drawing and sculpting? Do these techniques complement each other? Is there one that grants you greater liberty when capturing someone?
When I get bored of sculpting, I switch to drawing and vice versa. I normally sculpt from photos and draw from life. The good thing about the first is that I don’t have to worry about the model being tired or uncomfortable, but I relish the direct human connection when drawing from life. Ultimately, with both 2d and 3d, I’m striving to get past a superficial resemblance and into the realm of what the person is actually like.
Can you guide us through the process of taking up new sitters? Are you aware of their physical appearance beforehand? Is there a common trait shared by all of them?
Often, I don’t know what someone looks like in advance. Sometimes a fantastic looking fashion model walks through the door and I do a crap drawing of them. Sometimes a stodgy looking lump of dough walks through the door and I do a drawing we both love. I think the success of a drawing has got more to do with my rapport with the model, or lack of it. We both enter into a strange dream zone where time becomes elastic and phones are off. I do my best to make the sitter as comfortable as possible before staring at them for a couple of hours, and asking them to stare at me in return. Some people can’t bear eye contact. I have to keep nudging them back, saying “please look at me…”
Are your compositions prepared with a particular audience in mind? Does being aware of your own spectators affect your visual results?
My principal audience is Instagram. I have to beware the temptation of repeating my greatest hits in order to get likes. But this is hardly a new issue. Artists have consistently had to be careful of falling into repetitive crowd-pleasing ruts, although artist Damien Hirst apparently doesn’t care.
What has caused you to recently probe into watercolours? Would you be attracted to trying out any other paths, perhaps on digital mediums?
I’m using paint because I’ve injured my arm with too much hard drawing. The iPad is great, but my drawings always end up looking like bad artworks by David Hockney.
You have lately uploaded your own portraits of babies on Instagram, commenting on your appreciation for them in art. Given their unshaped personality and alike appearance, commonly with bald heads, chubby legs and innocent smiles, do you consider reacting to a new born to be stimulating?
Babies are cute, funny and frightening and almost as good a subject as dogs.
By contrast, you have also mentioned an increasing fascination in older generations. Do you plan to continue portraying elders? Has this curiosity been brought about by your own ageing?
It’s difficult to get old people to sit for me, but if there are any out there that feel inclined, please send me a message! I don’t think getting older myself has made much difference. I just want to draw a variety of people.
Your commissions seem to bear little differences with your personal production. Do your methods vary between when one perspective or the other? After designing the BEEF! card game, do you have any other collaboration in mind?
If you do and show the sort of work you want to make, then the chances are you’ll get commissioned to create similar stuff. I like jobs because as an artist it’s all too easy to stick to what you know. Someone inviting you to do something new can open up possibilities. Beef wasn’t really a collaboration; it was all me!
Words by Vanessa Murrell