Interview: Portrait Artist Martyn Burdon

Martyn Burdon is a BP Portrait Award nominated artist who he lives and works in Buckinghamshire, UK.

A member of the Contemporary British Portrait Painters (CBPP), Martyn was selected for the BP Portrait Award in 2017 & 2020, with his work exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Having produced portraits of a number of famous faces, including Sir Lenny Henry, Matt Berry and Sue Perkins, Martyn is known for his naturalistic, precise depictions that capture the emotions and personality of his subjects. Imbued with an incredibly lifelike quality, his work combines candour with a sense of heartfelt respect for his sitters. 

Martyn recently acted as one of the main organisers for the CBPP’s 2022 exhibition at The Department Store, Brixton. A virtual tour of the exhibition – produced by The Net Gallery – is available to view now, here.

We caught up with Martyn to learn more about some of the work he presented in Brixton, as well as his wider practice. 

Lenny Henry (2020) by Martyn Burdon. Acrylic on Wooden Panel.

The Net Gallery: You’ve painted portraits of some very famous people, including a number of actors. How did some of those portraits come about?

Martyn Burdon: I do receive a lot of commissions for specific portraits, but sometimes they come about in a variety of different ways. I grew up in the same area at Matt Berry, that was how that painting came about. I contacted Lenny Henry after seeing him in a production of the August Wilson play ‘King Headly II’ at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. I’m very keen on theatre and he gave an excellent and very captivating performance. It was a similar story will Miles Jupp. He toured the country quite recently in a new play by James Kettle exploring the life of the actor David Tomlinson. He’s portrayed as Tomlinson in the painting.

TNG: What process do you normally follow with your subjects? Do you usually meet them in person and do you sketch before you start painting?

MB: I always meet the subject in person – I think that’s vital. It’s good to spend as much time as I can with the sitters, getting to know them a little as I try to work out what I want to achieve with the portrait. I’ll take a number photographs, as well as sketching to try and work out the composition and the approach to the light. I always work with natural light, I feel that roots an image in a particular moment. I draw a lot, I think the paintings are built on the structure that comes from drawing.

Miles Jupp (2020) by Martyn Burdon. Acrylic on Wooden Panel.

TNG: How do you decide on details like the clothes the subject is wearing and whether they face the viewer or are turned to the side?

MB: I don’t like to interfere at all with what the sitter has decided to wear, or how they’ve presented themselves, but the posing and the composition of the final painting is arrived at very much by my own design. I like to work quite instinctively in that respect. I never have any preconceived ideas about what I’m trying to achieve, instead I like to work with the person as they are in that moment and with the elements that are around us.

TNG: You often focus on the face in your work, with many compositions only showing the upper torso and face. What’s driven you towards that focus?

MB: That’s a very good point, I think it’s probably people’s faces that I’m most drawn to when I’m working with someone. The effect of the light on a person’s skin, eyes and hair. I think a portrait can have more impact it you close in tight on your subject. My work has been described as uncompromising and confrontational, which are two factors that I quite like, perhaps that’s part of why I tend to focus in on the face. I also tend to work on quite small scale wooden panels, which naturally results in a work that’s more focused and intimate.

TNG: Given you like to meet and spend time with your subjects, how did the pandemic impact your work? 

MB: I was very lucky in that I had a number of commissions lined up to work on as the pandemic started and I was able to arrange a couple of sittings, in the outdoors, between the different lockdowns, so I was able to carry on painting. I was very lucky in that respect. 

I think, like everyone, the pandemic has affected my approach to a great many things. My thoughts as well as my behaviour feel different. Only time will tell about the longer-term affects it will have on society.

Michael Sheen (2021) by Martyn Burdon. Pencil Drawing.

TNG: How do your subjects tend to act during your sessions with them, and when they see the final painting? Do you find that actors are more comfortable being scrutinised than members of the public?

MB: Everybody’s different, I don’t think I’ve ever met two people that were at all the same, and for me everyone’s behaviour during a sitting is different. 

Some people like to talk, some are happy to stay silent. People often quiz me about my work and I’m always happy to talk about art. If a sitter wants to talk, as with meeting anyone, it’s interesting to hear about a person’s life, their experiences and their opinions.

I’ve heard it said that actors like to be looked at, but again, I don’t really think you can make those generalisations. Perhaps actors have more experience of looking and being looked at, but I don’t like to make that assumption.

In terms of seeing the finished work, I’ve never had a bad reaction from a sitter, but again, only time will tell… Perhaps actors are better at masking their true feelings!

CBPP, The 2022 Exhibition at the Department Store, Brixton. Image taken from scan footage captured by The Net Gallery.

Interview by Richard Unwin.

You can learn more about Martyn Burdon via his ANV profile and via his website:

A virtual tour of The 2022 Exhibition, produced by The Net Gallery, is available to view now, here.

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