‘I’ve always been a people-watcher’: an interview with ANV member Lee Boyd

Artist and ANV member Lee Boyd is based in Newtownards, Northern Ireland. Interested in the psychology of humanising animals and animalising humanity, he is known for his “Manimal” graphite drawings – surreal depictions of people as animals. 

Lee was one of a chosen few UK artists to appear on Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020. He also featured on the BBC2 series “Show Me The Monet”, which led to an exclusive exhibition at the RCA.

In this article, we chat to Lee about inspiration, creativity and creative challenges. 

Before The Leap Of Faith by Lee Boyd. Charcoal on paper, 17×14 inches unframed.

TNG: You create a lot of portraits, both of humans and animals. Why are you drawn to this subject matter in particular?

Lee Boyd (LB): People are a fascinating subject. There are so many facets to humanity that the closer I observe, the wider the source for content for the work I create. I think I’ve always been a people-watcher mostly – it’s small, nuanced behaviour that communicates more than words people speak. Though that’s not to say this is always captured in the physical form of a face. 

I utilise animals as a narrative device to depict a certain characteristic of humanity. It’s not as weird as it sounds: throughout human history and in every culture, we have used animals in an allegorical way to tell stories and disseminate valued information, to form aspects of religion both current and past, for entertainment and a multitude of other reasons. 

There is also the truth of a face that we understand and can empathise or recognise traits, emotions  and so there’s  curated truth to depict that and it’s easily judged when something doesn’t look right in proportion to itself. That creates the challenge – if I miss a leaf on a tree, no one will know. If I leave out an eye, it’s noticeable.

I don’t necessarily need perfect representations of a face in correct proportions and a sense of reality to validate it to be a good likeness/representation. Often the art I find interesting is art that has used its voice to push the boundaries of its time, but equally found the balance to communicate humanity. 

I think there is an intrinsic vanity to humans as a species that has in a way positive strengths in how we may reflect, adapt and change because we see how something appears and alter our behaviour. There’s also a comfort in recognising a familiar trait to be part of something larger. To me, portraiture is a main line to that experience. 

Hold Up Your Truth And See by Lee Boyd. A4. 

TNG: You have said before that your top tip in developing a creative practice is not to panic, and to remember it isn’t a race. Is this a rule you’ve always been able to follow?

LB: No, but I do learn through trial and error, so “not panicking” has developed over time to “see problems for what they are and learn how to adapt or grow new skills.” “Not a race” comes from understanding that there is no competition with others to be the “best” or “fastest” – that challenge of development takes time and I feel it should only be levelled at one’s own trajectory and understanding how you develop to open up possibilities to new ways of creating work.

I am in fact a very slow learner and make many mistakes, however I’m constantly engaged with developing my skill set and artistic voice. Learning doesn’t stop at art college.

TNG: How did you come to settle on your current graphic style?

LB: I’m not sure I am settled… everything is constantly being refined, explored and experimented. I’ve found that the Manimal range of works are visually a challenge so I want the believability of the image to come across as natural as possible. If I add other elements such as Abstraction to the mix the content becomes confused so I keep the images representational… as much as you can with an animal headed human.

Four “Manimal” portraits. L to R: Nirvana?No Time To WaitDon’t Stumble and Braced, all by Lee Boyd. Original pieces graphite on paper, each 20×16 inches unframed. 

ANV: What major themes do you aim to pursue in your work?

LB: My reflection on how and why people do the things they do. It’s a simple process of musing over how I see things and how collectively we may see things. Again, it’s a huge subject constantly throwing up contradictions to itself.

ANV: What key characteristics do you think are necessary for an artist to be successful in their career? 

LB: Integrity, passion, work ethic. More so now than ever, communication – something that’s always a challenge to us all – and… Luck. However, I do think the more you work at putting your work in places to receive luck, the more likely you are to receive it.

Warren of Friends by Lee Boyd. A4. 

ANV: What has been the best advice given to you as an artist?

LB: “Try this”… just experimenting and knowledge sharing and repeat until you start answering the images you want to create.

ANV: How do you find working as an artist in Northern Ireland? Are there any emerging NI artists you’re excited about right now?

LB: I love it here – the community and pace of life – and I’m frustrated in equal measure. There is an amazing wealth of talent here, considering the size of the population. But wider recognition for many more artists who I feel need the support/spotlight/celebration is slow to keep up. We are good here at celebrating our successful talent once it’s been recognised elsewhere, but not brave enough to champion some stellar work ourselves in the art world. That goes for all disciplines across the Arts.

I know a lot of Artists across all genres and they keep going, creating amazing works. I do feel and have hope that one day that spotlight of recognition will shine on them all and this place will be recognised for the truly talented, vibrant culturally rich place we have managed to keep quiet far too long. 

Office Politics by Lee Boyd. A4.

ANV: Have the events of the last year had any impact, positive or negative, on your work?

LB: Yes. I can only speak personally, however no one has had it easy in this. We have all had to adapt to push through. I normally tutor in an arts centre on a number of occasions throughout the year and that all stopped. 

I found that sharing knowledge with people was a huge source of inspiration to my own work and development, so I adapted and moved that element online. Live streaming on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch once a week on Saturday afternoons for two hours for free has allowed me to keep the connection with the attendees and that has grown to be a wider source of inspiration reaching right around the world.

I have used the time to refine some skills, develop my work and re-engage with some concepts for current work. Financially, it’s been a mare as I’m sure it has for many. I’ve been luckier than most in having some sales still and grants that were available, but not to the level I would have normally attained so again I adapt and postpone some development projects and build on what I can.

There is the business of being an artist and it has taken a hit, but what I can do  is build for a stronger future by reaching out to new audiences for my work I may never have got to try.

I’ve also had fun painting alongside thousands of artists in many live paint and draw sessions like Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Week, life drawing with The Virtual FigureFigure This and paintguide, listening to artists talks and podcasts like John Dalton – gently does it… and Art for Your Ear, and weekly artist chats like Dan Ferguson and Emanuel De Sousa, who just chat live on instagram every Friday.

There is such a wealth of artists sharing what they do… I’m lucky to partake of the content they share.

Self Portrait by Lee Boyd. Image courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Toby Buckley.

To find out more about Lee’s work, be sure to follow him on Artist N Virtual!

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