March featured artist – Stella Tooth
What’s your background?
I’m a West London-based figurative artist, specialising in portraits in oils, and have painted some of the country’s leading broadcast journalists including the BBC’s Kate Adie and John Humphrys.
I also specialise in portraying performers – particularly musicians – as I am Resident Artist at The Half Moon Putney, the iconic London music venue, synonymous with The Rolling Stones, where my art is on the walls. The most famous band I have portrayed is probably Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, but I have painted or drawn a wide range of musicians from veterans like Ralph McTell (Streets of London) to relative new kids on the block like blues band Catfish.
My work is now available on my website and via Skylark Galleries, the art collective I belong to where all the profits go to the artists and Saatchi Galleries I have recently opened an art product shop on Red Bubble where I sell my performer art on band T-shirts.
What does your work aim to say?
I’m a former print journalist and senior news PR for BBC and Sky News. I have spent my life telling other people’s stories and now, retrained as a portrait artist at Heatherleys School of Fine Art in Chelsea, I continue that, always accompanying my portraits with words that tell my subjects’ stories.
How does your work comment on current social or political issues?
During lockdown last year I took part in the @TomCroftArtist #portraitsfornhsheroes Instagram initiative, where portraitists like me painted a free portrait for an NHS frontline worker from photos as a ‘thank you’. My subject was Helen Chiverton, an NHS paramedic who has the tough job of responding to 999 calls in an ambulance.
I have also completed a series of portraits of musicians in lockdown. All creatives have been hard hit by Covid-19 as we’re freelancers, so it was a pleasure to highlight just one way that some – musicians – despite having their live gigs cancelled for much of the year, had, nevertheless, been keeping us all entertained through Facebook’s Socially distanced fest or entertaining neighbours in their cul-de-sac!
Who are your biggest influences?
I could cite a whole host of inspiring figurative artists from Artemisia Gentileschi, Egon Sheile, Van Gogh to Freud and Hockney. Truth to tell, my biggest influence is Ian Dury (yes, he of The Blockheads). His portraits are an explosion of colour and graphics which are both witty and sexy and sum up the excitement of what it was like to be a young man in the 1960s. When I saw them at an exhibition in London, just after I finished three years of portraiture studies, I knew that I wanted to marry the traditional 3D techniques I’d learned with flattened backgrounds and a more graphic style and that capturing the energy of live performances, or their ‘look’, would be my subject.
How have you developed your career?
When I left the world of broadcast news PR after nearly 20 years to retrain as a portrait artist, having already reinvented myself from a print journalist once before, there was an understanding that that I couldn’t play catch up (closed to me were the ‘emerging artist’ prizes for the under 25-35 year-olds). Instead, I brought my experience of marketing and publicity savvy to my art business. My first act was to co-found the Lots Road Group of portrait artists (who all studied at Heatherleys in Lots Road), so that we could explain portraiture in the age of photography in regular themed exhibitions and offer each other camaraderie. That was a great move. Going from a corporate creative environment where you can brainstorm ideas with colleagues to the isolation of the studio is a shock. Look at how the Impressionists gathered together and fired each other’s creativity.
Then I sought out a dealer – at first one in London who was switching from working as an interior designer to a gallerist so we could inspire each other. Through her, I learned about Egypt staging its first art biennale and was thrilled to be chosen to work alongside 50 other artists from Europe and the Middle East. I ended up doing portraits of some of Egypt’s top politicians and winning The Judges’ Prize, awarded at a televised event.
A chance encounter with another gallerist in Brighton led to my being tutored on how to blend fine art and illustration for my performer art and the opportunity of major shows.
Now, with so much uncertainty in the art world, I’m part of Skylark Galleries, a collective of London-based artists in different disciplines. We’ve spent lockdown creating an online gallery, to complement a physical gallery on the South Bank, which some of the other artist members are part of. We’re trying to create a new model for selling art in which all profits go to the artist. We have no dealer to market us, so we give of our time to market ourselves, through our website blogs where we take you behind the scenes of our studios, share our knowledge about our specialist subjects – and give tips on interior design.
How do you seek out opportunities?
I started drawing and painting buskers, those amazing street entertainers that transport us somewhere else for 45 minutes on our journey around town, from photographs I take. In winter, the days are short and the light more subdued so I thought it would be good if I could portray performers indoors. So, I approached the Half Moon Putney, an iconic music venue I used to frequent when I lived there to be their Resident Artist. To my joy, they said yes!
How do you cultivate a collector base?
I’ll tell you when I’ve found out! Seriously, I’ve been lucky at the Half Moon Putney in having a place to display my art to both the bands and fans who come to see the gigs. It’s a great start.
How do you navigate the art world?
If you want to be seen as a serious artist then you need to enter some of the big competitions, but they can be pricey. After Heatherleys, I had some success with getting artworks displayed at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, National Open Art Competitions and Chelsea Art Society etc. It lends some prestige to you as an artist, as does having a gallerist, as clients can see that there are respected people in the art world who rate your art. If you’re a collector looking at art as an investment, then that can be important.
How do you price your work?
Picasso understood something that a lot of people miss. It doesn’t matter how long you take to create something, it’s the skill you’ve acquired over the course of a lifetime that gives value to your art. Size and medium can play a part in determining the price of an artwork, due to the cost of materials and the complexity of the process. If you are a professional artist, as I am, then you need to value your work, sell it at a competitive price from which you can make a profit and earn a living.
Which current art world trends are you following?
I think most artists working now are either trying to find a way to portray the extraordinary times we are living through or trying to help people escape from them. There has been a huge outpouring of creativity during lockdown; a type of art therapy which can only be good for mental health. Look at the current #greatbigartexhibition.
Having taught drawing for seven years for Sketchout at the National Portrait Gallery, V&A, The Courtauld, and Tate Britain, I know the power of art to transport you to another place where everyday cares cannot enter. When lockdown ends, I will be teaching closer to home – portraiture in oils for beginners at Open Ealing. As so many people have found during lockdown, it’s my local community that has helped sustain me during these difficult times.
Do you have any exhibitions coming up?
I’m a member of the Lots Road Group of portraitists, who exhibit regularly on a theme explaining a different aspects of portraiture. Uniquely, we combine words with our pictures to tell the stories of our sitters. Our motto is “Our portrait. Your Story.” We hope to be able to stage our next exhibition ‘Beyond the door’ in London later this year. It will reflect the extraordinary times we are living through, showing portraiture generated during confinement when our own front doors have had a heightened significance in their dual role as protection from harm and barriers to freedom.
Who knows what 2021 will bring but I also usually open my home studio as part of the Borough of Ealing Art Trail (Beat) each September.
Where can you be found on social media?
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