PAINTING MYSELF HAPPY – AN INTERVIEW WITH VINCE LAWS

by Vince Laws and Alex Valente

We sat down remotely with local artist Vince Laws to talk about his recent series of paintings, modelled and grafted on famous works of Western painters, for the now available exhibition Painting Myself Happy – part of the Together! Disability History Month Festival, taking place online from 11th November to 9th December.

Vince, thank you for having this chat with us! We’ve been fans of your various artistic endeavours, here at NR, for quite some time, and are pleased to showcase more of your artivism, too.

You mention in the description for the exhibition that you needed a project to keep your mind busy, and these portraits are a result of that. Did you know from the start it would become a series?

I knew I was going to do a lot of oil painting this year, but wasn’t quite sure what direction I would take. What with lockdowns, social distancing, and living in rural isolation, self portraits seemed the way to go. I’ve done self portraits before, in various media, with varying success, but I found the introspection that comes with staring at yourself for hours could lead me down the rabbit hole towards depression. So I wanted to somehow do portraits, from home, and stay happy.

I did a couple of self portraits of me alone, to get my eye in, and then thought I’d try and paint Van Gogh next to me. That was a new challenge, I had to do a self portrait of me, and then copy Van Gogh’s self portrait. Although happy with the result, we both look a bit stern. I started looking at artists known for their self portraits, to see how they had done it, and slowly the idea of a series emerged, I could paint whoever I wanted, but it had to make me happy, or amuse me in some way, literally ‘Painting Myself Happy’.

Next I copied Egon Schiele ‘Self Portrait in a Peacock Waistcoat’, one of the few where he keeps his clothes on! I liked that he was a bit of a Dandy in the painting, so I copied the top half and wondered how I could fit myself into the picture below him. The original is in gouache, watercolour and black pencil, so it was a challenge to copy in oils, but the great thing about oils is you can work day after day until you get it just right. Sometimes I scrape the paint off and start again. I took various photos to work from with my partner’s hands in front of my face, and loved this one where his hands look like Dame Edna glasses. I thought Egon looked like he was pouting, so I painted me pouting too. Egon’s blue jacket could be a big blue wig on my head. Egon’s cuff button could be my earring. Putting me below Egon obliterated his peacock waistcoat, so I decided I’d wear that. The necklace I’m wearing is my signature on a chain.

Next I painted Tamara de Lempicka. She was commissioned in 1925 by a German fashion magazine to paint their cover. She painted herself driving a green Bugatti. She’s known for her very finely blended work, painting humans almost with the metallic sheen of machines, so that was a challenge to me. I decided to fit me and my dog Jess into the passenger seat. I’m wearing the same hat as Tamara, and massive red gloves, doing a big thumbs up, with a grin on my face. My scarf is blowing behind me. Jess is wrapped in a gold blanket. It was tricky turning Tamara’s portrait into a landscape shaped painting, so the viewer can see the passenger, I had to make up the car roof so it looked right.

What I find really intriguing is that the artists you have chosen to emulate so far are not exactly most well known for their happiness, in their work or biographically – was that also an intentional choice?

I chose artists whose work I like and whose style I wanted to have a go at copying. Van Gogh’s a favourite of mine, I love his colour use, and his spontaneity. I loved his work before I dealt with mental health adventures of my own. I read Van Gogh’s letters this year, and that helped me get inside his head and understand his work better. I read his sunflowers were painted with the idea they could console poor people, and I wanted to console him in turn. I painted the two of us side by side, then me Hugging Van Gogh, and finally, after reading he tried not to smile because he’d lost most of his teeth due to a poor diet, I painted me painting a smile on Van Gogh’s face.

Next I did Egon Schiele. I like his self portrait wearing a peacock waistcoat, which is not his typical work, he looks like a Dandy, and I enjoy dressing up for events, so that seemed a good choice. I find his naked work interesting, I like his use of line.

Gauguin I read about in Van Gogh’s letters, then looked at his work. I prefer the work he did in Tahiti, the landscapes, the colour palette, I’ve never used so much pink before in a painting! His landscapes seem quite sexual and sensual to me. Tree trunks with veins of ivy running up them. Breast shaped mountains. I used his self portrait which was a gift to Van Gogh.

You only see the artists I chose, and not the many I looked at, but decided not to copy. Caravaggio, very dark. Rembrant, bit dull. I wanted to do Basquiat, but he didn’t make conventional self portraits for me to copy, so I’m working on a painting with him in a crash helmet from a photo, work in progress. It’s been a great excuse to look at all sorts of different self portraits.

Which of the portraits, if any, is the one that speaks the most to you, or that you find the most successful?

I don’t stop working on them until I’m satisfied, I don’t think I have one that I think of as the best. I was successful at different things in different portraits. I’m very happy with Egon Schiele and me, it was the first one where I pushed the double portrait further, with the two people interacting in some way, and it was a challenge to copy Egon’s self portrait in oils, when his was in watercolours, gouache, and black pencil. I wasn’t sure I could paint it until I did!

I’ve done self portraits before, in various media, with varying success, but I found the introspection that comes with staring at yourself for hours could lead me down the rabbit hole towards depression.

Hitching a lift with Tamara de Lempicka meant learning to blend paint much more carefully than I usually do. Again, I wasn’t sure I could replicate her style until I did. Once I’d painted her, it was fun to add in me and my dog Jessica. The painting still makes me smile.

The two most recent paintings, Hugging Van Gogh, and Making Van Gogh Smile, both take his self portrait and push it further by adding a smile to his face in his style. I like how Van Gogh paints, the impasto, the textures, the mark making. I really enjoyed making this series, and I’ve got them all at home, up on my walls, it’s like having mates round. I’ve decided I’m not selling them for now, because they give me pleasure. That might change once I’ve got into my next series, whatever that might be, and want to put them on the wall. That’s usually how it works.

One more question before we part ways – what do you wish or hope people seeing the series will ‘take home’ from the experience?

I hope the series gives people a little lift, I enjoyed painting them, and I hope that pleasure shines through. Even if portraits aren’t your thing, I think people can appreciate the skill required to recreate Van Gogh’s self portrait, for example. With all the depressing stuff going on in the news, it does us all good to spend some time being creative or engaging with creative work. 

Not all my work is so cheerful. I currently have 10 of the DWP Deaths Make Me Sick shrouds on display at The Attenborough Centre, Leicester University, until 16 January 2022. 

all images by Vince Laws

The annual free five-week Together! Disability History Month Festival is taking place from 11 November to 9 December and will be online for the second year running. The Festival brings together Disabled artists from East London, the UK and beyond for an inclusive audience, with all events having BSL interpretation and live captions. 

Highlights include a new exhibition by Norfolk-based artist Vince Laws, Painting Myself Happy, which is launched as part of the Festival opening event on 11 November from 7-8pm (book here). This brings together a series of new self-portraits in oils by Vince, including as his alter-ego Boris ‘Piffle’ Johnson. The Festival also includes the international Together! Disability Film Festival, and a conference for the events industry about inclusion in the age of Covid, Finding Solutions Together!

The full Festival programme and further information can be found here. You can also read or listen to Vince talk about the series more here.


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