While the penniless painter is as enduring an image as the tearful clown or depressive comedian, for many artists commercial success is the key to creative satisfaction. We spoke to Joe Simpson (left, with Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend), who has painted everyone from Mark Ronson to Paloma Faith about commissions, self-promotion and the power of Google…
The year before last I did a series of massive oil paintings for a new P&O superliner. That was my sell-out year and it means that I’m now in a financial position to do a passion project.
I wanted to do portraits of my heroes, I suppose. I was playing with the idea of authors or comedians but in the end I settled on musicians. It gave me the chance to do lots of different people and different kinds of images, and musicians are inherently cool and interesting anyway.
I just started looking people up on Google. I looked for their management details on websites. Some are more of a challenge than others. The first one I did was folk artist Liam Frost, who I knew a little bit. Then I had one portrait that I could send out when I asked people. It’s getting a bit easier now that I’ve got some names involved.
In that initial email I told them about the project, told them that I was hoping to have a big show, sent them an image of the one I’d already done and asked to meet them for 15 minutes to take photographs.
It’s hard enough to get 15 minutes with these people, let alone sitting in person. So I meet up with them, take a photo and then work from those in my studio.
Hopefully I’m going to go to Las Vegas to do Brandon Flowers. I’ve also got Muse and Florence and the Machine lined up. A lot of people haven’t replied, but a lot of people have said yes.
At school I leant more towards Sciences, but there was quite an intensive art programme. I did my art GCSEs and A-Levels a couple of years early. Towards the end of college, I decided that I wanted to do something creative so I did a Fine Art degree.
It’s taken a while but I do now describe myself as an artist. It’s not like being a doctor; you don’t need any qualifications, so people are a bit suspicious of it.
I think you’ve got to be really willing to self-promote. All through uni I had a website and business cards. There’s no shame in putting your work out as much as possible. I started off by having my work in little cafes and bars and then started sending it out to commercial galleries.
There are a lot of artists like Damien Hirst that I really like for their tenacity. He learned how to sell himself by working in telesales. But Edward Hopper is the one that I’m probably most guilty of ripping off. Also Gregory Crewdson, a photographer who does lots of staged scenes with actors.
I don’t work exclusively through an agent. I’ve sold work through different galleries and I got the P&O thing through an agent, but this project is me on my own.
There’s kind of a process when I’m coming to the end of a painting. Sometimes I look at it in a mirror, or look at it upside down or take a photograph of it and look at in on a screen; it helps you see it in a different way.
If you are a photographer and would like to win the chance to become the official photographer for The Old Vic Tunnels, then apply for our Old Vic Tunnels brief. To find out more about Joe Simpson, visit his website.