Why Skype Portrait Paintings Produce Remarkable Results

Unexpectedly, it was my recent relocation to Mexico from London, England, that forced me to re-evaluate that very old tradition I hold so dear to my heart, portrait painting.
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'Lisa' by Adam James Butcher
iPad painting using the Procreate application

Unexpectedly, it was my recent relocation to Mexico from London, England, that forced me to re-evaluate that very old tradition I hold so dear to my heart, portrait painting.

Almost one year since the move and there are no doubts in my mind that the benefits of relocating to such a fascinating part of the world have outweighed the disadvantages. Nevertheless, the distance between friends and family has been somewhat of a challenge. Once again technology has come to the rescue, both in providing a way of communicating in a more meaningful way with loved ones as well as sparking a new and exciting way forward in my art practice.

In the last few months I have started painting portraits on my iPad using video calling technology. The difference is that the sitter is viewed over a Skype call. No I wasn't the first to do this! However not many have realized the true potential of this new opportunity.

Artists such as Sandro Kopp, who paints in oil from sitters over Skype calls, are naturally finding new ways of combining new technology and old traditions. Kopp in particular was a real inspiration to me. There are so many exciting possibilities now. And it has really forced me to reevaluate the traditional art form that is portrait painting.

As Kopp mentioned in a recent New York Times article, "I use media technology to create an old-fashioned art form," he explained. "Skype allows you to get very intimate. These portraits are all about being present."

I paint digitally on my iPad and haven't used oil in the way Kopp has, however, I am starting to understand what he means by the intimacy that is created during a video call. Ironically, the distance between artist and sitter, has in my experience created the opposite effect in terms of breaking down barriers. It has a way of stripping away any inhibitions one might have if both parties were in the same room. Somehow you are able to relax; the medium, with its constraints, encourages you to make more effort to connect on a deeper level. In some ways, that unseen aspect of a relationship between two human beings is intensified and becomes more tangible.

Unlike Kopp, I found it quite difficult to focus on the painting process and connecting with the sitter at the same time throughout a Skype call. My response to this was to start making video recordings of the whole Skype call, enabling me to pay full attention to the sitter as we talk, catch-up, become acquainted, etc. I then have the freedom of replaying the call once the sitter has gone and this allows me once more to pay full attention to the act of painting from observation without any distractions. The memories of the call are reawakened during the painting process. In some cases I'll screen capture a moment that I like in terms of the composition and work from that. The unstable nature of a Skype call can create some very unusual and interesting viewpoints. Different web cams use by a sitter often gives quite dramatic lighting effects, wether the source is artificial or natural.

I can't pretend that I am able to capture more than a candid record of what I see. Nevertheless, a portrait finished without communicating first with the sitter, always seems empty of feeling. Interestingly, the results of these latest paintings have been increasingly post-impressionist in there feel.

In December 2015, I will be taking part in a group show in Berlin organised by Maxine Noth, the director of Haute Presents. The theme is 'RabbitHole' in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. I naturally thought of the Skype portraits done through the Cybernet, which in itself is the ultimate virtual rabbit hole. The way I present the final works will be key but you'll have to wait until After the opening to see the final pieces. All I can say is that there will be definite advantages with my using digital media. The Private Viewing will be on the 10th of December 2015 and run until the end January 2016.

I'll be keeping a live blog of the whole event on my website. Or simply sign-up to get all the details.

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