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Artist Interview: Morgan Penn

Morgan Penn

Morgan Penn is a London based Portrait Painter, presenter of BBC’s Bitesize short films on oil painting and winner of BBC’s flagship TV arts programme Star Portraits. Penn’s work has been featured in all the major art magazines, newspapers and the National Portrait Gallery’s own publications and we just adore the humorous element to his detailed portraits. 

Q: Can you tell us about your Artistic background/education?

I am a completely self taught painter and didn’t pick up a paint brush until I was 28. I was working as an Art Director designing record sleeves for all the top record companies - Art Directing bands such as Take That, Echobelly, S-Express, XTC, Adam Ant, Ministry of Sound amongst many others.

One day while walking in London, my wife and I were caught in a torrential storm so we ran into the National Portrait Gallery. Wandering around the various rooms to dry off, I happened upon the most amazing painting I had ever seen, I was totally floored by it. It was a painting by Philip Harris titled ‘Two Figures Lying in a Shallow Stream’. I knew there and then that I was going to be a portrait painter, but the only problem was, was that I had never painted before. I bought some oil paints and tried unsuccessfully to mix a colour I wanted, so I kept adding more  and more colours until I ended up with a huge pile of brown sludge. I realised I had a lot to work out, so I went to the library and read every single art book I could get my hands on to understand the key foundations of painting and understanding colour. The penny drop moment for me was when I gave myself 1 hour to mix as many colours I could from 3 basic colours and white. When I had finished and surveyed the kalaidescope of colours on my mixing glass, I was astounded at the breadth and depth of colour as well as the full range of tones. Another fundemental moment for me was trying to understand a painting exercise in a book by the artist Trevor Chamberlain. It was a dull countryside scene, but he had livened it up with clever underpainting. I quickly realised that underpainting was the engine of any portrait and was key for making a portrait have a chromatic impact. The first portrait I ever painted was accepted for exhibition at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and was featured in The Times newspaper! Wow, I never looked back.

The Old Git's

Q. How has your creative journey evolved over the last 5 years?

Each commission is a journey in itself. You are constantly looking for hot spots, chromatic flashes, physics of light, reflected colours, contrast, composition focus, rim lighting etc. It is a very involved process until the portrait has been completed. Each portrait is very different and has its own demands and challenges.

Q. How do you find the subjects for your portraits?

Most people know my work from the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters as well as the shows I exhibit at and the magazine articles. I am always commissioned directly via my website www.morganpenn.com as I am not represented by a gallery or agent. For my exhibition work, I find the person who has the best connections to get the right people together, whether it be football hooligans or Twickenham allotment gardeners!

Its a Snails pace in Twickenham

Q. Do you work in a studio or from home?

 I had an art studio near my home in Chelsea for many years, and my studio is now based in Islington.

Q. Who are your Art Influencers? Inspirations?

I find comic book artists far more interesting and exciting than the accepted artist names. Comic artists such as Simon Bisley, Mike McMahon and Frank Frazetta. Contemporary artists I admire  greatly include Andrew Tift and Michael J Austin.

Q. What helps you to create your work, music? quiet?

While I am working, I usually have 6Music on for great music, sometimes LBC for conversations to wind myself up or I have a documentary playing in the background. So today, I listened to documentaries on Spacex Starships, strange creatures discovered in the Movile cave and a history of Doggerland. All very interesting and informative.

A Russell Roast

Q. Do you keep a sketchbook? How often do you use it and do you travel with it?

No, I don’t keep a sketchbook, I generally sketch ideas down on anything I can grab hold of. It is amazing how my initial composition ideas hold up after going through lots of adjustments and arrangements. I trust my instincts.

Q. Where does a piece of work begin for you? Can you describe your process?

The process of putting the painting together is quite involved, and I would describe the work as Art Directed. When I am commissioned I listen to what the client would like and I make some suggestions and discuss scenarios. I need to find the reason why everyone is together and reacting in the portrait. Once this has been established, things fall into place quite quickly and composition sketches are drawn up and emailed over. Once approved, I arrange a sitting, organise props, work out the lighting etc. I put together a final composition, and once it is signed off I start the oil portrait. A lot of thought is given to the underpainting and how this will drive the colours as well as the overall chromatic palette. I take photographs of the progress as I go along. When it is completed, it is time for the big unveiling! I then get it photographed by the National Portrait Galleries photographer so the client is able to make reproductions for other family members.

Q. What are your most important artists tools?

Always Michael Harding paints as they are pure pigment in linseed oil. They are the best paints you can buy and they give that chromatic punch that can’t be achieved with student quality paints. I use the 3 colour process for 90% of a portrait - Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Lake and Alizarin Crimson with Titanium White. This guarantees my colurs are vibrant and clean and the painting is chromatically balanced. I use other colours for the final intense flashes of colour such as the Cadmiums, Lakes and Pthalos. I refer to the colour wheel every day as it always gives me clues and hints for colour relationships. I don’t buy expensive brushes as I get through so many and I fail to see the benefit of them. For cleaning brushes I use Gamsol which is the safest spirit you can get hold of. It is white spirit with all the harmful aromatics removed for a safer working environment.

Katy does it by baking a cake

Q. What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a new large family commission of 12 people around a kitchen island with a dog chasing a flapping cockeral. It is always important to have everyone looking to each other and interacting, smiling, shouting, joking etc. I always try to find a way to let the eye follow the narrative around the painting and for the viewer to imagine and sense the noise of the situation.

Q. What is the best advice you were given early in your creative career?

 I learnt early on at school that no one gives you any helpful or meaningful advice. I have literally had to work it all out by myself. By making mistakes, analysing them and learning from them, you build up a solid core foundation to your painting technique and practice - you are not doing things in a prescribed manner. All the best painters I know are all self taught - they have had to think for themselves and consider their art in isolation.

Q. Where can we see more of your work online or in person?

Morgan Penn Portraits




CONTACT DETAILS: 07947 640831 - hello@morganpenn.com


Catherine Peters
Catherine Peters

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