Sophie Derrick pushes the boundaries of traditional figurative art by becoming the canvas of her own self-portraits. Sophie applies layers of paint as a form of transcendence from herself; becoming something ‘other’ – free from societal labels and roles. Using a variety of mediums such as painting, photography and installation, she pushes herself out to explore a ‘self-less’ state.
Close To Nothing
I see it as a form of escapism and a form of covering myself up to become something ‘other’ and something free
How would you describe yourself as an artist? and how do you like to work?
I dip in and out of working quite a lot, and I guess I’ve always done that, even before having children. My work is split up into different elements so I would describe myself as a Process Artist. I love experimenting with different mediums; I haven’t done any video in a while but I used to do a lot of video stuff – which is on my list of things to do! I always use multiple mediums; photography, painting, installation, so actually let’s go with Mixed Media Artist!
When did you first start creating your abstract paint portraits? Was there a particular moment that inspired you?
I started painting myself when I was in my second year of Uni at Leeds University. I’ve always enjoyed figurative art, but I like to push the boundaries and make art that’s a bit different. During my second year I was doing an Art History module on masking – I think this subliminally influenced my work and inspired me to start painting myself. The first time I did it I used acrylic paints in skin tone colours, which was more about making myself into a portrait. This turned out a lot better than I thought it would, and so I started to research into this concept more and realised that yes, this is my thing.
Since then, my work has evolved. I now use bright colours and that is another vehicle of abstraction rather than using skin tone colours. Although, it’s still the same concept of painting onto myself and becoming something ‘other’.
How do you begin a new piece and what are the different stages in your creative process?
It starts off with colour research and having an idea of what colours I am going to use. Then I set up my background which faces my camera and lights. Firstly, I have to cover myself in this protective foam layer which they use in special effects make-up. Once the foam has set in I start painting myself in front of a big mirror. I put the paint on and then photograph myself, using a remote control. I keep going back and forth between the camera and the mirror, adding more layers.
I literally take thousands of photos showing a range from having a few colours on to being fully abstracted with lots of colours. Once I have chosen an image, I send it off to be printed as a reverse acrylic print where the image is sandwiched between a bit of aluminum and a bit of acrylic glass. I used to apply oil paint to a normal photo print and it looked cool but you’d get an oil seepage into the photo and I was worried about the longevity of them. I really like working with the acrylic glass; there is also a thickness between the glass and the actual image, which gives a 3D effect. I generally keep the palette the same so it keeps the illusion of what is paint and what is the photograph.
Painting at WGSN Futures Summit
How do you find working with different mediums? I.e acrylic and oil paint.
I like acrylics because they get shiny and that emulates the shininess of the acrylic glass and the paint in the image. Whereas oil paints – unless you varnish them – don’t have that shininess, which is a big part of the work. Both mediums come together to create this final image which is mismatched but they go together quite nicely (I hope!).
I now use bright colours and that is another vehicle of abstraction rather than using skin tone colours
Have you always worked on a large scale?
When I first started doing it I used to print the photographs to a lifesize scale because I wanted them to be exact copies of myself. I liked that because it was a direct emulation of myself into this weird portrait but I think the brushstrokes look so much better and bolder on a bigger scale; you can capture the details more and I just love paint. Any other painting that’s got that textural mix of colours – I love it. So, my love of paint and texture made me want to push it to a bigger scale. Also, I was once in a competition and I had to present my work to a panel; they gave feedback and said it could have been more impactful if it was bigger.
I like how your portraits challenge traditional portraiture and explore a sense of self that isn’t defined by societal labels. Can you tell us more about the concepts within your work?
I use layering effects and the transformative qualities of paint to paint myself out and lose any kind of signifiers to race, gender etc. I am becoming something ‘other’ – freed from labels. Some of my work embodies this concept more; in some pieces you can see it is a girl etc but some of my pieces are more abstracted and unclear. I don’t want it to come across as a negative thing, that I am trying to cancel myself out. I see it as a form of escapism and a form of covering myself up to become something ‘other’ and something free. This is strongly linked to masking; in tribal masking they put on a mask and they become a different entity – they are freed from their normal lives and their normal selves.
I think it’s the colours I use and the thick brushstrokes that disguise me the most and make me into an abstract portrait which isn’t distinguishable. When I do commissioned portraits I find that the person chooses colours that suit them in some way; they embody those colours and the colours bring out their personality.
How do you find commission work in comparison to when you paint yourself?
It’s a major compliment when a client admires your work enough to commission you to paint something just for them. Commissions, where I paint on to other people, are obviously a step away from my core concept of self painting or painting myself out, but I enjoy the challenge of transformation into their ‘other’ and find it interesting to see how this concept is perceived by the commissioner. I think they like that my portraits are disguising and it’s a different type of portrait, I guess it’s not as direct a depiction of themselves as a traditional portrait would be. My commissions are the only portraits I do of other people, the rest are of me.
How do you decide on what colours to use? And how does it feel to be the subject of your work?
Before each piece I do colour research and create mood boards of the colours I like. I naturally go towards brighter colours – I think those colours help to abstract me.
It started out with me being the subject because I was experimenting a lot and began painting myself all the time. Now I feel like it’s become an important part of my work: for me as the artist to be buried under this paint and to be transformed into these different forms of myself.
There is something calming about applying these layers of paint to yourself
Are the colours you choose linked to colour therapy?
I am actually doing a collection for a new solo show which is meant to be happening at the end of this year (hopefully!). Colour is a big part of my work and I do feel like colour evokes different feelings, so with my gallery ‘Contemporary Collective’ we are looking to link my work to colour theory. I heard a quote recently that read something like, “colour can create the loss of all certainty”. I like this concept of losing certainty through the use of colour – which connects with my work.
I see your layering process as a form of reinvention and distortion from our initial perception – what does layering symbolise for you?
The layers are another form of pushing myself out and burying myself. The first layer is applying the paint onto myself. The photography element is documenting the performance of becoming a painting which acts as the second layer; it creates a barrier between myself, the performance and the viewer. The third layer is applying the paint on top of the acrylic glass, which further cements the concept of ‘becoming otherness’.
How do you find people’s reaction to this concept of ‘burying and covering’ yourself?
It’s difficult to talk about it in a non-scary way I suppose because there are elements to it like burying myself in the paint, transforming, becoming ‘other’ and losing self. Some of those things can appear as negative. I have definitely met people who were taken aback by the concept of ‘lack of self’ initially but that doesn’t seem to happen as much now. I love art that is colourful, bold and visually stimulating but also has a concept behind it and an idea – I hope mine does that too.
Evergreen + Gold
You were recently part of an artist residency at the Bankside Hotel, how was this experience for you? And how did it feel painting publicly?
On this occasion, I didn’t paint myself, I painted someone else. I don’t mind painting someone else in front of other people, but I have never painted myself with anyone around me. When I paint I am on my own, I make sure the curtains are shut and I get into my zone with no distractions. It relates back to the masking element of having to be on my own in order to become something else. If there are people around me that know me, it’s difficult to emboy that otherness.
I had a residency in 2013 with DegreeArt where I was painting myself a lot but I built a massive box around me which I would go into to paint myself. It had little peep holes around it so that people could look in, but even that I found to be a bit uncomfortable.
Despite the fact that all of my work is of myself, I feel fine putting the images out there because when I look at them I don’t see myself. Whereas if I was taking a normal portrait I would feel mortified that my face would be out there.
When you’re in that zone, how do you feel?
I always feel calm. There is something calming about applying these layers of paint to yourself. Everything slows down and it all feels quite meditative. I’m on my own and in my zone, doing this thing which is quite therapeutic. I’m also in there for quite a long time so it’s nice to break away. I guess all of my poses are calm and still even though it can be a bit monstrous when you have the paint on you – but you don’t see that in the final images (I hope!).
Maybe they would say something about being calm and happy and looking at the details in life that are beautiful
Walk us through what a typical day creating looks like for you, any art rituals?
So, I usually get up early because of the children and then I go for a run. I don’t run fast, I just like going out for my mental health and I always find that I get good ideas when I’m running. It takes me quite a long time to get into the zone with my art. I have to be in my studio for around an hour just pottering around before I get into fully working on something. I always put on a podcast. I like podcasts that put me in a positive mindset and get me thinking. I then start editing or creating. Towards the end of the day I sometimes feel a bit stressed because I have to collect my children from nursery. I do my best work in the evenings once I have put the children to bed; ideas come to me and I feel more creative because I am more relaxed. I am naturally a night owl who feels forced to be a morning person! From a young age I’ve always kept a notebook next to my bed in case I want to jot down anything before I go to sleep.
For emerging artists out there or those looking to venture into art, what advice would you give them?
My advice would be to apply to everything you can find that relates to your work and is a legitimate thing. Don’t be too disheartened if you don’t get into things as sometimes your work just isn’t suited to what they’re looking for. But you will get into some things and that gives you the confidence to keep going. From that you will make connections and people will see your work. I’ve had lots of confidence-crisis situations where I felt disheartened but you just have to have confidence in your work and remember all the good things that have happened.
If your paintings could speak to a viewer, either collectively or individually, what would they say?
Maybe they would say something about being calm and happy and looking at the details in life that are beautiful; with the colours evoking a feeling of contentment.
What are your hopes and dreams as an artist?
My hopes as an artist are for my paintings to inspire joy and evoke feeling in people. If my paintings could make someone’s day a bit brighter then I would be happy with that. My dreams are to keep exhibiting internationally and to keep showing at exciting places; getting my work out there to different audiences. It was amazing going to Miami for Art Basel and I would love to go there again – the art scene in America is mega. But there are also lots of amazing places in the UK where I’d love to show my work.
What can we look forward to with your work? ( I appreciate Covid-19 has caused some upheaval)
I would have had quite a few art fairs this year but they have all been postponed. The main project I am working towards is my solo show in October (hopefully!). There was this one piece that I made for my last solo show in 2017 which inspired this collection. I made a hanging installation where I cut out all the different paint strokes, which in themselves were abstracted images. They were all hung and as you moved around them they merged together to become a face. I was really happy with it so this collection will see more cut out paint strokes and layering digitally – it will be more fractured and abstracted.
I have also been part of the Infinity Rooms – a virtual exhibition hosted by DegreeArt, and I will also be releasing some limited edition prints in the next couple of weeks. Also, for the Artist Support Pledge I am going to make a few smaller originals.
To view Sophie’s work: