What is “Fine Art” – realist portraiture through to 3D abstract scultures: by Todd Simpson.

Brendan Nelson has seen the artwork. I sent him some progress shots and of the finished the artwork. He said that he was very impressed.

In my writing of Airvolution, I try to provide a mixture of “levels”. I write about simple artworks, but are inspiring. I write about advanced artworks that are aspiring. Every airbrush artist needs to do a bit of both. They need to be doing simple quick artworks and doing complex ambitious artworks that push their capabilities to new levels. Todd Simpson is just such an artist.

This is a long article with much more text than normal. I try to have as little text and as many photos as possible, but this article is the reverse. Some of you will find it very interesting . . . and others a little boring. But Todd has gone to a lot of effort to write great answers to my questions about his “Fine Art”.

This is the second article about Todd Simpson and his wonderful artworks in as many months. But Todd is producing such a wide array of work, that each article will be able to cover very different issues that you may find interesting.

I always start with the eyes when I paint portraits. I find that if the eyes are not right, then I can’t move forward. The eyes are the window to the soul and they are the absolute centre point of the artwork.

Question 1: You are taking your art very seriously. You are entering your artworks in major art competitions, and exhibiting your work as widely as you can. This is a long slow and complex process. Do you feel that you are making progress?

I think I’m making progress but it doesn’t always feel that way.  The process is very up and down and you have to develop a thick skin to handle the inevitable rejections.  Australia is fortunate in having an abundance of art prizes, competitions and shows.  Some of the high profile National portrait competitions such as the Doug Moran and Archibald Prize have prize money of $150,000 and $100,000 respectively.  The exposure and opportunities that flow from winning these prizes have transformed the careers of many artists.  At the other end of the scale there are numerous local Rotary Art shows that provide a great opportunity to exhibit and sell.

I wouldn’t say that I’m consciously building a brand but I certainly see competitions and exhibitions as a way of getting my work out there and seen.  It’s very competitive process though, with one or two exceptions all competitions have a selection stage where a mass of entrants are whittled down to a small number of finalists.  The Doug Moran National Portrait for instance had over 1000 entries in 2018 but picked only 30 finalists while the 2018 BP Portrait Prize in the UK had 2667 entries from 88 countries from which 48 works were selected.  Even the smaller prizes are highly competitive so it’s a big achievement to be selected as a finalist for anything, let alone to win.

In addition to the portraits I also enter my sculptures into competitions and I find the landscapes are selling well at art shows and online.  In 2018 entered approximately 20 competitions, awards and art shows, I was accepted in 10 and ended up winning 2 People’s Choice Awards.

A ‘winning formula’ is elusive and I’m not even sure it exists.  Art like beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, what one person (or judge) loves another one hates.  This can be a source of frustration but also hope.  At the end of the day I try to create the best work I can in a style that pleases me.

The artwork is created from photo references that I took of Brendan Nelson in my own studio. He was with me for about 2 or 3 hours. I took hundreds of photos with different lighting and poses, etc.

Question 2: The Brendan Nelson artwork; did you do this specifically create this artwork to enter into the Archibald?

No, I had actually approached an actress and an author to sit for the Archibald but for different reasons they fell through.  The original plan had been to paint a couple of portraits in parallel, one for the Archibald and the other for a new prize run through the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra called the Darling Portrait Prize.  For the Darling Prize the subject must be someone who has made a significant contribution to Australian life.  Dr Brendan Nelson seemed like an ideal candidate as someone who has given a lifetime of service to the public.  He is currently Director of the Australian War Memorial and has previously served as an Ambassador to the European Union, Belgium and NATO, Leader of the Opposition, Minister for Defence, Minister for Education, Federal MP and President of the Australian Medical Association.

The timing of the Darling Portrait prize meant that it was possible to enter his portrait into the Archibald as well.  As someone that paints in a photo realistic style my portraits aren’t a perfect fit for the Archibald that would probably describe itself as a ‘contemporary’ portrait prize.  Having said this there are always a handful of works selected in this style – so there is always a chance.  Unfortunately 2019 wasn’t to be my year for the Archibald.

Question 3: Who do you think will buy this artwork, apart from Mr Nelson’s family? I ask because sometimes I think there may be an official government based market . . . e.g. sell the artwork to the Australian War Museum?

I’m not even sure Dr Nelson’s family would be interested.  He mentioned that he’d had his portrait painted several times over the years and his wife had banned him from hanging any at home, the one portrait he does own was hung in his office.

I think portraits are a very personal thing.  Whereas someone might be happy to have a landscape painting on their wall, the same thing couldn’t be said for a portrait of some random individual.  Unless there is some personal connection to the subject then most portraits will have a limited market.

The Darling Portrait prize is a little different to many competitions in that it’s an acquisitional prize where the winner becomes part of NPG’s collection and there is the option for other works to be purchased as well – so if I’m lucky enough to be a finalist then who knows? When I paint a competition portrait I’m conscious that if it sells that’s a bonus, the main objectives are to showcase my work and the pursuit of elusive glory!

Question 4: You have developed a creative process that is quite complex.  You are incorporating airbrush, with colour pencil, and erasing, etc.  The level of detail in the artwork is truly photographic.  Is it enjoyable . . . do you lose yourself in the artwork while you are painting it?

It’s all about using a tool kit of skills and techniques to replicate the reference image in the most efficient and accurate way possible.  I enjoy the process of applying a step by step methodology to paint what I see.  I’m not sure that I often lose myself in an artwork to the extent that hours seem like minutes in fact I’m usually very conscious of time.  My process is to work on a small piece of an artwork and bring it to completion before moving on, each section will take as long as it takes.  I can visualise how an artwork will look when it’s finished and any impatience to get to that point is countered by a fear of not overworking or wrecking the artwork along the way.  While I enjoy the process of creating the real enjoyment comes from the satisfaction of successfully completing an artwork.

In the Brendon Nelson artwork for instance the clothing was painted using a Venturi System push and pull technique while for the face and hands I had premixed a dozen colours that I applied light to dark and in varying intensities while utilising the white base of the canvas.  Texture in the skin was mainly created through the careful application and layering of paint but an eraser was also used widely.  For the hair, paint was layered and removed with erasers and blades to give the illusion of depth while some of the stray and random hairs were rendered with colour pencil.

This photo shows the world famous photorealist fine artist – Chuck Close in action – airbrushing. I took the idea of Chuck’s artwork process of separating the artwork into the four printing colour layers (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) . . . and used the concept for my 3D abstract sculptures. I built separate layers on perspex and airbrushed the shapes on each.

Question 5: How would you compare the creation of these artworks to your abstract 3D sculptures?

The process to create both the 2d and 3d work is very methodical but that’s where the similarities end.  I love creating both types of work but with the painting I can feel like a slave to detail at times.  In contrast the sculptures are something I do when I need break or I’m bored with painting – there’s a creative freedom that I don’t get with photo realistic painting.  The creative part of the 3d work happens up front, visualising the sculpture and designing a template for each of the 2d components, the step of creating the 3d work itself is actually very mechanical.  For painting most of the creative process is in the making, while I know what I want to paint and how it should look a lot of effort goes into utilising accumulated knowledge to replicate the reference image in the painting.

“As Good as Gold”. This artwork won the Albert Park College art show acquisitional art prize in 2016, and is now sitting in the entrance to the college. I’m normal using acrylic inks. There is a second piece to this, done in bronze in called “Almost as good as Gold”.

Question 6: Do you exhibit the sculptures along side the photorealist artworks? Or do you keep them very separate, as if you have two completely separate demographics that follow you?

The sculptures and paintings don’t usually get exhibited together, not as a conscious decision on my part but because the art shows and competitions are normally either 2D or 3D affairs.

This artwork is called “Spinning Out”. It is very hard to show how the artwork looks. The video below shows the artwork more clearly.

There does seem to be a different following between the sculptures and paintings with some overlap as well.  Instagram for instance which is a very visual medium it’s quite noticeable that there are some people that will consistently like the sculpture posts while a completely different set of people like the portraits.  In contrast on Facebook the focus is more about following a person so there is much more overlap for the 2d and 3d work.   It shouldn’t be too surprising that there are 2 separate demographics.  Sculpture and painting often have two distinct followings added to the fact that my paintings are typically representational and traditional while the sculptures are more abstract and contemporary.  Fortunately for me I don’t have to choose one or the other and my work is exposed to wider audience than it would have otherwise been.

Question 7: Can you tell us about the idea behind the self portrait?

This won the Albert Park College Art Show Small Sculpture Prize the following year. There are limited opportunities to exhibit sculptures at art shows, and they are costly to ship to the shows. Everything is painted in blue and yellow but as it turns and the colours visually mix, it changes colour.

The idea emerged out of a weekend on an Airbrush Venturi Advanced Portrait course with you (Tony Vowles) in 2012.  The vision was to create a full colour portrait out of just three overlayed transparent colours: cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY) a technique used by American artist Chuck Close in the 1970’s.  The resulting portrait wasn’t particularly successful because after the first colour was applied error correction became extremely difficult. 

I revisited the concept a few years later and overcame the shortcomings of the first attempt with a new process of creating three separate CMY monochromatic paintings in transparent paint on Perspex and then overlaying them – something I haven’t seen anyone else do.  The resulting artwork lacked the accuracy and finesse of Close but it had an interesting 3d feel, similar to looking at still image of a 3d movie without the special glasses on.  This led to me explore what else I could do with Perspex and paint to create the illusion of a full 3 dimension sculpture using a series of 2 dimensions paintings.  I’ve subsequently experimented with all sorts of subjects, designs, materials, processes and techniques and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of where I can take it. 

“CMY Self Portrait” is created using only red yellow blue. It is painted on three separate layers of perspex. I tried adding a forth sheet of perspex with black but it didn’t work well. This was a semi-finalist for the Doug Moran portrait prize.

I wasn’t sure if anyone would like the sculptures but the very first piece I made was selected for a prestigious art prize and ended up being acquired by an Art Museum in Melbourne for their collection.  If anything the sculpture side of things have been more successful than the painting.

Paintings:  www.bluethumb.com.au/todd-simpsonInstagram and Facebook: toddsimpsonart

Sculptures:  www.toddsimpsonart.com/sculptures/

Thank you Todd, for going to so much effort to write clear and comprehensive answers to my questions.

If you would like to learn to airbrush well enough to exhibit your art, like Todd, we can teach you to do this successfully. Airbrush Venturi has over 20 schools located across Australia and New Zealand.

For more information . . .
Ring us on 1300-247 278 (1300 AIRBRUSH)
Go to our website HERE and the course timetable with locations, teachers names, and costs HERE.

To enrol, got to the enrolment form HERE

Written by Tony Vowles