Bristol-based artist Lee Ellis is a multimedia artist known for his expressive abstract portraits. Combining elements of painting, drawing and printmaking, Lee’s dynamic approach makes for rich, bold and emotional works of art. With colours and figures reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s visceral style, Lee’s dynamic approach conveys the raw emotion and inner turmoil of his characters. Characterised by saturated colours and heavy brushwork, the process-led nature of Lee’s art reflects the energy of each piece.
Lee was one of MakersPlace’s first phygital artists, so we were excited to sit down with him to learn about how he bridges the physical-digital divide.
Brady Walker: I read that you don’t pre-plan your pieces. Let’s say it’s 60 seconds before you start a piece — how much do you know about what you’ll do?
Lee Ellis: Typically, I always know that I’m going to do a portrait because that’s what I love painting. But 60 seconds before, all I know is that I’m picking up some spray paint or charcoal. I don’t know what I’m doing exactly. So I let the linework do it for me and see how it evolves.
I usually do a lot of time-lapses for Instagram, and you can see in some of them where I might change my mind halfway through or start drawing one thing and then do something else. It’s quite organic, and it just evolves as I go.
Sometimes I do plan, but it’s usually for bigger canvas pieces, and even then, the planning is minimal because I don’t know where the paint is going to take me or how it’s going to work. I might start doing one thing and then think of trying a different color or medium, and it all just constantly evolves.
So for me, it’s all about the process rather than the end result. That’s how I see it. I love the process of creating, and I just let it flow naturally. I try not to force anything; I just let the medium decide what I’m going to do, whether it’s charcoal, spray paint, or oil paints. That’s the extent of it.
BW: When you create a piece of art, do you consider what you want your audience to experience when they look at it?
LE: Actually, I prefer not to give any direction to the audience. I want them to take away whatever they want from the piece. That’s why my titles are usually unrelated to the paintings themselves, so that the audience can form their own interpretations.
As an artist, I focus on the process of creating and living in the moment. I don’t want to influence the audience’s experience in any way. It’s like looking at a Rothko painting – different people will feel different emotions. I want the audience to experience the art for themselves, without any guidance or direction from me.
BW: I would like to challenge your Rothko analogy a bit. Reading emotion on a face is something humans are engineered to do, and it’s different from reading a Rothko painting.
LE: Yes, you’re right. That was just a rough analogy I used for interpreting artwork.
BW: I’m not trying to one-up your analogy, but I’m curious if there’s an underlying mood to your work that is more tangible than a Rothko or abstract art. A face has an inherent mood.
LE: I understand where you’re coming from. The way I carve into the faces creates a more macabre and morose feeling. I don’t paint the eyes, which adds to the effect. The contours of the face are emphasized with holes, which can make it feel more depressing.
To balance this out, I use bright colors and patterns in the background. People can interpret the work as they want, but the visual side of it is not necessarily a reflection of my personality. It’s just my way of playing with contours, accentuating features, and removing eyes.
BW: Do you aim to create a different face every time or do you have recurring characters?
LE: It’s a bit of both, actually. I use the same technique for creating eyes and noses, and usually, the nose is always mine. So most of my portraits have this massive nose, and I use elements that I’ve saved in my memory.
It’s like a generative process where I pick and choose bits that work rather than having a load of files. You’ll see recurring elements, but they’re not always in the same place. A lot of the portraits are of my own face, and the key recurring elements are my nose and chin. It’s just the way it has evolved over the years.
BW: Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s similar to jazz. I studied jazz for a while, and it’s this thing where even if you’re improvising, you can never fully escape the patterns and habits you’ve developed over time.
LE: That’s true. I think that’s what makes abstract art quite challenging. You can get set in your ways of creating certain things or using certain patterns, and it’s hard to avoid having some sort of formula. Even if you try to escape it, there’s no way to completely get rid of it.
BW: If you were unable to paint faces or face-like objects, what would you choose to paint instead?
LE: Hmm, that’s a tough one. I would probably go for abstract art because the faces I create, especially with spray paint and oil paintings, are quite abstract. It’s just that they’re held within the vessel of a face. So without that, I would lean towards abstract or semi-abstract landscapes. I could still use the same techniques and mediums that I enjoy and apply them to those subjects.
I like to paint with tools as well, so I usually have scraps of wood, hand saws, and wire brushes nearby when I’m working on a portrait with spray paint. Since the paint dries quickly, I have to work fast and move the paint around in a destructive way. It’s kind of an oxymoron, but it’s a part of the process that I enjoy.
So, anything that would allow me to use those techniques would be my choice, like abstract or landscape paintings.
BW: Are all of your pieces 100% analog and then digitized? Do you have a digital art practice?
LE: That’s a great question. I have worked digitally in the past for jobs, creating digital illustrations and such. However, I am so invested in the physical process of creating art that staring at a screen all day wouldn’t satisfy me.
After completing a design degree, I felt everything was too structured and based on strict guidelines, which is why I turned to painting to get away from it. Now, I need the physical act of creating to feel fulfilled. It allows for more experimentation and freedom than working digitally, in my opinion.
BW: What are your weapons of choice for making art? I’ve seen you with charcoal, spray paint, and with a paintbrush — with what do you feel most comfortable, and what pushes your limits?
LE: I feel most comfortable with charcoal because I can make minimal marks and still create a piece that works. It’s also very manipulable and forgiving. On the other hand, working with oil paints pushes me to my limits because it’s much harder, and I need more patience since the paint dries slowly.
BW: Are there any new mediums that you plan to incorporate into your work?
LE: Currently, I’ve explored and covered every medium I can think of. However, I have started to use flat colors in my work, which is something new for me. I’ve also recently started cutting up old canvases and using the pieces to create new portraiture, which is a new medium that I’m incorporating into my work.
BW: Which artists have had the biggest impact on your work?
LE: Well, there are the classics like Picasso, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and Frank Auerbach, who all use amazing textures in their oil paintings. Basquiat is also a big influence.
In terms of more contemporary artists, there’s Arnulf Reiner, who was the reason I started painting after seeing his painting Wine Crucifix at the Tate Modern as a kid. Adam Neate is another exceptional painter who incorporates 3D elements into his work. Joseph Loughborough is a charcoal artist who is amazing, and Andrew Salgado, a Mexican Canadian artist who uses a lot of collage and bright colors. Oh, and one more, sorry. Adrian Ghenie is a modern-day Francis Bacon, and definitely worth checking out.
BW: I think my favorite pieces of yours are from your Clowns… series. What were you going for with this series?
LE: Actually, the Clowns series was more about the process and experimentation rather than a specific inspiration. It was the first time I used a digital version of my charcoal drawings to impact the way I created art. I scanned my charcoal drawings and added color using Photoshop by playing around with the channels.
Then I thought, why not create it physically? So I experimented with transparent spray paints and found a way to incorporate them with paint and charcoal. This series influenced how I create art even today. For example, I have a painting on the wall that I created using charcoal, transparent spray paint, and layers upon layers, all because of the Clowns series.
BW: Yeah, I have Clowns Don’t Eat Macaroni on my desktop right now. The piece has a really bright duotone blue and orange polka dot shirt, but the guy’s expression looks truly miserable, almost like he’s from a Depression-era photo by Dorothea Lange. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between the cheerful colors and the somber expression.
LE: Yes, I do like playing with that juxtaposition. One of my inspirations is street photography by Vivian Maier from the 1940s and 50s, and a lot of those figures don’t look particularly cheerful. So I think that influence may come through in my work as well.
I like to take elements from different sources and incorporate them into my own style, so there may be some truth to the figures appearing unhappy if it’s based on past things I’ve looked at.
BW: What about your Abstracts series? Your portraits are already quite abstract, so what led to this series?
LE: It was more of an exploration for me. I don’t usually work in abstrac. During the COVID lockdowns, I wanted to try some new things, and some pieces came out of that. It was just a way to break up the time.
I’ve been super focused on my portraiture work. The process of creating abstract art is helpful for experimenting with techniques, like layering paint and using different mediums. I bring that to my portrait work. It’s been a helpful way to expand my skills and techniques.
BW: It seems like going back and forth between abstract and your style of portraiture would have interesting ways of informing each other. Did you take away anything from doing your abstracts that you now incorporate into your portraiture?
LE: Yeah, I would say the use of bright colors and mixing different mediums. In my abstracts, I used a lot of oil paints and spray paint, and then added oil pastels on top. This mark-making technique translates well into my portraiture. Since I wasn’t trying to make a portrait with my abstracts, I felt more free to experiment and try new things. Some of those techniques worked well, and I now incorporate them into my portraits. It’s more about the process and the little processes I can take with me and apply to the next piece.
BW: Do you have a favorite painting of yours?
LE: No, I don’t really have a favorite painting. I don’t dwell on them. I paint them and store them in a unit.
BW: That’s probably because you don’t pre-plan them, so you don’t have a lot of time to get attached.
LE: Yes, that might be it. I’m also quite ruthless with my work. If a painting isn’t working, I’m happy to destroy it. So I’m not really attached to them in that way.
BW: Cut them up for new pieces.
BW: Do you have a favorite piece of art from someone else?
LE: Yes, I really love Study of the Human Body, the Base of the Crucifixion (1944) by Francis Bacon. It’s a triptych with an orange background and currently on display at Tate Britain. That’s definitely up there as one of my favorites. And I also mentioned earlier Wine Crucifix by Arnulf Reiner, which is another one of my favorites.
BW: Do you have a favorite piece of fiction, and how do other art forms inform your process or subject matter?
LE: I’ve been influenced by a lot of comic books and graphic novels over the years, although I’m not exactly sure how. One that stands out is Arkham Asylum by Dave McKean and Grant Morrison. It’s very dark and features Batman going into Arkham Asylum, which has been taken over by the inmates. That style of artwork has definitely influenced me. That and I think the thing that inspires me most other than paintings would be the music of Tom Waits. I really love his storytelling. And it’s so surreal, and it’s just something that I’ve never really heard anyone else do.
BW: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self about art and creativity?
LE: Honestly, I don’t think I would give myself any advice. I would just keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve been fairly relentless in my art practice, painting and drawing every day for as long as I can remember, and I would encourage myself to continue doing so. My advice would simply be to keep creating, every single day.
BW: Is there anything more pragmatic that you might tell yourself, maybe not about art and creativity, but about career building? About making a life as an artist?
LE: Perhaps something sensible, like planning ahead financially. That’s really important, and you can’t just ignore it. I would suggest getting an accountant to help with that. It’s a good start. Oh, and don’t buy shit paints. If you buy shit paints, they’ll ruin your pieces, and you’ll have wasted your money.
BW: So, what are you working on now, and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the next three to six months?
LE: Currently, I’m using up the remaining cans of spray paint in my studio to create single-color portraits on paper. It’s an experimental process, and I’m enjoying it. I’m doing that and also trying to figure out a Tom Waits series of paintings I’ve wanted to do for ages. It’s a long-term project, and I’m still figuring out the details, but it should be quite surreal. I’m also working on some more strange portraits and deciding what to do for the next drop on MakersPlace.
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