Daniel James Yeomans is an artist whose classically rendered portraits capture their subjects with evocative soft-edged clarity. Daniel studied at the Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence, where he trained using the ‘sight-size’ technique, favoured by many of the masters such as Velasquez and Van Dyck.
Daniel’s painting Dystonia & I; The Renaissance Of Self, pictured below, was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2019. The work combines Daniel’s interest in telling stories through paint with his mastery of oils, culminating in a powerful and emotive study of the human condition. In this interview, Daniel talks about his processes, the importance of working from life, and how he blends classical techniques with modern installations.
Daniel: Hi Dan, could you tell us how you got your start?
Dan: Well, accidentally really, followed by lots of saving and lots of hard work. We never had a TV in the house and still don’t, so that might account for something. I do remember being in Wales about the age of 18 and doing some paintings of friends from photos. Not long after that I had a couple of people asking me for portrait commissions. After one or two I decided I could do a lot better and pursued the idea further.
I visited various different schools in London looking for something that suited me. At this point I realised the teachers in London had studied in Florence so I went there for a visit and instantly knew I had to go. At this time I had no money so I went away to work as a ski teacher, in the Alps. Along with other jobs like airport shuttle driving, bar work (I worked about 3-4 jobs at the same time) saving up for a year, then applied to study at Charles Cecil Studios. After applying I then continued saving for another year before I finally went to begin my training.
How would you describe your experiences in Florence training at the Charles Cecil studios?
The first impression you have of the studio is familial. They don’t accept a huge number of students which means you get better tuition, in my opinion. When you arrive you walk up the narrow, dimly lit stone staircase to reach the ‘oval’ room, which the light spills into through the large chapel-like windows. Your study begins here. Here you learn to draw the figure and attend art lectures focusing on charcoal and pencil drawing from the cast and figure. Here we talked more about how to interpret what you are drawing rather than technical aspects. What information do we need, what makes the composition work, how to guide the eye around the canvas, and many other things.
Being in Florence is fantastic, at first you don’t know where to look. There is so much to see. The beauty of living there is that you don’t need to do it all at once. I would go to the Uffizzi and see two or three paintings then go home and do it again a few days later.
Being in Florence around all the masterpieces instilled a sort of healthy competition within me. An ‘if they can why not me’ sort of attitude became my attitude to learning to control paint in the style I was aiming for. After 2 years I felt ready to leave and didn’t particularly gel with a couple of the teachers (who have incidentally left now). I wanted to learn how to paint larger compositions which a studio/ school environment naturally doesn’t cater for, so it was time to go my own direction.
Can you tell us a bit more about how Dystonia & I; The Renaissance Of Self came to be painted?
I had an open studio day. It was here I met Tim. He was particularly interested in the craft of painting from life so we got chatting about various different things and eventually Dystonia, which he suffers from. It’s a very rare neurological syndrome that has no real cure. Tim describes it as having a terrible hangover with spasms, often in the neck. It comes and goes. Sometimes he is bedridden and on a good day he can walk without his cane and be creative in his workshop. For Tim, art is an escape from all this and it re-focuses his mind. So he asked to come and watch me work. After a few days doing this I asked if I could make a painting of him whilst he drew in his sketchbooks.
The painting developed as we went really. It is all about Tim coming to terms with life with Dystonia and his ‘new self’. Drawing every day in his black books has helped him to keep motivated, to get out of bed and live the best he can. The self-portrait in the background is one of Tim’s own self-portraits. It represents himself, half out of the picture, as though it’s his old self a little out of touch.
Can you tell us how you make your paintings – is there a lot of preliminary drawing before you get the paints out, do you always work in front of the subject, and how do you choose the colours you will work with?
It varies. I don’t have any rules. Sometimes I know exactly what I want before I find a model. Other times I try to let myself be inspired by the model as I get to know them and their story. If it’s a large project I tend to do some pencil drawings to form an idea, then I’ll move to paint and get a feel of the colours and composition. In the end all the decisions are made to make up a composition which works; everything else is secondary.
Working from life enables spontaneous brushwork. Each brush stroke, the colour, the direction, the thickness of the paint is all a response to something happening in front of me. If all this becomes still (in a photo) I lose all these variable qualities in my work that make it my own.
What makes a good subject for a portrait and have there ever been any commissions you have not been able to work on?
I think as I develop as an artist the story is becoming more important, I’m now less interested just in the face or a portrait but portraying the person within their setting and trying to tell their story. Everyone is interesting and has character traits that can be painted so sometimes it is just a case of waiting for them to be comfortable and noticing that moment. I have turned down quite a few commissions that I just think are better suited for other artists.
Are there ever any surprises in your process, or is it a set of familiar stages that you go through?
The technical side is very much a process for me. But yes, quite often the surprise is in the subjects themselves, as you paint you begin to see more details and that’s interesting.
Sometimes it’s a less exciting surprise and I’ll change my mind, scrape the paint off or take a new canvas and start again. I have to remain free and able to do this to produce work I am happy with.
Can you tell me a little bit about the impact of scale in your work – are all your paintings generally the same size or do you paint a mix of large and small paintings? Does painting a large painting pose a different set of problems to painting a smaller work?
My smallest paintings are about 40 x 30 cm and the largest so far about 220 x 150 cm. Painting larger is exciting and very rewarding when I feel it’s a success. I do however have about 4 large projects which I feel are unresolved and just waiting to either have a lightbulb moment or be trashed.
Lately I have been pushing myself out of my comfort zone and actually made an installation for my most recent painting. It’s a blend of my classical approach to painting along with my creativity to bring people a new way of looking at art. This idea along with a few others that I currently have for the future are all very much my own, so I’m really excited about this new unique direction I can take my work in.
What is thought process behind the installation and how did you come up with the idea?
Most of my ideas come to me as I start to fall asleep, and I now keep a notebook with me by the bed. I knew that I wanted to paint something related to the process of painting and being creative and I wasn’t happy with my most recent ideas. And then, one night I thought as I was falling asleep.. ‘Why not paint this!’. I don’t really seem to be in control of the process of creativity, which for me usually occurs when daydreaming or falling asleep.
For me it is so sporadic and inconvenient. If I don’t note ideas down (especially the abstract ones that seem to come from nowhere) I’ll forget them half an hour later and they are gone, it’s ridiculous really! As the idea developed it became more complex, but I eventually decided I wanted the painting to represent this feeling of falling, with the idea out of reach as it came and went again.
I realised I was probably trying to paint something I had never seen before and I wanted to push the boundaries of what people consider to be classical art and bring something new to the table, which was exciting.
Once the idea had developed I needed to test it, so I used a small mirror and hung it from my studio and attempted to paint a small charcoal head study whilst lying below it. Once this worked I knew I could do the final painting. The only thing was, I needed a full-length mirror hanging from my studio ceiling. Lying underneath this large mirror was quite scary but eventually I got over the fear of being crushed by a falling mirror!
I painted the whole portrait from life which took me about two months, on and off. It was an extremely difficult process—lying down, looking up into the mirror, then getting back up onto my feet, get some paint and remember where it needed to go. Looking back it was bordering on ridiculous, I was aching all over and I’m amazed I saw it through to the end.
I haven’t included a photo of the installation because the aim is to immerse the viewer and evoke the feeling of falling whilst viewing the painting. You can, however, see how it works on the video of the exhibition (see below).
I’m not sure when I will be able to exhibit it next. Originally I wanted to enter it in the BP award, until I enquired about the possibility and discovered it doesn’t meet their entry criteria due to the complex installation needed.
Is it important to you to work on non-commissioned work as well as commissioned work?
Absolutely, painting for myself allows me to expand boundaries and try new things, sometimes they fail and sometimes they work out, but I use the experience for future projects.
Primarily I create art for everyone to enjoy in a public exhibition, so that is where most of my energy is spent. Commissions are equally important to living as an artist and just as exciting to paint but naturally you can’t seek them out so you should be happy to paint for yourself to start with.
What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Good thick brushes with long handles. I really enjoy the challenge of leaving an accurate painterly impression on the viewer so good brushes that hold a lot of paint are right up my street.
What are you working on at the moment?
A few things. I just took down my solo exhibition ‘North to South’ which was a collection of Welsh landscapes painted ‘en plein air’, along with two large new portraits and one installation.
Last week I was painting a landscape commission in the Swiss Alps, using my ski touring equipment to get up the mountain and paint with some fantastic scenery.
For the future, I have some new ideas moving on from my latest installation, creating new viewing experiences with my classical style, so I’m looking forward to settling in the new studio and getting started with those.
Where online or in the flesh can we view you more of your work?
Dan: You can see my Self Portrait No.3 at The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth in their public collection.
I am currently organising an exhibition in Switzerland (Fribourg) for the Spring.
My website has an online gallery and a viewing section. I also write a free monthly editorial aiming to inspire. With new artists to watch and news from around the art community. Videos, blog posts and tutorials along with exhibition and workshop dates.
Feature Image: Morfudd, 2019, Daniel Yeomans, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 40 cm. From Daniel’s ‘The Unlikely Sitters’ series.