Portraits for NHS Heroes is one of the defining artistic movements of 2020. Initiated by the portrait painter Tom Croft during the first UK lockdown in April, Tom’s idea was for artists to offer portraits of NHS workers as a gesture of our gratitude for their hard work in taking care of us. A simple idea quickly snowballed into a global movement, and one that is still producing portraits for healthcare workers whose work we are indebted to. We got in touch with Tom to ask him about his thoughts on how the idea took off, and how it also impacted upon his artistic practice.
Lisa: So, you put your call out for an NHS worker who would like to have their portrait painted on the 4th April and suggested other artists might like to do the same … 7 months later there has been an online exhibition hosted by Google, a publication of portraits from Bloomsbury, and over 13,000 portraits for NHS heroes shared on social media! How has the whole experience felt for you, the instigator of this amazing project?
Tom: Well it’s been a mind blowing privilege to see how many portraits have been produced for free to document the NHS key workers at their most challenging time. The vast range of mediums and stylistic approaches used is wonderful. Then the fact that everyone from current and former presidents of Royal Societies, BP award artists, Sky portrait artists, professional and hobbyist portrait artists, through to people who haven’t picked up a paint brush since art college or school, all wanted to contribute makes you realise how special and unique this project is. It just shows how indebted we all feel to the NHS workers and how we realise, although can’t fully imagine, how exceptionally traumatic their working days had become.
Through this project I have definitely been reminded of the power of portraiture in recording, telling stories and celebrating people.
Lisa: What was it like to paint a portrait in lockdown, of a nurse you had never actually met? And can you share your thoughts about painting portraits from photographs?
Tom: Given the lockdown there was no chance of a live sitting. I actually like working from a combination of photos and life sittings where possible, and I like to take my own reference photos. I know some artists tried Zoom sittings, but we were all to a certain extent limited by what reference photos we could get from our NHS workers. I took the view that the last thing they needed in the middle of their working day was an artist saying, “now that’s not quite right can you send me one with better lighting or looking slightly further to the left please?”. So I got very lucky indeed that the photo Harriet sent me was brilliantly descriptive of the moment. She was wearing full PPE for the first time and was about to start a week of nightshifts. She was waving to her mum in the photo but I thought it could be reinterpreted as her asking you to keep your social distance. The photo put the viewer into the role of patient and it made you instantly understand the additional anxiety not seeing a whole face would bring. Try reading a facial expression when you can only see someone’s eyes and it’s far harder. The PPE is a constant reminder all is not well. I painted a second portrait for Harriet of her in a more positive moment, not at work but relaxing at home. It occurred to me she might not want the PPE portrait on her walls as a constant reminder, so at least she has the choice.
Lisa: What is it about painting portraits in particular that you feel makes it such a compelling subject?
Tom: I am lucky enough to get commissioned to paint people’s portraits and almost invariably I have the whole of the face to work with to help describe my subject. This was an entirely different proposition in that you really only see the eyes and the rest of the face is obscured with a mask and visor. It therefore loads extra focus and tension into the eyes to try and convey the worry, fear, or reassurance the subject is feeling or projecting.
For my portrait of Harriet the lighting was a key component. That feeling I recognise of lying in a hospital bed looking up at a strip lit ceiling, trying to make sense of what’s happening and someone’s face looking down on you. In terms of story telling the subject matter of the front line of a pandemic is about as powerful as it gets.
Lisa: How do you start a portrait and do you have a set palette/favourite brushes/mediums/surface that you like to work with?
Tom: I always start with a coloured ground. I either use Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue thinned with Sansador to make a grey-ish ground, or my new favourite is acrylic Bismuth Yellow, ultramarine blue and titanium white, mixed to form a beautiful greeny blue. I love judging all skin colours against it and it forms a middle tone to help judge values too. I work on canvas or canvas board. I used synthetic brushes for years and still like them, but I started using hog hair too recently and they’re a game changer. The thicker gobs of oil paint they can deliver is just gorgeous. Texture is one of the joys of oil paint anyway so you may as well go for it!
I have quite a lot of colours on my palette, but the notable exception is I don’t use a black. Prussian Blue and Alizarin Crimson Lake make a really deep dark you can pass your hand through. I sometimes add Viridian deep too. My favourite two colours are Violet Grey by Old Holland and Golden Green Deep. Oh and Sheveningen Blue Light…ok and Michael Harding Unbleached Titanium Dioxide. Ok Transparent Oxide red is amazing. I like all colours. I use Sansador as a mineral thinner because it doesn’t give me the banging headache turps or the evil white spirit did.
Lisa: At the time of writing we’re currently in lockdown no.2. Are people still painting portraits of NHS heroes and what would you say to anyone who’s worried it might be too late to get involved?
Tom: I know people are still offering to paint NHS portraits and they can still post the green canvas saying “I’m offering a free portrait…” from my Instagram feed if they want to take part. I would love as many NHS workers as possible to receive their portrait so do keep offering. You can find the green canvas under the hashtag #portraitsfornhsheroes too.
Lisa: Artists seem to have fallen into two camps this year – those who cannot muster the energy or motivation to paint anything, and those who have been able to really focus on their painting as a result of not being able to go anywhere else. Do you have any words of advice for those who struggle to engage with their creativity as a result of the pandemic?
Tom: Everyone reacts differently and I definitely experienced both emotions. Firstly I couldn’t paint, despite needing to for a living and luckily having commissions in.
I listen to the radio as I work and the rolling news was just too much day after day. That’s what lead me to the thought about painting NHS workers. If you feel your work has a real positive purpose then I found it helped me enormously to refocus and reengage. In fact when you feel you are doing something that could be making a positive difference to someone I suddenly found I had tons of energy and couldn’t wait to get painting again. Maybe I should suggest to those struggling to try offering an NHS portrait, if they can spare the time and money to do it, in case it proves cathartic? I think the key ultimately is you need to look after yourself, be kind to yourself and sometimes we just need a break.
Lisa: Have you been able to do any painting away from the NHS heroes project? If so, what have you been working on?
Tom: In all honesty I wasn’t able to meaningfully paint and therefore earn for months as it was all consuming, but in a really positive way. It required fairly constant attention to keep things moving but I really enjoyed and wanted to do it too. My poor but very lovely clients who have commissioned me have been waiting patiently for me to complete paintings, but have been so understanding and have really allowed me to do this. I am now back painting and have never been more fired up to take what I’ve learnt into these next portraits and make them my best work. Someone told me recently a French phrase about taking a step backward in order to leap further forward. I like that and now claim it was my plan all along.
Lisa: The book has just been published, and it’s a wonderful collection of paintings, as well as a celebration of those who work for the NHS. What do you think the book tells us about contemporary portraiture?
Tom: It tells me that contemporary portraiture is thriving in this country. I have a mate who said “I always thought you were really talented until I saw that LOADS of people can do what you do!” I love the variety of styles and approaches that are all equally valid and heartfelt. I learn from other artists approaches all the time and this was I believe a completely democratic unique chance to see so many examples of portraiture on the same topic. I also feel it has created a community of artists who can support each other – I’m really grateful that exists, and has allowed me and hopefully hundreds of other artists to connect in this way.
Lisa: Are there any further plans in the pipeline for the NHS heroes project?
Tom: My hope is still that we can have a big physical exhibition somewhere prominent, maybe once we’re hopefully able to get some perspective on the pandemic. I think the public would welcome an exhibition like that as a chance to process and say thank you again to the NHS.
Lisa: Where can people find out more about your painting, and also about the portraits for NHS heroes project?
Tom: My website is www.thomascroft.co.uk and my instagram is @tomcroftartist where you can see my work but also there are links to the Google exhibition with Paintings in Hospitals and links to the book. I will update any news of the project on my Instagram.
You can view the 13,000 portraits (and counting) under the hashtag #portraitsfornhsheroes.
Links to other artists featured in this post:
Darren Butcher – @darrenbutcherart
Header image: PPE Workers, 2020 by Darren Butcher, oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm