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Conversations in Isolation: Jonathan Yeo

The portrait artist's lockdown musings

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During lockdown, Scarfe’s Bar is shut so we’re asking some of our past interviewees how they’re coping with isolation and how they think Coronavirus will change our world – this week the portrait artist Jonathan Yeo. Charlotte Metcalf spoke to him on the telephone at home.

Conversations In Isolation: Jonathan Yeo

Jonathan Yeo Headshot

Where are you isolating?

At home in London with my wife and two daughters, 13 and 16. We have a garden and live in a leafy part of London so it’s not as bad as it could be, though my daughters are going a bit stir crazy.

How are you keeping fit?

I’m not sure that we are! Our garden is just big enough to play Badminton in and I go out cycling or walk and run a bit.

What are you creating in isolation?

I’ve been doing my series of Facetime Portraits with three people I know – the actor and director Dexter Fletcher, Professor Brian Cox and the broadcaster Fearne Cotton, who’s also an artist. I’ve been talking to them on an iPad next to my easel as I paint and then live-streaming those conversations on Instagram and You Tube. I want to do half a dozen or so and see if there’s a theme that emerges as it’s the first time I’ve painted faces in this way from a flat screen, a 2D window into someone else’s home.

Sometimes constraints are healthy as they force you to get around problems – your usual methods get tested and that’s when you come up with new ideas.  When I was keeping up with the conversation, I have to admit the painting didn’t go so well but for anyone interested in the process of portraiture it’s out there for all to see.

I’ve also been creating a prototype of a machine that looks a bit like a photo booth, which will give you a five to ten minute VR experience. I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else yet.

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What have you learnt in isolation?

It’s been a strange time not knowing how much time is passing and I struggle to remember what order things happen in as that has so much to do with the context of different people and places. So many people are learning new things but I’ve been exploring how to use tech more in my work. I had to give up trying to learn how to code but I do want to gain enough of an understanding of tech to be asking the right questions.

I’m really interested in exploring facial recognition in technology and 3D imaging and how all that relates to date – it’s a big rich area and will only get more interesting. So I’ve been attending some tech conferences on Zoom and talked to people on Facetime to learn things, though it’s hard to know where to start, there’s so much more to learn.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt is just how much time is spent travelling around, going to meetings. Having a clear diary doesn’t affect things as much as I expected but it does mean I have a good clear stretch of painting without interruption.

How do you see the post-Coronavirus world?

I think this has been an opportunity for all of us to slow down. We’ve all been under pressure to work hard, read all the right books, be everywhere at once amplified by social media. There’s no sense of FOMO now as we’re all going through this and I hope a bit of that continues. Also, people won’t need to be flying across the world for meetings and with luck we’ll all become more connected to where we are and aware of our local communities.

As for artists, I think that despite the economic uncertainty, we’ve all had a fertile creative period in isolation without all the art fairs and openings and so on to go to.  What’s going to emerge artistically after all this is going to be very interesting indeed.


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