You won’t believe these paintings aren’t photographs
When Charles Bierk had his debut solo exhibition in 2014, people couldn’t believe his works weren’t photographs. The portraitist and OCADU alum had spent months capturing every pore and wrinkle on the faces of his subjects—friends, musicians and artists—in massive oil paintings. This week, Bierk returns to Nicholas Metivier Gallery to display a new batch of eerily life-like pieces in a show called As You Are, We Are, on display until April 29. We asked him to tell us how he does it.
You’ve been doing photorealistic portraiture for your whole career. What got you interested in the genre?
This form of painting seems most natural to me. A big—and obvious—inspiration of mine is Chuck Close. My dad was an artist, and he used to drag my brothers and me to shows. He took us to a Chuck Close exhibit in New York in ’97, and I just remember the moment it clicked for me: these were all paintings, not photographs. That moment became something I wanted to create. I really like watching people look at the work and react with surprise when a brushstroke or a strand of hair tells them it’s not a photograph. That, to me, is like the magician’s reveal at the end of the trick. The first time I was able to do that to someone else—my first show in 2014—I felt like I had achieved something. I’m getting better and better at creating that illusion.
How did you get started?
I started by painting my nearest and dearest: my siblings, my partner and my close friends. It’s just spiderwebbed out from that to friends of friends and my peer group in the artistic community of Toronto.
What’s your process like?
Each piece takes a month or two to complete. I photograph the subjects in my studio. That’s the part I struggle with the most, because I’m not trained as a photographer, so normally I shoot a couple hundred photographs. One or two usually stand out when I look through them, but sometimes, I invite the subject back. It’s really tough to describe; there’s a feeling I get when I’m looking at the right image, a notion of something the subject is giving me.
And then how do you paint the pieces?
After I take the photograph, I have it enlarged and printed with a grid of two-and-a-half-inch squares overlaid on top of it. I copy that grid onto the canvas, and I fill in the squares one by one. There’s a difference between painting a forehead and a pair of lips, though, so I’ll break the lips into even smaller squares because there’s so much more detail. The smaller you make the squares, the easier it gets: around the eyes, nose and mouth, the squares get smaller and smaller.
What part of the face do you enjoy painting the most?
The eyes and lips are always fun. The reflections and highlights in the eyes really bring the piece to life.
When is a painting finished?
When the squares are filled up and the backgrounds are filled in. I have the source images for each painting in my studio, but I rarely look at them because I could nit-pick forever. As photorealistic as my work is, I’m pretty liberal with the details. It’s important to make the subject’s likeness come through, but I’m not counting hairs. A lot of the time, I’m boosting features up or bringing them down to create a more dramatic image.
Do you have hang-ups about painting other people’s faces, especially when they’re supposed to be extremely accurate?
It’s a bigger hang-up when you’re painting someone you know, for sure. When you’re painting a friend and you mess up their nose a little bit, it’s going to be glaring to you even if it won’t be to everyone else.
It’s not my place to tell you how to do your job, but why don’t you use any colour?
I have a bunch of really shitty colour paintings that I made when I was a student at OCADU. I would love to work in colour in the future, but I would want to be as realistic and convincing as I think the black-and-white pieces are.
What can people expect to see in your new show?
There are 10 people in this show, though I probably photographed 30 or 40 folks in total. There are probably six to seven paintings of hands, too. I had the best hand models around: my brother and his partner are very expressive! My last show was strictly big work, but I wanted more variety in scale at this show, so there are quite a few smaller paintings. There’s also some work I did with two friends of mine from the band July Talk, who had asked me to paint the album cover for their new record, Touch. They had the idea to shoot an image of two bodies—it was very abstract—and I think I made three paintings in two weeks. That was a refreshing change for me.