Roy Joseph Butler is an actor, writer and art model. He and Leo Crane are co-founders of Figuration, a creative studio specialising in fine art and animation. They produce films, exhibitions, workshops, and events in partnership with cultural and community spaces across the UK, including the V&A, British Library, Sotheby’s Institute of Art and The Hepworth Wakefield. They have been featured in print, radio, and tv, including the BBC Radio 2 Arts Show and Sky Portrait Artist of the Year.
In their new book Contemporary Figures in Watercolour, Leo and Roy explore how to interpret the gestures and movements of the figure through the language of paint. Through a range of exercises, they show how to work with the fluidity and immediacy of watercolour to create lively paintings that are bursting with character and narrative possibility. With a focus on the dynamic exchange between artist and subject, speed, gesture and story, this book will appeal to artists looking anew at life painting and who are eager to capture the essence of character in movement.
In this article Roy talks a bit about the relationship between artist and subject, giving a fascinating insight into the indispensable role of the art model.
When I step into the life room (or studio, or repurposed front room, or first floor of a pub given over to an artists’ meetup...), I begin new relationships. And I know that, after so many years posing for art, I’ll see familiar faces there and that those familiar faces will see a familiar subject. And it’s okay, not because of the existing connection between us but because newness is still inevitable - I will give a different pose, I will pose a different mood and they will bring a wealth of experiences and energies from days and weeks and months gone by. So, when I take centre stage, as it were, the dialogue between us begins afresh. And with the unfamiliar faces, new rapports begin.
The connection between us determines what that drawing will look like or how that painting will feel. Imagine this! A painter arrives at their workshop on a high of inspiration. They’re working with a model they’ve not collaborated with before, beginning with a series of dynamic sketches of short poses. The model’s repertoire is diverse and they know their stuff, and they also quickly develop a reciprocal affinity with the painter, creatively. The resulting sketches will have a character that reflects that particular connection. Alternatively, if the relationship between the model and the painter was strictly on the level of ‘professional’ and ‘good’, the sketches - and resulting painting - would turn out very differently. The look and feel of the end product bears witness to the relationship between both creatives, and in so doing creates something special every time.
Image: Figuration/Minerva Workshop
I remember very clearly stepping into the life room for the first time. In my fear, I knew that people would judge me, perhaps even laugh at my audacity for thinking I should be there, revealing myself like this. I disrobed and waited for the ridicule. But in its place was the realisation, only a few seconds in, that I was absolutely necessary to the process. To be clear, there could have been another model in my place, so I also knew I was dispensable. But in that moment in that space, I was an essential part of everyone’s drawing endeavour, and I both saw (out of the corners of my eyes) and felt a kind of looking and earnestness that at once made me feel valid and right for being there, as well as shined a light on invisible threads linking me and them. So, when time was up on a pose, I could segue into the next with the same ease as friends share conversation, and the drawers could pick up their pencils to a new drawing - ‘good’ or ‘bad’ - with the same rhythm.
Image: Roy Triumphant by Leo Crane
I would say to an artist, “Draw what you see, how you feel. You don’t need to re-create me.” When I model, I react to the space and the people in it to create something they can in turn react to with vigour and interest. And each person trying to capture me is focusing in through their own lens, so I never expect any two pictures to look the same because I know that with each person I’m having a unique conversation. So I actively encourage creatives to have the conversation back, and to allow their individual skills, points of view, experiences and languages to make themselves known through their work, drawing on inspirations as they capture figure and gesture.
Creating art isn’t intrinsically easy or straightforward, and neither are model-artist relationships always the stuff of dreams. Both require dedication and concentration to make them work successfully. If you simply draw or paint re-creations of me, for instance, those exacting copies can feel lifeless. And when consciously injecting all the emotion you can muster into your work, perhaps renditions of me will look and feel incredibly abstract. Who knows? More times than not, something in between the poles is going on, but all along that spectrum the dialogue between model and drawer/painter/sculptor is performing, and if you let it breathe it will enable something fresh, beautiful and valid time and again.
Inspired by this article? Want to hear more from Roy? Come and paint along with artists and co-founders of Figuration, Leo Crane and Roy Joseph Butler in this live online masterclass on 26 October 2021. As well as demonstrating watercolour techniques, Leo and Roy will discuss the painter-model relationship with insights from their new book Contemporary Figures in Watercolour: Speed, Gesture and Story.
You can join in, painting Roy at the same time as Leo. As you paint, Leo will share his exuberant and liberating approach to watercolour. To follow him, you’ll need watercolour paints and paper, brushes, a jar of water and kitchen towel. If you’d rather draw or paint in another medium, that’s fine too!
Book your tickets here