In the studio with Charlie Schaffer. Charlie almost exclusively paints people - either those he already knows or those that he feels have an openness about them and would like to get to know through the process of spending time with them. We met with Charlie to tell us more about his process, growing up in London, and his greatest influences today.
I actually only began to see myself as an artist in my final year of university. I went to art school (foundation and undergrad) because I thought it would be fun. I enjoyed painting, but never really knew what to paint or why, so always felt a bit lost. It was only after reading Martin Gayford’s “Man In The Blue Scarf”, which was about sitting for Lucian Freud, that I started to think about painting in a different way. It was the relationship side of painting, the very intimate and specific relationship between painter and sitter formed through the experience of creating the painting, that appealed to me. I asked my friend Antonio to sit for painting whilst in my final year at the University of Brighton and saw the painting more as a way to spend time with him, just one on one, speaking throughout. The painting started to feel more as a record of our time together rather than the point within itself. I entered this painting into a competition and was awarded the young artist prize for it, and from that point on I started to take painting much more seriously and devote myself to it.
Where are you from, and what was your upbringing like?
I grew up in a North-West London Jewish community, where most people go to the same schools, the same universities, become accountants or lawyers or doctors, marry someone they met when they were 5, buy a new build flat next to their parents and have 2 kids by 25. None of this appealed to me, and was in fact the reason I went to art school. I just wanted to do something that was as different as possible from that world. Art school was my escape. I never cared much for art itself, but massively enjoyed the world it brought me into. The course at Central Saint Martins was pretty awful , but the people I met there were phenomenal – every type of person, people who were overtly and intensely themselves, and just enjoyed being alive. That continued to be the most important thing for me, something that directly (albeit subconsciously) directed the way I would continue to work – art allowed me to meet and spend time with people, from all walks of life, that I found fascinating. The act of painting would become for me a way of spending an intense and prolonged period of time with people that otherwise I would not have been able to.
There are no specific themes within my work. I aim to be as objective and true to the experience of spending time with another person. When someone sits for me, they sit twice a week, for 3 hours at a time, for many months. I don’t let them see the painting whilst they’re sitting in order to ensure they are there for the experience rather than than the image. They are constantly talking throughout, and so am I. No phones, nothing else, just each other and the canvas. Inevitably it can become a vague form of therapy, for the both of us. The act of painting is what allows me to spend time with people, and the resulting picture ends up being a record of that experience. I like to think that my paintings continuously change pictorially, and if anything I would hate to make a similar painting twice as each relationship with each sitter is inevitably completely unique. However, I know that I will always be drawn to painting people, even if I do not know how.
Who and what are your greatest influences?
I’m influenced by a lot of artists. Larger influences are Freud, Kossoff, Auerbach, Bomberg, Celia Paul. Also Alice Neel, Kathe Kollwitz, Giacometti and many more. They all make paintings which are actually about the experience of painting someone or something, rather than just an image for the sake of an image. Yes, they are involved with, and enjoy, the “game of painting”, but it is the experience first and foremost I am intrigued by. I also love Bill Viola and his video work. Another particularly important influence on me are the Old Masters. Before the pandemic, I was going to the National Gallery at least once a week for 8 years in order to draw, and was painting there directly from the works every Friday. One can learn everything there is to learn about the “game of painting” from the Old Masters, i.e. composition, movement, colour, line, form etc. I cannot begin to express how much I have missed being able to do that over this last year.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
I will always start a painting with a pictorial idea I would like to try out, but as the painting is created very much with another person, that idea almost always falls away pretty early on. And again, as I am there primarily for the experience, the resulting image is almost of secondary importance. This means that I unfortunately throw away quite a lot of paintings, and can find it hard to finish a painting for the sake of it, especially if the actual sittings have come to an end (which can happen often as life always has a habit of getting in the way in some form or another). I never have a specific idea of what I want the viewer to take away from one of my paintings, although the one thing I do want my paintings to have is a “presence”, be that emotional, physical, spiritual or intellectual. There are myriad ways to do so, and I suppose that painting in itself, for me, is an exploration of what this “presence” actually is.
What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?
The main events that impact my practice are when I move. I live and work in the same space, always have and think I would always like to. As painting for me is about spending time with someone in an intimate way, it makes more sense for it to occur where I live, so the painting becomes a natural extension of our time together, rather than something formal which could arise from both myself and the sitter going to a separate studio in order to make the painting. This means that the actual space I work in is extremely important to how the painting evolves, both in a practical sense (i.e. light, physical space etc.) and an emotional sense.
Due to the way I work, it also means that both painter and sitter are fundamentally in a different mental and physical state with each sitting, so the mental and physical health of both myself and the sitter directly impacts each session.
I have been lucky enough to win quite a few awards, including the BP Portrait Award 2019, and I have learnt over time these awards are useful (obviously in a financial sense) in the sense that once I win an award, I think “I’ve done that way of painting now, time to try something completely new”. I am constantly trying to push my painting – I have seen Rembrandt’s that have a presence and a soul like nothing else, Velazquez’s that have more personality than a real person, Egyptian sculpture that has an other worldly and godlike presence – and so I always want to make work that attempts to stand up to these. I have seen that it is possible, and so I constantly work in an attempt to create something on a similar level, even if that will take a lifetime.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
The ideal conditions for me to create a “good” piece of work involve alleviating as much pressure as possible. By this I mean to try and ensure that the sitter is there purely for the epxerience of sitting rather than the painting itself. As I said earlier, I don’t let the sitter see the painting until it is done, and often throw away the painting at various stages. I need to know that I can spend as long on the painting as the painting needs, to allow it to evolve naturally. This obviously means having the right sitters, which is by far the most important thing. I need someone with time and willingness to be there, someone who gains from the experience itself. I prefer people with an openness, in all the senses, so that we can both learn from one another.
Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?
One of the paintings in the exhibition, Self-portrait with Dragon Plant, was inspired by Lucian Freud’s painting, “Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self Portrait)” It began as painting just of the dragon plant itself, but soon enough I inevitably creeped into the picture as well. I was also reading a book by David Hockney at the time about reverse perspective, and so wanted to try and play around with space that the figure and plant were in.
I never really want to put my figures in a specified location, I guess because my works are more about the emiotional and intellectual presence, as opposed to the purely physical.