Saturday, July 01, 2017

Interview with Thomas Ehretsmann (BP Portrait Award 2017 2rd Prize)

This post is an interview with Thomas Ehretsmann, the French painter and illustrator who won the second prize of £10,000 in the BP Portrait Awards 2017.

Thomas Ehretsmann with his wife and his portrait of her
Double Portrait (November 2016) © Thomas Ehretsmann
(300 x 400mm, Acrylic on board).
His portrait is of his wife and the title Double Portrait reflects the fact she was pregnant at the time (and has since had a daughter).
Judges Comments: The judges were particularly impressed by the artist’s refined and detailed technique, which adds to the subject’s sense of stillness, strength and serenity. 
He has previously been selected for the 2016 Exhibition.

Interestingly although he works in acrylic, he works in a very similar way to Antony Williams who won third prize and who paints in egg tempera. They both work using small linear strokes (i.e. hatching).

Thomas explains his work process for his illustration practice on one of the websites.

Interview with Thomas Ehretsmann

While Thomas can speak English, it's not his first language so we decided it would be easier for him to do an interview via email.  (Insertions in italics and all inserted links are mine)

Where are you from? How long have you been painting?

I was born in 1974 and grew up in Thann, in Alsace in France.

When I was six, I decided I would become a comic book illustrator. In the early 90's, while studying in an art school (at the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg), I started to draw from life and that made me interested in realist painters such as Degas, Hopper and Sargent. Unfortunately, realist paintings were a no-no in that school and I didn't know there were other realist painters alive apart from Lucian Freud (I didn't have the Internet at the time). So I started studying illustration instead.

I eventually published a comic book in 2000 and started to work as an illustrator for magazines and publishers, notably Elle Magazine for seven years as well as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and various european and american books and journal

I was trying to learn how to paint through my illustrations.

In 2009, I needed a break from commercial work and flew to Norway to study with Odd Nerdrum for several months. This was one of the best times of my life which gave me more confidence.

In 2011, one of my illustrations won a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators in New York. That allowed me to start working for international clients. Still illustrations but increasingly looking like the paintings I had in mind.

For instance, I often paint portraits for some magazines (David Bowie and Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone, Richard Nixon for The Atlantic, Woodrow Wilson for Princeton Alumni Weekly...). I paint mostly for myself whenever I have enough time to do so. Hopefully having won the second prize will help me to paint more. I just love painting portraits.

Why did you enter the BP Portrait Award?

I can still clearly remember the first time I visited the BP Portrait Award exhibition in 2001 - especially Phil Hale's piece called "Source X" (which coincidentally won second prize).

To see that it was possible to paint in a realist way and be exhibited in such a prestigious place made an impression on me. A real eye-opener. I wasn't ready at the time but knew I would do my best to improve my skills in order to try and enter the BP in the future.

We don't have this kind of competition in France - where realism is considered like something from the past.

I like the fact that the BP is a very lively event where professional painters and amateur ones can meet. Of course, I don't like every painting I see there but I like the fact that they are in the show.

How often have you entered the BP and been selected? 

I first entered the BP in 2006 with a oil painting called "Vacuum". It was selected for the second round of judgment but didn't pass that one. That certainly was an encouragement. But I didn't feel quite ready yet so waited a few more years before entering again.

I kept improving my technique and decided to forget about oil paint. Since I was confident with acrylic, I explored that medium more deeply until I found what seemed to me like the right way to handle it. I have always liked egg tempera but it seems so painstaking! I try to use acrylic like it were egg tempera: layers and layers of tiny strokes of semi-transparent paint plus a few layers of glazing when the balance isn't right.

In 2016 I finally entered a second time with a new painting called "Vacuum 2" which was selected for the show.

So my second prize this year is my third entry.

Thomas Ehretsmann with Vacuum 2 selected for the BP Portrait 2016
Acrylic on wood panel
© Thomas Ehretsmann

What did it feel like to get the news that you had been short-listed for a prize?

Once I knew my painting was selected for the BP Portrait Award 2017, I asked the National Portrait Gallery if they could frame it for me since I had not had the time to do it myself (my selected painting for the BP Portrait Award 2016 wasn't framed and when seeing it hung in the gallery it seemed obvious to me that a painting should always be framed).

I had to wait twenty-four hours before the gallery answered my email - which was rather unusual from them.

When I finally got their answer, I didn't understand it at first. It said something like "We are delighted to inform you that your painting has been shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award 2017..." and a bit further "Yes, we can frame the painting for you".

So I was delighted to hear they could frame the painting since it would look much better that way.

Only then did I start wondering what the word "Short-listed" meant (my poor English). After checking the word in a dictionary, I had to read the email several times before I fully understood it. It was a shock. A wonderful one!

Presentation of the BP Portrait Award Second Prize to Thomas Ehretsmann - 20 June 2017

About Portraiture: Why do you paint portraits?

I come from comic books. Comic books are not about landscapes or still life but about characters. So when I was first interested in painting I looked for what seemed familiar to me: characters.

My skills have improved while drawing and painting portraits. So now it seems to me a portrait can express everything I want. It is the most complex and subtle object you can work on (although I often dream I can paint some landscapes one day).

What is your approach to painting a portrait?

It may sound as a cliché but when I paint a portrait, I try to make it more than just a portrait. I am not looking for a storytelling neither. But something that suggests some depth around the subject. A mood.

For instance, my short-listed portrait of Caroline tries to describe her state of mind at a particular time in her life, that is during her pregnancy. I knew I didn't want to show her swollen belly, that was too factual. I though the light on her face would be more helpful and would let more interpretation to the viewer.

The title "Double Portrait" goes in that direction also. Why "Double" when there's only one person on the painting? It is not a particularly profound title but I like the fact that it makes people wonder what its meaning is and what's beneath the surface.

What are you going to do with your prize money?

Money is time! Hopefully I won't feel so much pressure about earning a living for a few months now so I can work on some personal pieces - including a piece for the BP Portrait Award 2018... or 2019 (I can be rather slow at times).


I'm sure we're going to see a lot more of Thomas's work in the years to come. His paintings have a unique style such that while they are realistic - and good likenesses - there's a lot more packed into his portraits in terms of atmosphere and thought.

Posts about the BP Portrait Award 2017

UPDATE - This is a compendium of all the posts for 2017

The Exhibition

    The BP Portrait Award Exhibition will be on display at the following venues:
    • National Portrait Gallery, London all summer. It opens to the public on 22 June and continues until 24 September 2017 (Admission Free)
    • Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery Exeter (4 October – 3 December 2017); 
    • Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (December 2017 – March 2018); 
    • Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens (March – June 2018.)
    2017 marks the Portrait Award’s 38th year at the National Portrait Gallery and 28th year of sponsorship by BP.

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