The Artist’s Vision
At the risk of becoming self–indulgent, here’s an attempt at an informal page about myself, my aspirations, influences and what makes me tick! There’s a lot of info, so the buttons below direct to the main topics.
When working on a commission my wife Satya will tell you that I can become more introverted and obsessive, with less patience for her or friends. I often cannot sleep as well while the work is in a dynamic stage — until it crosses a threshold where it begins to take on its own character.
Speaking to a friend who is a long distance runner, we find similarities in that from the outside what is seen is the distance covered and the sweat. The inner world of the runner is rarely glimpsed but plays a huge part towards their achievement. This is something of the process of completing a portrait commission.
I find similarities when training plastic surgeons also, as we both agree that the focus and discipline over a sustained period of time in our work is of a similar nature. However, I can relax knowing that at the end of a day’s work the worst scenario is that a piece of clay is in the wrong place!
In my mind there is a constant unspoken dialogue between what is seen, what is being made and the blue print for the work. Artistry is achieved when this dialogue is clear, fluid and constructive without one aspect dominating. I see it like a meeting with friends, where creating the right environment is important for creativity, trust and intimacy to occur.
If my work is done well, resemblance appears of it’s own accord.
I have observed students who do not have the understanding of a blue print or discipline to follow it. This approach doesnt fluidly lead to a work that is able to penetrate to a deeper level and can portrays more than mere form.
Although from Wales originally, I now live just outside Ashburton, on the edge of Dartmoor in South England. My wife Satya is a mid–wife and craniosacral therapist and my true best friend. We don’t have children ourselves, but plenty of god-children in our lives. My main hobby is guitar and I enjoy attempts at home recording. I run a Tai Chi class in Exeter, having trained in martial arts for over 33 years. I love to go walking on Dartmoor and we are blessed to live in such an idyllic and empty part of Britain. Occasionally I feel like an alien on this mad, mad planet, but I have some great friends who understand when I′m off world… and just leave me to it!
I was born in 1961 in Cardiff, South Wales UK — the same year Russian Cosmo naught Yuri Gagarin went into space and the Cold war was at its height. My father Theodore Shepherd, grandfather before him and great grandfather before that ran a glass company supplying to the industry. Together with my mother Sheila, they were just about the best parents a kid could want. I have 2 brothers and as a family were very close. Back then there were no home computers and hardly any gadgets for kids to play with, so it was a diet of lego, model kits, drawing and clay that kept me going. I remember being farmed out each week to a friendly potter at the age of 6, where I would let my imagination run wild producing dinosaurs eating humans! I still have these first sculptures, now with legs missing! I didn’t take art at school until “A” level, as I was encouraged to take more academic subjects by the school. I had visions of studying either anthropology, mycology or art!
My school art was very naive (terrible really) and I received a D graded “A” level, which was my lowest! The most exciting thing to happen in the art class was that my teacher gave me a guitar case which I used for many years in the punk band I played in as a teenager. I learnt more attending summer schools at a local teenage art centre, Llanover Hall. Here I first mixed with people who were slightly bohemian and this together with friends who attended Forest School Camps encouraged me to go to art college — rather than a normal route towards adulthood.
Aged 17 my father took me to Florence for a week. His enthusiasm for this region, art and culture (and food) left a lasting impression and I remember that time with very fond memories. Seeing the Michelangelo pieta in Florence cathedral touched an emotionally deep chord in me that I didn’t know art was able to reach. But as a teenager it seemed a really un–cool to like this period of art, so I dismissed it for a number of years. It was also un–cool to go on holiday with one’s father, but I appreciate that now!
I was lucky to be in with a fairly mature year at foundation course in Cardiff. We had a group of really enthusiastic tutors who seemed to care. They were well versed in drawing techniques and put us through an intensive 6 month drawing project. By the end of this period it was obvious that my leaning was towards fine art, but not yet sculpture. For the first year in degree course I painted. Creating large–scale, surrealistic narrative landscapes. Realizing that I needed to include a figure in a painting I went to the life room.
In those days (1981) it was seriously unfashionable to work directly from the figure, but I persevered despite having little tuition. After 3 weeks in the life room my drawing became very sculptural and I explored using clay. My early memories of using clay came flooding back and I instantly found a medium that spoke to me. I became totally fascinated by the fact that I was unable to capture what I was seeing with my eyes. The young Dutch model offered to pose in any position, but I was content with trying to capture her head. I would have all the clay I needed prepared early in the morning so that we could have a solid 7 hours together in the studio every day. This continued every day for a 2 year period — during which time I must have made over 200 heads. Nearly all ending back in the clay bin. I must have made all the mistakes possible in those 2 years! Yet still was not confident to undertake a commission as there was still a gap between what I was seeing and what I could do about it!
My final degree show exhibited the early busts together with the latter ones and tried to show the period of development. I was graded with a 2:2 with the general art school trend being hostile to art that wasn’t seriously “breaking barriers or expressing inner emotions”.
After art school in Cardiff, I undertook an apprenticeship in bronze casting at the Royal College of Art, London. Only 5 fortunate students are accepted each year with the course being seriously over subscribed. I was asked in the interview why I wanted to partake and why I wanted to work in bronze. I don’t know where the reply came from but what I heard coming out of my mouth were the words “I like the smell of wax.” This sealed my fate as the head of the foundry fortunately had a great sense of humour and also loved the smell of wax. I had bought a star–fruit (a rare thing in those days) at Fortnum and Masons to give to my girlfriend and this touched him, as he had last seen one growing in his hometown of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I am very grateful for the background understanding that the course has given me as I now do much of the casting work on my bronzes, which enables me to perfect the finish and patina as I desire.
I was glad to have left art school, which I felt had a narrow outlook for an establishment that promoted idiosyncrasy and creativity! I set up a studio in Cardiff and worked for a year modelling a dozen or so friends, giving them each a plaster cast of their busts for their time. At the end of a year I was ready to undertake my first portrait commission. Ron Lowe swapped me a wooden easel and gave a few hundred pounds for the bronze casting. I think we must have both been pleased! I learnt a lot from my early commissions and quickly set up specializing in busts.
My dentist had been taught in school by George Thomas who remained one of his patients. He set up a meeting and I was privileged to be squeezed into his extremely tight schedule. He visited my studio 4 times, each for a two hour period. He was a delightful man whose smile I didn’t quite capture, but he told me I had produced the best bust of himself that he had had done (4 in total). He suggested that I should stop before I overworked it! I had never been told such before, but glad that I listened to his advice. In retrospect I think he may have been dreading a further 2 hour sitting! The bust was accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Show out of 14,000 entrants and an edition purchased by the National Library of Wales’ permanent portrait archive.
In approaching a commission I am always in awe of the task ahead. My “stage nerves” always bother me the night before we commence! However, once underway my experience takes over and I am more easily able to relax into the process. I always encourage the sitter to talk and often ask leading questions that will enable me to find out more about their lives. Over a period of 6 sittings I become party to some very personal stories and information, which I would never share, although I know would make a fascinating book. Billy Connolly was a fantastic sitter, whose stories flowed endlessly. Like his stage persona he was gregarious and fun but with a twinkling sensitivity that is easily masked by his language on stage. George Thomas was quite outspoken about other MP’s and what I heard from him would make excellent tabloid material! Leo Abse told very intriguing and cynical political tales surrounding his great debates in the house of commons on homosexuality and women’s rights.
5,000 accurate observations have to be documented before the clay begins to resemble the sitter. Each tiny ball of clay constitutes between 1 and 9 unique observations.
Measurement at the beginning leads to a tight and accurate scaffolding onto which later more subtle observation will be built. If the work has a tight architecture of form and draftsman–ship at the outset, the latter work can be looser and more intuitive.
The information gained from each unique observation is translated into a tiny ball of clay and added to the whole. Sometimes these are rolled into an accurate shape and applied giving directional marks that help to take the eye around the form. All marks or additions correspond to a lucid artistic decision. The structure needs to be as accurate as an unfolding engineering project with the blue print firmly etched in the artist’s intent. The blueprint evolves in the mind ahead of the actual modelling. This helps to direct choices and decisions, according to requirements.
At the time when I was in art college in Cardiff, it was not particularly fashionable to work with the life model. I was fortunate to have the whole life room and model virtually to myself everyday for over 2 years. This was an intense period of self study as there was little input from tutors in representational sculpture. I followed quotes by sculptors whose work I admired. Bourdelle wrote of portrait sculpture that “if my work is done well, resemblance appears of its own accord.” This small quote which could be easily overlooked, has kept me totally fascinated for over 25 years as I struggle to understand it’s meaning. I also follow a quote by Epstein “in the beginning I have no conception whatsoever about the sitter’s personality.” Also Rodin who states that he “sticks to the lines of his plan.” Developing a distinct approach or protocol has become crucial in this most difficult of genres. Time with the sitter is of an essence and not a moment can be wasted. Each observation has to be controlled so that it is not random Each gaze has to be registered in consciousness, acknowledged and added to the growing ball of clay. In this way the work develops through a process of technical scientific measurement to a stage where creativity and observation can take over.
When modelling in clay it is easy for the work to get bigger and bigger, therefore a portrait bust starts with a measurement. This is transferred to a stick, which is placed inside a small ball of clay on a wire armature. Each subsequent measurement is taken from the ends of the stick, so that a series of points in space begin to be mapped out which dictate the area in which the clay must remain. Lines connect the points, volumes connect the lines. By this stage only a small amount of clay needs to be added to complete the work and the technical side is more or less complete. The details of the face can be included at this stage and the observations turn more towards tonal values and surface treatment, than accuracy of measurement. In fact the bust becomes an abstraction of reality as angles are changed to trap light, so that the face looks like the person rather than having the exact shape of the sitter.
Modelling tools utilized can be wooden or mild steel. Occasionally, in some instances I use yak horn tools. The shape of the tool together with it’s material allow certain qualities of mark to be made. These marks correspond to a particular perception, but the choice of which tool to use is often intuitive. The marks are determined by the pressure used to model, which once again relies upon an observation and is related to the characteristics that I wish to bring out in the sitter. To the viewer I hope that these marks are subliminal, acting much like low acoustic sub–woofer notes that are almost unheard, but give a richness and depth to the tonality.
Each precious moment with the sitter is a chance to capture a true observation. A “true observation” is only seen in the present moment, when the mind is tranquil and has dropped to a deeper focus. This way of seeing is gained from my martial arts background. In my work I have had to develop a discipline to follow a strict protocol and principles that yield results, despite the desire to switch to automatic pilot. For when on auto, the work becomes unconscious and it is not built upon a true foundation of clear observation. However, if the work can be made in a conscious manner, it can embody an integrity which is palpable. In this way the act of observation becomes a meditation on letting go of preconceptions and allowing what is present to be appreciated and captured, just as it is.
When people view something with a preconceived idea about it, they tend to take those preconceived ideas and see them whether or not they are there. This problem stems from the fact that humans are unable to understand new information, without the inherent bias of their previous knowledge. The extent of a person’s knowledge creates their reality as much as the truth, due to the fact that the human mind can only contemplate that which it has been exposed to. When objects are viewed without understanding, the mind will try to reach for something that it already recognizes, in order to process what it is viewing. That which most closely relates to the unfamiliar from our past experiences, makes up what we see when we look at things that we don’t comprehend.
A part of me is not much interested in making a beautiful sculpture, although I am aware that this is what many of my clients require! My interest is to produce truthful work, as I see beauty in nature’s design — in the way things are. In this respect I align my outlook with artists such as Giacometti and Ewan Uglow, rather than artists of the Renaissance or Greek period. However, it’s not quite as simple as that, because I also have a strong belief in the importance of the artist being part of their community and contrary to today’s myth, not as an bohemian, independent of their of surroundings. I do not hold with current belief of the artist being a showman. A novel thinker with fresh and innovative and perhaps radical ideas. I see the artist’s role more as a creative solver of genuine, not ideological problems. I have a huge respect for the Arts and Craft movement. As such, conceptual art leaves me cold, where as tangible, material based work I find far more enticing. I can only spend about 20 minutes in the Tate Gallery, but you’d have difficulty getting me out of the V & A!
In my portraits it is assumed that I start out with a definite conception of my sitter’s character.
On the contrary, I have no such conception whatsoever in the beginning.
Manzu (1908 -1991)
Manzu has the ability to capture a freshness of observation and a lightness of touch, most often seen in his portrait commissions. His work is gestural and his quick modelling has a flare best described by his Italian nationality. Occasionally leaning towards kitsch — soapbox in his work. A critical approach is required to differentiate these from his masterpieces.
Rodin (1840 -1917)
Rodin bends form and reinterprets what he sees with no apology. Clearly ahead of his time with a foot in both classical and modern approaches. His latter portrait commissions are sublime in their interpretation of the planes of the head.
As a sculptor I can learn a lot from Rembrandt in his use of shadow and dissolution of form. Sometimes the weight of an eyelid is portrayed with a lump of paint that seems to hang on the canvas, attached only by it’s thickness. Remarkable!
Cezanne (1839 -1906)
Cezanne’s latter work relies more heavily on an understanding of the physical mechanics of observation rather than the landscape observed. This has a close correlation with portrait sculpture and the methodology of building up observations layer by layer. His repeated exploration of similar scene shows his interest in refining his personal discipline.
Epstein (1880 -1959)
What couldn’t Epstein do with a rolled up worm of clay? Epstein was the Van Gogh of portrait sculpture and his blue print remains clearly visible in the marks he leaves in the clay. After spending 3 hours at an Epstein exhibition in London in 1989, everybody on the underground seemed to have Epstein’s mouths (I hope they didn’t mind me staring at them).
Houdon (1741 -1828)
A sublime carver and although verging on the photographic for my tastes — his understanding and portrayal of expressions and his use of the turned head is uncanny.
Van Gogh (1853 -1890)
“Van Gogh did some eyeball pleasers, he must have been a pencil squeezer. He didn’t do the Mona Lisa, that was an Italian geezer”. Ian Dury
An astounding visual development over a 9 or 10 year period, Van Gogh pushed his paint strongly with a vibrancy of force and colour that to my mind has not been equaled since. This physicality and movement is very reminiscent of sculptural practice. What else is there to say about this exceptional and uniquely talented figure!
My technique has developed over a 33 year period and I hope is still developing! I was lucky enough not to be influenced too strongly in my early years, so I was forced to discover principles and methods of approach and construction that made sense and moreover, worked. Although this may have taken longer than if I had been given instruction, it left me far clearer in my understanding as I have had to puzzle out all aspects and sequences of development for myself. Some insist on beginning with a large egg shaped ball of clay that approximates to the head shape. This is then “adjusted” to what is perceived. My technique however is fundamentally different than this, in that I work with an additive process like a 3-D jigsaw with points in space.
- Establish a profile. The width of the sitter’s head is measured. A wooden stick is cut to this length and embedded in a small ball of clay. This fixes 2 points in space. From 2 fixed points measure towards the tip of the nose and fix the 3rd point which creates a triangle in space . The 4th point can be the chin with the 5th, 6th and 7th being any points along the profile. This allows the profile to be accurately understood in a similar way to the Victorian miniature cut–out profiles.Ensure that all measurements, and especially the angle that the head and face sits on the neck, are accurate before proceeding.Lines can be drawn that help to establish the basic planes of the brow and nose and how these project. A concave line can be imagined into which the profile sits. This helps to establish a definite tilt / projection of the profile.
- Fill out the volumes. Working from the front, establish the central line of the eyes, bottom of nose and mouth. Ensure that the relationships between these lines are accurate before proceeding. Measure the width of the eyes, nose and mouth and mark these in the clay.Remember at this stage to be looking to establish the points in space, rather than to complete the units of the head. Lines can be drawn that give the angles between the corners of the eyes, the nose and the corners of the mouth. This helps to establish the correct balance of the major units that make up appearance. However, general appearance is given not by the detail, but by what you can observe from a distance away.Draw a system of “bar–codes” that correspond to the individual features of the sitter.
- The next stage is to observe the curved lines that travel around the head. This helps to accurately fill out the volume and to make the connection between each part of the head so that each part contributes towards the whole rather than existing as a unit in isolation.
- Eventually the surface has to be understood in all 3 planes simultaneously. Imagine the modelling tool traveling over the surface of the model’s head and get a feel from the direction, twists and turns of the wrist that need to be made. Ensure all forms merge into one another, so that neither exist in isolation.
- Work on the features of the face, placing the detail into the bar–codes measurements that have been drawn.
- When the features are accurately sited, work on their appearance which is achieved by very accurately capturing the visual perception of the model, which may or may not be the same as the physical shape of the model. The clay can be hollowed in a way that gives tone and shadow and paints the appearance of the sitter with light.
Commissions began to flow fairly quickly and I realized early on that I liked being able to provide a service for clients. They provided the means and initiated the production of a bust and I helped them achieve their desire through my skills as an artist. This seemed like a good traditional role between the patron and the artist and fitted in well with my love for the Florentine period mentioned earlier. Leo Abse visited my Cardiff studio and next was Billy Connolly. These early commissions gave my folio a boost and interest that helped to provide a steady flow of work.
Working with plastic surgeons and teaching them the basics of 3–D observation has given my work another interesting dimension. It is nerve racking to think that the group of 16 consultant plastic and maxillo-facial surgeons know far more about the anatomy than I ever will. Yet I can share much of the form and make up of visual understanding that is not included within their medical education. The feedback that I get lets me know that the information is useful and each year I am pleased to be able to teach, as I know how necessary this information may be to a victim of a fire or road accident.
In 1988 I was awarded a Master–class grant by the Welsh Arts Council to study traditional bronze casting, engraving and gold plating, with Nepalese artist Ratna Jyoti Shakya. This led me to the foothills of the Himalayas in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Little did I know, but this taste of Asia was to change the course of my life!
In 1990, having had a host of interesting commissions, a one man show, publicity and media attention it was dawning on me that something further was needed and I could feel it brewing. A yearning for a deeper meaning was growing and together with my new wife, we sold our home and bought a one–way ticket to India, with the idea of returning in 6 months — which turned into 5 years, much to the horror of my family! Our travels took us to Nepal, India, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand (returning briefly to teach and run summer workshops). This journey led us for 3 months to the wilderness of the Australian outback, to Himalayan glaciers and for 20 days of silent meditation retreat, to name but a few of our highlights! We even had the good fortune to meet the great Indian sage HWL Poonja, whose head I modelled in clay and precariously carried overland to Nepal, to be cast in bronze!
The traveling period left a gaping hole in my C.V. and where others may have filled it with solo shows and building upon their career, I took time to further my studying of life and develop on the inside, in a way that I could not have dreamed of had I continued along my projected path as a portrait sculptor in the UK. Whilst abroad I continued to work on busts, to teach portrait courses and to undertake a residency in Hawkes Bay Art School, New Zealand where I worked with Maori youth (and gang members) teaching traditional bronze casting methods and techniques. I exhibited and sold in the local community in New Zealand and while it did little for my reputation and career as an artist, it developed within me a sense of sociability, independence and optimism towards what I had to offer. It was a time for reflection and making choices about what was really important and worthwhile. During this period we decided not to have children but to dedicate our time towards furthering our creativity and calling. We returned to the UK to establish ourselves in the next phase.
The Welsh always remain Welsh, but it wasn’t until I moved to England that I began to really appreciate my Welshness as an identity and as a positive acruement. Living in a rural community, I helped to set up a Sculptors Association (SWSA) and work together and share exhibitions. I also set up a Tai Chi school in Exeter, Open Palm Taiji (my other passion for 29 years).
An important consideration these days is keeping life in balance. A balance between time in the studio or on the computer and with my wife and friends and in nature. A balance between teaching and time for personal creativity alone in my studio. Most commissions come through word of mouth, so I never know when I will be inundated with requests for commissions, or have time for personal work in the studio. This determines how many new small bronze editions I make and have available for exhibitions.
For the past 33 years I have been studying the human head, fascinated by a desire to unravel its mystery. Each sitter reveals their beauty, unique and elusive. To preserve this moment of understanding and capture it in bronze is my aim in both portraiture and smaller figurative works.
Luke is much in demand as both an artist and educator and will this year will continue teaching plastic surgeons The Art of Reconstructive Surgery at The Royal College of surgeons of England, London.
He is also deeply committed to his other passion – Tai Chi which he has been practicing for 33 years, and runs the Open Palm School based in Exeter. This contributes to his inter-personal skills as a teacher, facilitator and artist.
Bronze is a wonderful material that shines and makes you want to touch it. It is a soft metal to work and when touched with the skill of the craftsman can take on extraordinary beauty. It has a history and a place in our consciousness as a traditional material for sculpture. In this age of virtual worlds and technology it is gratifying to work with something that is hand crafted and lasting and I think people appreciate it more and more as their time become filled with the computer screen. In 1987 I was awarded a Master–Class grant form the Welsh Arts Council to study traditional bronze casting in Kathmandu, Nepal. I stayed for 3 months with a wonderful family who took me under their wing, fed me rice and daal twice a day and taught me not only some of their amazing methodologies, but also how their art and casting is interwoven into their Buddhist culture. It was a life–changing trip and leaves me still brimming with inspiration. Their craftsmanship is some of the most outstanding work I have ever seen, and all done with small hand tools, sat cross–legged on the floor, holding the bronze with their bare feet on a block of wood. I decided not to adopt that method (for which my osteopath is very grateful), but many other of their skills, such as engraving, I continue to use in my work today, I would love to return and have work cast and gold plated in Nepal.