Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Stephen Martyn Welch

Artist Stephen Martyn Welch this year won the Adam Portraiture Award for his self-portrait, he raised $75,000 for Starship hospital in an auction of his works and his TV show, The Sitting, was nominated in the Television Awards. He lives in Auckland with his partner and three children.

Empathy is most important for portraiture, says Stephen Martyn Welch. Photo / Supplied
Empathy is most important for portraiture, says Stephen Martyn Welch. Photo / Supplied

1. What single most important quality must a portrait painter possess?

Empathy. Painting is so personal, I can only speak for myself. I think I'm a good judge of character. I don't mind if I meet someone who's a complete arsehole, it's about celebrating that uniqueness. I've got to get it right, then and there. I interview people first and go back with them to before they got famous. I won't ask a politician about their policy. I want to know when they first got laid.

2. When did you first get laid?

I was 14. It was consensual but I was underage. I was a bumbling idiot. You know nothing then. But you walk around the next day like, I'm the man. I see it as something special and wonderful - and memorable.

3. You're self-taught - how did that happen?

I wanted to be a comic artist but I failed at that because I can never repeat the same thing ...

I do the mean one-offs. It came about when our first son, Scott, was born disabled and we lived in Starship hospital for four years. I'd sit by his incubator watching his little chest go up and down. I was 23 years old. To stop myself from going mad I went out and bought a pad and a pencil. The nurses started to say, wow, why don't you use colour? It sort of grew from that. Scott is 16 now. He's academically aged 3 or 4. He likes to sing and to us he's normal.

4. In words, give us a portrait of the young man, aged, say, 10. What were his hopes and dreams?

I don't have the vocabulary to describe what I see. I'm dyslexic, right, that's why I'm a good painter. I can't put it in words, brushstrokes are my thoughts and colours my words.

5. Have you ever had a subject reject or object to your interpretation of them?

Sure have. Early on in my career two, sisters, who were very different people - and I had complete freedom on how to paint each girl. The mother said she loved one of the works and wasn't keen on the other. So she asked me to paint the other sister in the same style as the painting she liked. No drama. I kept the painting that the mother wasn't keen on for some reason. I was really drawn to her and the style. About one or two years later I heard that the young girl was killed in India. Her portrait lives in my studio.

6. What's the longest sitting you've ever done?

A couple of weeks. F***ing self-portrait. Ugh.

7. Tell us something about yourself that will make us fall off our barstools.

I had an answer but my wife told me to write something else. So I guess it would be my collection of Eskimo porn. It's hard to come by.

8. What do you make of contemporary art as opposed to portraiture?

Portraiture is king. It will always be king. We're such a young country and we don't have that lineage. But it's been around for 16,000 years. The most famous painting in the world, without doubt, is a portrait. Of the Mona Lisa. Contemporary art or modern art looks like a pi-chart, with colours. And you have to read the little description, explaining what it means, by the artist. Well I say, why don't you just write a book instead? Portraits are for the masses. Modern art is for the sophisticate. Art should be for everyone. I could get an Amazonian from the jungle and an art historian and they would be able to look at the same portrait and see what was going on.

9. Finish this sentence. "Painting is all very well, but I'd abandon it tomorrow if I could have ..."

A time machine. Seriously. A time machine.

10. Is there a face - someone in particular - you would most like to paint?

My father. He was killed before my fourth birthday so I have no memory of him. I'd give anything to have him sit for me.

11. Is there someone you could never countenance picking up the brush for?

No ... "Everyone deserves a portrait ..." I've copyrighted that saying too.

12. What is your idea of hell?

I'm an atheist so there is no hell. But my idea of hell would be dying before Scott. If I left him here without me.

- NZ Herald

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