Richard Burger

 In artist conversation

Born in Genoa, Italy, Richard Burger studied in New York and London at art schools internationally recognised for their independent approach to teaching art and their success at nurturing accomplished, often groundbreaking, artists.

Now living and working in London, he recalls his formative years before he became an artist, and the influences that affected his career choice and painting style: ‘I grew up in an artistic household where I was always encouraged to pick up colours and a paintbrush. Both my mother and my sister were artists.’ Richard’s sister Carol is the subject of the portrait that was accepted for the 2016 BP Portrait Award (right).

Powerful images

Lulu, oil and spray paint on canvas, 12?12in (30.5?30.5cm). ‘As a rule, I much prefer painting from life. However, I think it is unfair to ask children to pose from life for obvious reasons, so my tactic is to get to know them; I spend a few hours with them, taking photos and generally trying to make them feel comfortable. On this occasion, we went to an art fair in the afternoon with the family and then we all went out for dinner. So by the time I sat down to paint, I had a feeling for what could work.’

Richard’s figurative paintings are powerful and colourful: ‘I love painting in oil. I find it very forgiving as a medium, providing you follow the rules. I sometimes use acrylic for backgrounds to get rid of the whiteness of the canvas. I also love using watercolour pencil for sketches and preparatory drawings, expressive observations of people around me and everyday life.’

Of his continually evolving style, Richard says: ‘Every subject requires me to look at things afresh. I have always loved people, both interacting with and looking at them. Everyone is different and that makes for a challenge every time. Also, somehow painting from the model is more companionable than being alone in the studio! Having said that, I also love landscapes and beach scenes since they get me out in the world.’

My Father Thinking of Me, oil on canvas, 47 1 ⁄ 4 ?31 1 ⁄ 2 in (120?80cm). ‘One of my first portraits from life; I used a mixture of sittings and photos, partly because the sitter tended to nod off during the sittings, and I was determined to get the eyes right. The technique I developed with this painting was to use a darker skin tone for the outline and then to build the skin tones dark to light in subsequent sittings.’

Richard’s art comments on society, but also allows viewers to interpret what they see within them. ‘When planning paintings, I try to find something that I like and that the viewer may find interesting, and work on that. With people, the poses are worked out with the model. I think that anything that the model contributes helps the painting to show that sitter’s character. With landscapes, I plan and sketch the composition out before I begin the final painting, although changes do inevitably happen as I work.’

Carol, oil on linen, 27 1 ⁄ 2 ?23 2 ⁄ 4 in (70?60cm). ‘Carol is the exception to my own rules! I started the portrait on a blank canvas and at home, as I was in- between studios. I did a total of three sittings of three hours each and then added the background at a later stage once I was happy with the face and hands. After the three sittings, I used photos to check the details and make sure everything worked together.’

Influences

‘My vision, acquired over many years of open studio drawing and painting, takes its influence from where I grew up in Italy and from where I have chosen to live in London.’ As far as individual influences are concerned, he says: ‘I grew up in Genoa, so 17th-century Italian painters seem to haunt me! In New York, I studied under Mary Beth McKenzie and William Scharf, and with Enver Gürsev at Chelsea. I always seek to observe the everyday and renew how we see it, and in this respect, Frank Auerbach is probably the reason I paint. I also love Lucian Freud, Peter Doig and Chantal Joffe.’

Dorje, oil on board, 18?12in (45.5?30.5cm). ‘I painted Dorje entirely from life in five three-hour sessions. The heavier marks on the face were outlined using sepia and, due to the speed the painting was made, it is unglazed. It is painted on board, which has become my favourite surface, mainly because I don’t have to worry about damaging the canvas.’

Variety

In his studio – a shared complex in London run by Bow Arts – Richard experiments with materials and formats. ‘I love experimenting with both textured and smooth finishes. At the moment, I’m going through a bit of a phase of painting on board or Masonite. These rigid surfaces let me hit them hard without answering back. The sizes of my paintings vary. My biggest painting so far is about 72 ? 28in (183 ? 71cm), and sometimes I paint very quickly, so a large painting probably takes me less than two weeks to complete. At other times, I work on paintings over a long period of time, letting them stew, and picking them up again later. Most of the time, I have several paintings on the go at once.’ His process is fairly traditional. ‘Normally after making preparatory sketches, I sketch the composition on to my canvas or other surface with oil paint. I tried charcoal for this, but I found it left too much of a mark through the paint. When I paint, there are certain colours that I tend to use more than others, which go in and out of use depending on the theme of the work I’m painting.’ Like many other artists, he struggles to leave his paintings alone when they are finished. ‘It’s very easy to overwork a painting. The key is to step back and leave it alone.’

Portraiture

‘My approach to portraiture is simple, I much prefer my subjects to sit for me from life, but I am aware that people have busy lives, so I try to use a mixture of life, to capture the essence of the portrait, and then work from photos until I’m happy with the result. Often the painting goes very quickly at the beginning and then sits there for a few months until I’m completely happy with it. This delay also allows me to use glazing techniques to add the final nuances to the work. ‘I normally try to avoid using black in my portraits. My favourite black alternative is sepia, simply because as it is lightened it resembles a dark skin tone. I also like to try to include the hands in my portraits, because I think they can say almost as much about a person as the face.’

The driving force

With his wide variety of projects, Richard works both for himself, as he chooses, and for commissions. ‘With commissioned paintings you have people working with you to develop what they want. The best bit about that is that once you achieve these common aims you know the work will have a good home. I also exhibit as much as possible. Getting your work out there is what it’s all about. I guess the best thing about exhibiting is the positive reaction of the people – the viewers – interacting with the work.’

Bella, oil and spray paint on canvas, 12?12in (30.5?30.5cm). ‘This was a commissioned portrait. For most of my paintings, I paint a non- white background to ‘break the ice’ of the canvas. On this occasion, the background was spray-painted to give a slightly more edgy look.’

So what next for him? ‘A spin-off of the BP Portrait Award, involving all participants, has been organised by Cass Art in Islington, so I’ll be involved with that, and in September 2016 I had a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in the USA that gave me the time and space to develop some more exciting works.’

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