“The worst thing was that I was unable to paint. That’s ironic, isn’t it? It’s a competition about painting, and it stopped me from painting.”
So says Charlie Schaffer, 29, the latest winner of the BP Portrait Award, which, as well as pushing the winner into the national limelight, earns them £35,000, plus a £7,000 commission for the National Portrait Gallery.
But the stress of the whole experience sent Charlie, who suffers from depression, into a downward spiral.
I’m sitting on a wooden chair in his bare studio, on the first floor of a terraced house in North Laine. The space is dominated by his easel. I can see the back of a canvas.
“I knew I was shortlisted for the award three months before I won it,” he tells me. “All the pressure took its toll. I suffered from deep exhaustion, then reached a new point of lowness. After I’d won the prize, people were saying ‘you must be so happy’, but I was actually the saddest I’ve ever been.”
A young woman called Imara sat for the painting, spending three hours a session on the chair I’m sitting on, three times a week, for four months. “My sitters like this quiet room, separate from the world” says Charlie. “They feel safe. They open up. They fill the silences with conversation. It’s intense: I don’t like small talk. Every mark I make on the canvas is influenced by that entire experience.”
He doesn’t like to be called a ‘portrait painter’. “That implies that it’s all about trying to catch the essence of the person who’s sitting for you. And that’s not what it’s about for me. It doesn’t matter if it looks like the person. It’s about the experience we have together… I steal their life and put it in a picture.”
He never lets his sitters see the painting until it’s finished, if it’s ever finished. He often throws uncompleted works away, and starts again: “there are already enough images in the world”. But having earmarked the Imara painting for the BP prize, he worked doggedly to complete it before the deadline. “Imara didn’t really want to see the painting,” he says. “She had a fear of seeing it, because that would mean the process was over. We had both come to rely on those sessions quite heavily.”
The painting was “loosely based on a portrait by Titian”. Charlie’s avoiding London at the moment, but he usually visits the National Gallery once or twice a week to study – and draw – works by the Old Masters: their techniques filter ‘unconsciously’ back into his own work.
Charlie’s now painting again, I’m glad to hear: I cross paths with a sitter at the front door, and he shows me a work in progress of Imara, who’s started visiting his studio again. “It’s taken me three months, but I’m getting there,” he says. “I’ll start enjoying winning the prize when it’s on my own terms.”