Baring the soul through painting - Jason Carr Interview

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These are very exciting times for the career of portrait artist Jason Carr. After winning the GFest/Magnum Visual Artist Award last year, he was the winner of The Lady Petchey Award at the Emerald Winter Prize Art Awards 2018, and has now been pre-selected for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition.

Carr is a New Zealand born artist who has lived in the UK for 20 years with his practice based between Manchester and London. He is a figurative and portrait artist who’s themes circulate around the light and dark of life.

'Dreaming of Violence' by Jason Carr

‘Dreaming of Violence’ by Jason Carr

Through my work I strive to challenge myself and push my own boundaries while retaining honesty and rawness through the narrative – Jason Carr

Expression through paint is therapy and gives Carr the freedom to tell his and others stories in the hope people will relate and not feel alone. “My favourite part of the process is listening to the viewers interpretation of these stories as they help me see things in my work that may have been buried in my subconscious”, he says.

​I am fascinated and intrigued by Carr’s work, his technique, the mastering of light, and moreover by the compelling emotion in his paintings. They really trigger something inside. I can’t barely describe it; a bit of angst, vulnerability but resilience, a sense of journey and successfully overcoming pain through experience, showing people that have chosen not to be victims. Saints and sinners are equally dignified as if life, not being alive but going through life, was the only worthwhile cause. There is something very human, very common despite the uncommon characters and situations Carr describes. I can see how art is a therapy of sorts for him, but also for the viewer, as for me his paintings shout ‘you are not alone’; they are unexpectedly reassuring and comforting. Mysteriously, I feel hugged.

'Coming to terms with forever' by Jason Carr

‘Coming to terms with forever’ by Jason Carr

Carr’s passion for art started at a very young age when his mother enrolled him in an after school class for kids that showed talent; she also had a friend who showed Carr how to oil paint a landscape at  just ten years old. Then he already started to show his natural ability.
From there he moved into illustration and then gained a degree in animation where he was taught life drawing and movement drawing by one of the key animators from Disney’s The Jungle Book, and experience he describes as invaluable.

'Blue Eyes' by Jason Carr

‘Blue Eyes’ by Jason Carr

Carr’s first job was as an in-house artist for a visual marketing company in his home town of Whanganui, New Zealand. But from the age of 23 when he arrived in London he somehow lost his way artistically; “I felt I had to have a 9-5 job and live in a lovely house with lots of things to be happy”, he confesses. He still dabbled in acrylics on and off but then at 36 he suffered a breakdown followed by severe depression which lasted three years. In that time Carr threw himself into self-learning how to oil paint with the help from friend and fellow artist Matthew Stradling. Many of Carr’s first works are about mental health and duplicity. Over the last few years his work has really evolved and developed; ‘”I feel I am finally finding my identity as an artist, the themes have become more about overcoming obstacles and inner strength which I’m enjoying”, he tells us. After a few successes under his belt and realising he could not juggle his day job, he left it last year to fully focus on his practice and has not looked back, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, my husband Mark has believed in me the whole way and encouraged me to take the leap alongside my incredible family and friends. I’ve been very lucky to have such a strong foundation of support”, he remarks.

Carr has exhibited internationally and all over the UK, he has been a finalist for the Winsor and Newton Griffin Gallery Art Award 2015 and won the GFest/Magnum Visual Artist Award 2017. He has also been commissioned this year through Saatchi Art to create large work for an American client while working towards his first solo show in November.

'We'll let you know' by Jason Carr

‘We’ll let you know’ by Jason Carr

What is art?
Art is universal and has many different meanings to people, for me I live and breath it, it’s a vital element that we should all embrace and nurture in ourselves and people around us. It gives us an outlet to express our views, thoughts, passions in so many different and unique ways. My concern is the education system slowly squeezing out the importance of art from students, particularly in state schools. This is why encouragement and mentoring from community programmes and schemes such as Chrom-Art are becoming more and more essential. Without Art what are we?

How do you define beauty?
My definition of beauty is broad, its pretty obvious to see I am a fan of the male form in my work but I would say I was just as driven emotionally as I am aesthetically. It would be fine to paint the most beautiful or edgy people in the world but if they didn’t have a story or a soul in their eyes I wouldn’t be as drawn to them and I imagine neither would the audience. There’s got to be that extra something for me to be able to commit them to canvas.

'Habitual' by Jason Carr

‘Habitual’ by Jason Carr

Why Portraiture?
Portraiture is a beautiful process, I normally have at least five paintings in my head at any given time. The ideas are usually drawn from emotions or experiences I have had, then I usually choose someone who has caught my eye and think could tell that story best. Through getting to know the sitter the story usually evolves and turns into both of our stories I want their thoughts and passions to be included in the work, so it’s a really special collaboration most of the time and a memorable experience for all involved. I once painted a gent called Thomas and when I painted him he had no idea what the back story was, when I finally told him he was so taken back as the work ( Goodnight my darkest friend 2017 ) was about the veil of depression and doubt falling away and looking forward to a brighter future which was something I had experienced, He told me that he had exactly the same experience at the same time, it made our collaboration almost spiritual and something I’ll never forget.

'Goodnight my darkest friend' by Jason Carr

‘Goodnight my darkest friend’ by Jason Carr

Your subjects come from all walks of life, from the clergy to the underworld. How do you choose them?
When i am choosing a muse for a piece I use social media and approach them that way. Once they’ve seen my work and they like it they are usually quite keen, I haven’t had anyone decline yet but theres always a first. You can tell a lot from someones profile and if I get a good and positive feel about them and they fit into the story then its a no brainer. I look for real individuals, people that stand out in the crowd, not just because they’re beautiful but because there’s some intrigue and mystery about them.
Some choose me, they will see my work and ask for commissions, as you mentioned I painted a priest last year which was a new and unique challenge as there was a lot of detail in the garments and background. I’ve had commissions for families,actors, etc so its very broad but I like a challenge and to be kept on my toes so keep the randomness coming I say.

Private commission by Jason Carr. This work has been pre-selected for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2018

There is something that strikes me in your technique, the unique use of light and vibrancy of colours. How do you achieve this?
I like my work to jump out and be vivid in detail and colour so contrast is extremely important when conveying this. When I’m painting I look for shapes of light and dark, that for me is the back bone of the work that gives it that sculptural effect. I’m obsessed with skin and all the different tones and colours that are part of each of us, I like finding those colours we probably never notice and making them more prominent. I don’t want my work to be photo realism, I want to slightly exaggerate the person, to create their immortalised, painted self.

Choosing the path of being an artist is not easy. How would you encourage talented new creatives to pursue it?
I know its cliche but its true, be committed, stay focused, work really hard and like your life depends on it, keep honest and positive people around you and take a risk. Its got to be all or nothing, I tried in-betweening with the day job and it didn’t work. Its really scary being freelance but you’ll surprise yourself how quickly you become resilient and start to evolve as a business person and most importantly as an artist. Lastly, be nice to people, help them and mean it, it gets you along way.

'Sanctuary' by Jason Carr

‘Sanctuary’ by Jason Carr

If you could do a portrait of an idol, who would it be and what would be the ideal setting.
This is a hard one, I’m very drawn to strong and inspiring people so that makes me think of Michelle Obama, Jessica Lange and of course the one and only RuPaul, I could go on but you get the idea. I’d like to put them in a setting that would surprise them and the viewer, Im not sure what that is but Im sure we’d have fun making it happen. I am working on a collaboration with one of my favourite LA photographers Luke Austin this year and the setting involves a lot of pink and an empty pool, he’s an amazing talent in his field so I’m very excited about that.

Fluorescent’ by Jason Carr. This work was selected as runner up in the Emerald Winter Pride Awards 2018 and won the Lady Petchey Award 2018

You describe art as therapy for you. How does this actually work?
When my depression was at its worst the only thing that could raise a bit of happiness inside me was painting, it got the endorphins flowing again and it’s worked ever since. My potential to be depressed and anxious will always be there but painting is my natural pill that gets me through the tough periods. There is no better feeling in the world than looking at something you have achieved and put hours and hours into and feeling that sense of achievement.Then you bare you soul again by showing the world your work and this gives you back that confidence and self worth again. If and when its appreciated and recognised the highs go to the next level because it means people understand you and you’re not alone. Whether you’re professional or not just get a quiet room, get some materials and get messy, it works.

‘Lost in Escape’ by Jason Carr

Describe your average collector/buyer: what does he/she do, where does he/she live, why do they say they buy your work.
Again, it’s broad and it’s random. I guess art is so personal and my work is very niche so you really have to find that person that looks at the work and has that connection and can interpret it to their own experience. It really is an emotional decision to buy a painting, its the best feeling when someone has that moment with your work and wants to hang it in their home and look at it forever. Its the best compliment.

'Meet me in the Woods' by Jason Carr

‘Meet me in the woods (Black Rabbit)’ by Jason Carr. Winning painting for the GFEST/Magnum Visual Art Award 2017.

Do you have any studio ‘rituals’? What are the ideal conditions for you to work?
I need complete separation from the world to go into what I call ‘paint mode’. Music is key, I am the biggest music lover, the two go hand in hand. I have so many specific mood playlists depending on the day and the work. A lot of my painting titles are actually lyrics from some of my favourite songs that fit with my narrative. Once the paint is on the palette and the canvas is prepared I go into what can only be described as an 8 hour trance, I forget to eat and drink and come out the other end in a euphoria. I’ve learnt through advice to do intermittent exercise for my arms and back, you’ve got to keep the body working to full capacity so some TLC and stretching is key. Weather wise winter is best as I am a sun worshipper and can’t be inside on a sunny day, you’ve got to enjoy these days as working alone can become quite insular and unsociable and it’s good to go and soak up the world and its inspiration.

'A beautiful world' by Jason Carr

‘A beautiful world’ by Jason Carr

What are your working on at the moment
I am currently working on a large piece for an American client which was commissioned through Saatchi Art, from there I am painting a long awaited portrait of my mum, a political piece on the current state of America, another piece commenting on the dark side of social media and a collaboration/painting about love. I am hoping to be involved in some UK Art Fairs this year as well working towards my first solo show in November.

To find out more about Jason Carr’s work, visit

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