Gordon Lee is a master of the fine art of painting in realism. Famed for his attention to detail and use of colour, he has previously painted portraits of both Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said of Oman. We asked him about the drive and passion behind his work, as well as the importance of philosophy and human nature in art.
Where did your passion for art come from?
Art for me is one of the marvels of human ingenuity; it is evidence of the highly creative intelligence of man bestowed by nature and the divine onto him. Great art has always been an evidence of a highly evolved civilization, for the Egyptians to the Greeks, to the Chinese; they created art that showed their intellectual progress and sophistication as a culture.
The beauty that I find in art is endless and leads me closer to the nature of the human soul and that of all creation, the creation and exploration of art is for me is a process of understanding and uncovering the limitless beauty that is inherent in all nature. This creative urge to understand and explore life brings me great passion, which I want to impart to people. Art is important for the creative growth and expression of our inner being- our soul.
Where did you study?
I learned my craft through my apprenticeship under a portrait painter in the Philippines named Romeo Ballada. He not only taught me the secrets of painting- which cannot be read in books as it is hard to explain in words- but also philosophy, which is equally if not more significant than technique. Philosophy is the heart of art without which technique becomes meaningless.
I found my reason to create art through my interaction with my mentor. To me art is a way to inspire and create positive change in our society and environment. Creating beauty in the world through art is a noble endeavour. That is why the Chinese emperors in the past advocated the collection and enjoyment of art, antiques and the practice of cultivating creative minds, because he saw that the Arts made his subjects more civilized and refined in the manner, thinking and interaction with others.
You specialise in fine art. What is it about the medium of paint and canvas (as opposed to photography, sculpture, installation) that appealed to you?
I paint in the traditionally used mediums of oil, pastel and watercolour. For me, this manner of creating hand made art is very important as it the hand that is the direct extension of our heart, expressing what we feel more so than any photographic or mechanically aided artwork. I love using colours and applying them to paper and canvas. To me drawing and painting is a very natural human activity, its what my hands are built for.
When I paint or draw I feel as if I am dancing, my hands are dancing and the movement is radiating from my center, from my heart expressing my passion and love for art and beauty. A hand made painting can express more feelings and emotion than any camera can ever do and a skilled painter can put in more detail and vibrancy than a camera can capture. I love the process of painting, it’s an extension of my creative being.
You say that to give life to a portrait, one must absorb the essence of the person through meditative focus and introspection. Explain to us more about this process. Have you ever felt like you have become the subject you are painting?
When I contemplate and internalize a person, I am painting key positive qualities and emphasizing them, envisioning the person as his/her best and perfect self. The portrait is a mirror and I only create the perfection that I see in my sitters as I want them to be happy seeing themselves as the way the divine sees them- they are already perfect.
This creates happiness, confidence and wellbeing in the lives of the people I paint. The greatest need of any person is the need to understand and be understood. To truly understand a person you must connect soul to soul and when you do so, magic happens and you realize that everyone is alike, that we are all just the same. You see the true nature of man, which is truly beautiful.
You are famed for your attention to detail. What is it that drives you to be so meticulous with your work?
Exquisity, elegance, finesse and timelessness- these are qualities which I strive for when creating art and attention to detail comes naturally from this. These qualities are naturally brought up when one creates art with tender, love and care which for me are the greatest ingredients in creating wonderful, timeless pieces of great art. The greatest artworks in the world have these qualities, fuelled by passion and a devotion for art.
You use a lot of vibrant colours in your paintings, which in a world currently obsessed with all white everything, which is refreshing. What is the thought behind this?
I love using the full spectrum of colours, as it gives vitality and life. What gives life brings joy. Colours make me happy and I want people who see my art to inspired, moved to joy by the beauty and splendour of life that is brought by the dance of colours I create in my artworks. Remember white is the presence of all colours.
Why portraits (as opposed to landscapes or surrealism)?
Portraiture is very demanding and challenging and requires not just great accuracy and skill but also a great understanding of the nature of humanity. This challenge excites me, providing great opportunity to grow as an artist and to expand my inner being. I am innately drawn to people. I enjoy understanding and knowing all sorts of people and character. To me portraiture is the most intimate form of art as it allows me to understand the many facets that make us human. To go beyond oneself, to explore and depict the life of another person expands one sense of self, making us more rounded as individuals.
What portrait are you most proud of?
The portrait of Pia Corlette is the piece I am most proud of. It is every elegant and exquisitely done. I loved creating the illusion of heightened reality, using an impressionistic painting that she owned as a background to her svelte figure. The composition and execution came out perfect.
Who or what influences you?
The Great Taj Mahal has greatly inspired the way I create art. Upon visiting it, I realized what great art should be. It was built by a king as a symbol of his love and devotion for his departed wife. This devotion for me is what great art is created from, and from that moment I aspired to always create art from the passion, love and devotion that comes from my heart.
Only a heart filled with passion and love for the beauty and marvel of life can create art that is truly timeless. Iconic paintings such Mona Lisa and the Kiss by Gustav Klimt are evidently created with such wonderful energy of passion, love and devotion. I draw a lot of inspiration as well from Victorian and pre-Raphaelite art.
My favourite artists are Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and William Bouguereau, Hans Holbein,, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and Leon Gerome.
Describe a typical day
I start my day with meditation and exercise. Then I begin to paint for the whole day till sunset. I like painting during the day when the sun as is up it is easier on the eyes to work with colours . After painting I often go to gallery exhibits, as there are quite a lot of exhibits in Manila, where I stay. The art scene is booming here and there are lots of exciting shows here every week.
Lastly, if you could paint a portrait of any one person, who would it be and why?
I would love to paint a portrait of the Pope as I think the portraits done for the pope, both past and present, could do with more colour and vividness to bring them to life. I think I could do an amazing piece depicting the Pope not just as a divine figure, but also emphasizing his human side. I am universal in my religious beliefs and embrace all religion but for me painting the Pope would be both a great honour and a memorable experience.