A British figurative painter of Ghanaian descent, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is known for portraits of imaginary black men and women based on multiple sources rather than on an individual model or sitter. A writer as well as an artist, the Turner Prize short-lister works quickly and usually completes one of her eye-catching compositions in a single day. With a survey of new paintings about to open at New Museum, she discusses her process and her parallel career as an author of short stories.
How important is improvisation to your work?
It’s very important. Most of my decision-making happens through the course of painting. While I do plan things out in advance to some degree, the plans generally fall by the wayside once I get going.
So how do you begin a painting?
Normally with something very simple that poses some kind of a problem or challenge: a color, a composition, a gesture, a particular direction of the light. My starting points are usually formal ones. There is always something in particular that I think about, and the piece grows out of that.
What made you decide to become a painter when you were starting out in the 1990s?
I’m not entirely sure. It wasn’t a firm decision. Painting was one of many things that I loved doing, even though I’ve never found it easy. Perhaps that’s why I kept trying to do it.
You don’t just paint, though; you paint in a very traditional manner using very traditional materials. What’s their appeal for you?
Things like oil paint, canvas, linen and rabbit-skin glue have something of a life of their own. There’s something visceral and inherently alive about using them to create a painting. Also, while paintings may have a long life span, they age just like people: Over the centuries, paintings change, fade and often crumble.
Who are the subjects of your work?
They’re composites constructed from found images, life drawings and my imagination. I realized early on that I didn’t want to depict people I knew; it never worked out the way I wanted it to. My method allows me to think freely about a person, a life, a place or a feeling through the act of painting itself.
You’re also a writer as well as a painter. Do those roles overlap?
No, not at all. My writing parallels my painting, but I don’t paint about the writing or write about the painting. It’s just the opposite, in fact: I write about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about.
But you use such literate titles for your paintings.
The titles emanate from the associations I make while working on or looking at a painting, but they’re never meant to explain it. They’re more like an extra brush mark.
“Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-Song for a Cipher” is at New Museum through Sept 3 (newmuseum.org).