Graham Nightingale: In 2010, you painted a series of full-length portraits depicting teenage girls in prom dresses. What was the motivation behind this project?
Andrew Carr: Money, I suppose. My prom girls were painted with the intention of enticing commissions. Like most artists, I was trying to find a way in which I could survive off my work. I saw a particular market for portraiture and felt that I could produce a better product.
GN: I'm surprised a market for portraiture still exits.
AC: Google a "Stroke of Genius Portrait", and you'll find what's left of it. It's a website that represents over 200 portrait artists, all of whom paint in the same conservative style. If you look through each artist's portfolio, you'll come across a lot of teenagers portrayed in these glamorous gowns, which I always found very silly.
GN: When parents are dishing out ten grand a portrait, can you blame them for wanting their daughters to look their best?
AC: Do they though? To me, those glitzy outfits are nothing more than a costume; a way for them to pretend like they're a part of Sargent's aristocracy. The wardrobe and life simply don't match. But fuck it. Parents are willing to pay money for their daughters to be painted in elegant dresses. It's my job to make that prerequisite more interesting. That's when I came up with the idea for prom.
GN: It's an interesting compromise. Painting girls in prom dresses fulfills their desire to be dressed in elegance, while also adding a meaningful layer of context to the wardrobe.
AC: I really felt the idea satisfied both parties, but before I could entice prom commissions, I first had to produce examples of what they would look like, hence the series.
GN: You ended up depicting 6 different girls at various stages of the prom experience, as well as one group portrait that showed them all together. This use of setting blurs the lines between portraiture and genre painting. Do you always fill the space surrounding a figure?
AC: When it feels right. Blank backgrounds are often wasted opportunities. Placing the sitter in a specific setting or situation is a way to further reveal who they are.
GN: So just who are these girls that posed for you?
AC: I have no idea. I sort of made them up.
GN: [Laughs] Well you did a good job of creating 6 believable personalities! If no one actually modeled, how then did you go about creating these portraits?
AC: I relied heavily on this website called Webshots, which is where everyone posted their digital photos before Facebook. If you searched for prom, thousands of related photographs would pop up, which allowed me to relive the prom experiences of complete strangers. While sifting through these images, I would save various elements that struck me; a smile of a girl, the color of a dress, or interior of a home. I then clipped them together in Photoshop and painted the portraits you now see.
GN: Do you prefer painting portraits from photographs?
AC: Not really, but this particular type of collector would never be willing to sit for hours on end, so I'm forced to. I could have made it look like they had sat, like so many portrait painters do, but I'd rather embrace my use of the technology and even incorporate it into the series, which is why many of my prom girls are posing in front of cameras.
GN: You also embrace and incorporate many elements from classical portraiture, such as columns, drapes, flowers, carpets, and even little dogs. Why make these links to the past?
AC: It's a way to pay homage to the portraits I enjoy looking at. At the same time, I want my contribution to this tradition to reflect my own time, culture, and personality.
GN: When it comes to technique, you avoided glazes and instead placed thick contrasting colors side by side, which merged together when viewed at a distance. If you were trying to entice commissions, I'm surprised you didn't just go for straight up realism.
AC: I knew they would be more popular had I painted them in the manner of Sargent or Copley, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. There's only so long you can keep painting with those Valasquez grays before wanting to experiment. So I decided to take a risk and paint their flesh tones with the same amped up colors as their dresses.
GN: And what about the dresses? Why is each one painted a different color of the spectrum?
AC: I wanted the color of each dress to reflect the distinct personality of each girl. Although each is different, the colors symbolically represent their connected friendship.
GN: Is it true that you exhibited these portraits at an actual prom?
AC: Yes. I'm always trying to find alternative venues to show my series, and a real prom seemed appropriate. My old high school graciously allowed me to do so.
GN: Was the show a success?
AC: Yes, in the sense that lot of high school students saw the work, but no in the sense that not one commission came from it.
GN: So where is the work today?
AC: Collecting dust in my Nana's garage.