‘’Study the greats and become greater.”
– Michael Jackson
Growing up in the late eighties, Michael Jackson was my favorite pop star. I was always fascinated by the way he moved, sang and performed… he was electric, a magician! There has never been an entertainer like MJ, he achieved mastery in so many different art forms. He took his natural ability to a level rarely seen before or since in music and I wanted to capture this legendary creative ability in paint. In my eyes Billie Jean is the definitive pop performance, it is perfection – the shimmering jacket, glove, socks and hat are iconic. My aim with this series of paintings is to depict the genius and magic of MJ at his highest peak.
As a musician and performer, MJ was ahead of his time, he understood the importance of visuals and iconography better than almost all of his contemporaries. I wanted to create two contrasting series based around what I believe is his best performance, Billie Jean, and his greatest video, Smooth Criminal. Initially it started off as a small project and then quickly evolved into twenty four pieces, twelve paintings for each series. I used the idea of repeating scenarios yet each time showing different key moments to depict the evolving stages of his dance moves and arranged them into triptychs (four lots of three paintings in each series). This is similar to a concept album, with each painting comparable to a different song riffing on the same initial subject matter.
Although painting celebrities these days is often classed as fan art, deemed less ‘creative’ and ‘unoriginal’ compared to a lot of other subjects, I was not deterred. This type of work is the natural progression for me considering my influences and after all it never hurt Warhol – If he could ‘get away with’ thirty two soup cans then anything goes. Being a pop culture fanatic what better place to start than with the King of Pop himself! The Billie Jean performance is simple yet complex, it has that sense of fear and passion, the darkness and light mirroring MJ’s own polarity. The frustrated energy in his vocals is matched by his face hidden in the shadows and behind the iconic fedora hat. I focused on capturing these elements on top of his signature dance moves and actions, generating that effect of emotion and movement on the canvas. A few of the paintings are verging in part on abstraction and in those pieces I just wanted to give the idea of MJ’s aura and soul…
Capturing feeling and emotion was far more important to me than creating photorealistic work. Whilst painting I decided not to focus too much on ‘technique’ because in the past my perfectionism has been a source of frustration. As shown by one of the biggest artists in the world working predominantly with stencils, there are more important aspects to art apart from technique and style! However, even though I pushed myself hard at times, I intentionally left certain parts with a rougher style. My philosophy is to create first and then figure out the rest later – even if it doesn’t follow current trends or market demand. Although I want my work to connect with people, it is also about striking a balance between making evocative art and at the same time working fluidly – the process of creation is just as important to me as the finished product.
For this project I wanted to get back to when I was a kid – having fun, drawing and scribbling all day. Even though I had primarily painted with oils before, I needed to develop a more efficient way of working due to the large workload, so I chose to use acrylics to take advantage of their quick drying times. Working with a rapid technique was a skill I developed when I was younger which allowed me to improve at a faster rate and although it took me a while to adjust to working with acrylics once again, I was soon up and running. I quickly discovered that acrylics were also far more effective way of transferring my vision to canvas and as I worked on the paintings I made sure to apply the same tricks and techniques to all twenty four pieces of work simultaneously – something that would have taken a lot longer working with oils. While painting each day I’d turn up MJ’s greatest hits to get myself in the zone and further reignite the artistic energy I had as a child.
In my mind I was transported back to that golden era – those days in the 80’s when MJ revolutionised music. Although at times I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew, I would remind myself of the epic work rate that Michael possessed and I would be re-inspired. He was the hardest working man in music back in his peak years – that is the key lesson I have learnt from studying him. Natural ability is only a small part of the equation and will only take you so far… you need to consistently keep working hard, refining and expanding your skills. I can’t wait to finally exhibit all twenty four paintings at my first solo exhibition later on this year, hopefully the work will allow the viewer to relive MJ’s limitless energy and showmanship. Michael’s legacy and influence lives on, his spirit is still burning bright. As they say, legends never die – long live the king!