In Depth

Figure Painting: Portraitist Joe Simpson on nostalgia

The artist takes a hiatus from painting real-life personalities to revive iconic action characters from his childhood toy box

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The Figure Painting project started while going through my mum's attic, sorting through old belongings. On discovering my old toys, I was hit by a wave of nostalgia and a flood of memories from these little inanimate plastic figures that were such a big part of my life as a child.

When you haven't seen something for years, because it's been hidden in a box and shut away in the attic, it remains uncorrupted by later associations so to see it again provokes an involuntary memory that acts as a portal back in time. The result is a moment of appreciation rather than mere recollection.

I want these paintings to have that same "Proustian" effect on other people, taking them back to those precious moments of abandon we experience as children when we're totally absorbed in imaginary worlds of play.

I like to work on standalone projects that I would compare to a concept album by a musician or band. Although each project can appear quite different on the surface, they have a lot of common themes and ideas. The Figure Painting series particularly addresses the idea of nostalgia, a theme that reoccurs throughout much of my work and which I am quietly fascinated by. Nostalgia can be alluring and seductive, but strangely potent – like an unexpected punch in the stomach. The Greek etymology of the word means "the pain of returning home".

I painted each portrait on a natural linen canvas to create a timeless feel that is removed from context. My aim was to paint the toys in a way that describes the tactile surface of each figure – the texture, the touch. I even thought about the taste. This may sound a little strange, but I think most kids chewed on their toys at some point and taste is a strong evoker of nostalgia due to the initial processing of stimuli passing through the emotional seat of the brain. When painting He-Man, for example, I wanted his head to look squishy and chewy compared to the rigid plastic of his torso.

I wanted to paint the toys as they exist now, with wonky legs, parts missing and noticeable damage. I got a kick out of painting the weathered sticker on the R2-D2 figure and the scratches on Optimus Prime.

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The whole project has been a greatly nostalgic trip for me – I originally only planned to paint about eight pieces, but fell down a rabbit hole and ended up making 34 paintings in total. It's been really great to hear people's reactions to them and the memories they provoke. I'm excited to show them all together for the first time at the London exhibition.

JOE SIMPSON is a figurative painter living and working in London. Best known for his life-like paintings of actors and musicians such as Olivia Colman, Brandon Flowers, Paloma Faith and Michael Sheen, Simpson's paintings have been shown at venues including the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Albert Hall, Manchester Art Gallery and the House of Commons; joe-simpson.co.uk

Figure Painting is at The Old Truman Brewery from 24 February until 5 March 2017; trumanbrewery.com

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