Colin Wiggins | Double Vision

Today,  23 June, The Cynthia Corbett Gallery opened a major group show to celebrate its successes over the past 10 years.  The exhibition will also include a revisiting of Colin Wiggins’ Double Vision, which was one of the gallery’s first curated projects. Wiggins creates etched portraits of his art heroes, inviting them to complete the works by adding their own portraits of him. Colin Wiggins’ work has been featured recently in BBC 2  ‘Collectaholics’.

Colin Wiggins trained as an Art Historian, graduating from Manchester University in 1976 and has worked in the Education Department of the National Gallery since 1981. He has been instrumental in developing the Gallery’s involvement with contemporary artists and has curated shows of Paula Rego, Ken Kiff, Frank Auerbach,  Peter Blake, Anthony Caro and currently, Ana María Pacheco.

The Enchantress Portrait of Paula Rego, Colin Wiggins and Paula Rego, from the series Double Vision, 1998

The Enchantress Portrait of Paula Rego, Colin Wiggins and Paula Rego, from the series Double Vision, 1998

‘ My experience as an artist is central to my approach to art history. Conversely, living almost daily in the National Gallery for 18 years has, of course, helped my own work immeasurably. These prints, wich are all portraits, combine two techniques. I start by drawing from life, looking carefully and trying to pin down what I see. I etch the resulting line drawings onto a metal plate.

I print my plates weeks, months or even years after making the drawings. This is why my work sometimes shows two dates, the date of the initial drawing and the date of the completed image. When I make this final image, the sitter is no longer present. The lines I have already etched into the plate help me recall memories of the sitter. I use brushes, rags, cotton buds and my fingers to manipulate the ink on the plate, in an attempt to suggest form, movement and mood.

Because of  this method, each image is unique. I like to frame them together in series, often with radically different images made from the same plate.

A list of my favorite artists would start with Raphael, Utamaro, Degas and Picasso.’


The Wanderer Portrait of R.B. Kitaj. Colin Wiggins and R.B. Kitaj from the series Double Vision, 2003

The Wanderer Portrait of R.B. Kitaj. Colin Wiggins and R.B. Kitaj from the series Double Vision, 2003

‘Looking at Colin Wiggins’ work  one is aware of two things: firstly, his understanding of the relation between theory and practice and secondly, the seriousness of this engagement with the  subject he chooses – the human figure. In our time there is an excessive use of subjectivity and self-reference in much contemporary art. It is very refreshing to see an artist dealing with the complex, difficult but enduring problems of trying to create work of substance without falling into the trap of fashion or easy solutions’. Ana María Pacheco

‘Drawing from the human figure is central to the work of Colin Wiggins. Anyone can learn the rudiments of drawing, but it is what happens afterwards that is interesting. Colin draws beautifully but enjoys going beyond what actually sees to produce images that seem raw and  alive, often surprisingly tender and sometimes very sensuous. His technique is a fascinating cross between observation and memory, discipline and improvisation’. Peter Blake

The Joker Portrait of Frank Auerbach Etching and aquatint Colin Wiggins and Frank Auerbach

The Joker Portrait of Frank Auerbach Etching and aquatint Colin Wiggins and Frank Auerbach

Sir Peter Blake looks like Santa Claus, Paula Rego looks ferocious and Frank Auerbach looks surprisingly amiable and domesticated. Colin Wiggins, the man on the easel or within the picture frame in the images, looks nervous, as well he might.

A unique set of portraits of eminent contemporary artists will go on display for the first time next week, at the London Art Fair.

Each is a portrait by Wiggins, deputy head of education at the National Gallery, of one of his heroes in art but in each case he gave the etching plates to his subjects and invited them to complete the picture by adding their own portraits of him.

The artists are all friends, and all agreed, instantly, even the notoriously secretive and reclusive Frank Auerbach: Sir Peter said they all liked the idea that they would get a set of portraits of their mates as part of the deal. Tortuous negotiations are now under way to swap etching plates between London and Los Angeles for the next in the series, the pop artist RB Kitaj.

Sir Peter, who has been knighted at the age of 70, has also just been appointed Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy schools. The first group of students visited his studios just before Christmas.

“I told them the one piece of advice I could give was to draw everything, all the time, and to date all their drawings. But you couldn’t count on students today having the materials, so I made them all party bags. They each got a drawing pad, a pencil, a sharpener, and a rubber; and I put in a tangerine and a chocolate pencil as well. People are just getting interested in drawing again; a few years ago it would all have been computers, but now they’re just beginning to find them boring.”

He became friends with Colin Wiggins over his mandatory mid-morning cup of tea, while he was artist in residence at the National Gallery. He said he was instantly intrigued by the portraits idea. “Frank’s very good, Paula can look very fierce, but it’s all an act. She’s really a very gentle person. He’s got me very nicely; it looks just like me. I’m not quite finished with him though, I need to do a bit more work, I’ll have to get the plate back after the exhibition,” Sir Peter said.

The idea sprang from an etching Mr Wiggins made of Jackson Pollock, incorporating his interpretation of a Pollock paint dribble painting. “It took much longer than the portrait of Pollock himself – I thought what a pity he isn’t still alive, then I could have got him to do the Pollock bit.”

The trickiest collaboration was with Frank Auerbach. The painter is a legendarily obsessive perfectionist, often painting in marathon all-night sessions, then scraping off his work until only a ghostly image remains on the canvas, and starting all over again. Paintings take years to complete. The same technique could not be applied to a copper etching plate, but it was still not an entirely straightforward process. After Auerbach’s customary stack of discarded drawings, he drew the Wiggins portrait straight onto the plate.

“He wasn’t quite happy with the first image, so I burnished it away for him, just leaving the faintest outline as he asked. Then he made a second plate, and I printed the final image from both plates. He might have a reputation as a bit of a recluse, but he was very easy, very jolly to work with.”  , arts and heritage correspondent. The Guardian, Monday 13 January 2003.  Read more


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