#btconf Berlin, Germany 13 - 16 Nov 2019

Wilfrid Wood

After dumping a career in graphics, Wilfrid plunged into prop making at cult classic British television show, Spitting Image. Here he learnt his trade as an ‘apprentice headbuilder’, starting in the Eyeballs and Blinks department and moving on to Dogs and Sheep.

25 years later he is now a portrait artist. His subjects are famous people, invented characters, strangers and friends. He spends hours studying characters in the supermarket, on the bus and in celebrity magazines. Wilfrid is commissioned to make both sculpted and drawn portraits, regularly drawing people from life in his Hackney studio.

Currently he is engaged in a series of pastel portraits, mainly of curious individuals who have made contact through Instagram and volunteered their time.

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What makes a good portrait? Do portraits often say more about the artist than the sitter? What kind of face is good to do? What can you tell about someone’s personality from their face? I’ll be talking about my time at cult TV show Spitting Image, boring jobs that pay, interesting jobs that don’t, plus drawing people every day at my flat in Hackney.



Wilfrid Wood: Hello. Hello. Hello.

[Audience applause]

Hi, everyone. Yeah, um, I’m an artist and this is me in my studio in Hackney Wick.

I don’t know anything about computers and I’m hardly going to barely mention them. I make everything by hand and it’s either drawn or sculpted. That’s a dog I made out of papier-mache called “Tricky Dog” and this is all the stuff that I used to make it.

I make some big heads - Zuckerberg.

[Audience laughs]

Here’s another papier mache one, and little, tiny, sweet, little doggies and sometimes wall-hangings.

I use a lot of plasticine. I don’t know if you remember plasticine from when you were a kid. It’s a bit like playdough. This is a rough I made.

[Audience laughs]

So, um, yeah, that was a rough of this sculpture I made for my friend Dawn. It was for her birthday, and that’s the actual Dawn.

[Audience laughs]

So, you see, it really wasn’t much of an exaggeration at all.

When I was a kid, I used to love these kinds of races from around the world type spreads. I’m not sure how PC they are really now or whether race is really a kind of acknowledged concept so much anymore, but I loved all these different faces.

That was just a little quote I saw. You know ESOC cosmetics, this is just a little quote on the side of an ESOC bag, but I thought it was quite profound, really. “The flesh is the surface of the unknown.”

I do portraits and I’m always wondering, really, how much you can tell about someone from a portrait, from their skin, from how they look. Angela Merkel, for instance. A very mysterious person, in a way. That’s my sculpture of her. I just wanted to make her look a little bit twinkly and cheeky because normally she’s so incredibly measured, calm, and quite dour.

Our own Prince William, all that anyone interested in him, really, is his baldness, so I did this talking to his little son. There are all these pictures of him leaning over his son as they just walked out of the plane, you know, on the tarmac. I thought it’s such an odd image.

Caster Semenya, she’s the athlete that’s very controversial because of testosterone levels and things like that, but she’s very beautiful and amazing looking. That was a plasticine head I made of her.

I do all sorts of portraits and it’s something I think that’s kind of run through me from a very early age. That’s me as a kid sitting in the summer house at the end of the garden. My grandma gave me a set of tools, which I started making things with like this. This is my first ever sculpture of a robot.

[Audience laughs]

I used to do this sort of lettering, which is kind of like turning letters into faces.

This is my dad. He was a natural history illustrator. This is one of his pictures. I came from a sort of quite heavy-duty art family, totally different from Burton, talking just before me. I kind of slid into art as the obvious thing to do with no opposition from my parents. It was really the lazy option.

This was what my dad did. I realized the other day, actually, he did portraits of frogs. I’m really, even more, going along sort of family lines. This is his studio, which was an utter tip he was a hoarder.

We were going through it the other day and I found this on the floor that I remember had a big impression on me. It was a kind of medical book with some sort of ghoulish photos of herpes, syphilis, and things like that. It rather reminded me of these sorts of images that were found on Francis Bacon, the English painter, Francis Bacon’s floor. That’s Francis Bacon.

Do you know who Francis Bacon is? He’s an English painter in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, up until the ‘80s. He did amazing portraits like this, I think, as a teenager. He’s almost a bit of a typical teenage fixation type artist, but I was almost as fascinated by his face as I was his work because he’s got such a spooky face. He’s brilliant in interviews. If you ever fancy looking up an old English artist on interviews, have a look at Francis Bacon. Camp as tits; I can’t tell you.

[Audience laughs]

As a teenager, I got out these books, one on Francis Bacon and David Hockney. I remember my mom and my grandma kind of whispering to each other as, you know, there was gay trouble ahead. I didn’t even know what I was -- you know, it was just a natural thing for me to be drawn to these two artists.

Later, I’ve got to know the author of the David Hockney book, Marco Livingstone, and that’s his drawing of me. That’s another drawing of me by Marco; terribly out of proportion, of course.

[Audience laughs]

This is what I’m asking myself when I’m doing a portrait, really. It’s, what is the basics? I can almost make a note like, “Ears sticking out. Eyes too close together. Bald,” whatever the things are. There’s a list of features to keep in mind when I’m doing a portrait. This is my friend Prosper that I play badminton with and that’s my portrait of him, which I thought was quite successful.

My friend Jason and that’s my portrait of Jason. This was a bit of a lesson, this one, because I’d done it and I showed it to him at a party. He said, “Oh, yeah. Great. I really like the way you’ve simplified it and it’s got something of me, but it’s very refined, the way you’ve done it.”

I thought, “Oh, great. That’s got quite a success.”

Then, about an hour later, after he’d had a few drinks, he came up to me and said, “But it’s not very sexy, is it?”

[Audience laughs]

I said, “Well, that wasn’t really what I was aiming at. You know, that wasn’t my primary consideration to make you look sexy,” but it made me realize that hardly anyone wants to look funny, peculiar, or daft. They want to look cool, sexy, and great.

This is my friend’s baby Cecily and that’s the portrait I did of Cecily, which went down really badly. I’ve hardly been able to make it up with my friend Dave since doing this portrait.

I wanted to do that -- you know that thing where babies are just on the cusp of either crying or laughing or making a sort of enjoyable gurgle or a scream? But anyway, it didn’t work.

That’s Justin Bieber.

[Audience laughs]

Just a little bit of a thought. The philosopher Plotinus questioned having his portrait done. His face wasn’t him, he said, but merely his husk. A portrait would, therefore, be a husk of a husk, an illusion doubled.

Every so often, I get jobs to sculpt people. This is someone called Wolfgang Joop, who I assume is German. He invented the perfume called Joop. He’s obviously a queen who has had far too much facial surgery and I was worried about doing this portrait and it might not go down well.

I did a whole series for a magazine and he was the only one who loved it and retweeted it, so you can never tell what are people’s reactions. This is the magazine, which are one of these massive, thick fashion magazines that you just cannot understand how it survives, really. Costing about 25 quid or something. I don’t know what it is. Super thick. Couple of adverts. It must be somebody’s sort of vanity project, but anyway.

This is Dolce and Gabbana. This one was banned from the magazine because Dolce and Gabbana are so touchy, apparently.

[Audience laughs]

Fendi and Lagerfeld, this one went down fine. I like this. Who was it? Oh, Miuccia Prada, I thought she looked quite peasant, like a sort of Italian peasant, which I thought -- an elegant Italian peasant. These were all made out of plasticine.

This is just such a sweet quote. “I’ve always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have a light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me.” That’s from Matisse. If you know Matisse, his work is amazingly elegant and swiftly painted. His drawings are sometimes just about three or four lines.

I would love to do the same thing. I’d love to work and work and work on something so that I can get quick at doing a drawing or a sculpture. Plasticine is pretty good because it’s such an immediate sort of material.

This is another job I had for Barcelona, just doing a few heads for Barcelona Design Week. That is Zaha Hadid and that’s Zygmunt -- no, who is it? I haven’t put it in my presenter notes, but it doesn’t matter. He’s a philosopher. I did this, Bauman Zygmunt or Zygmunt Bauman or something like that. I made him and they were filming and going to put music with it and stuff like that. I sort of did this as a kind of little bit of a funny little old man, but they put this rather sort of ethereal music behind it, which I thought was a bit crazy.

[Ethereal music]

Wilfrid Wood: Oh, there he is.

[Ethereal music]

Wilfrid Wood: Oh, is that just going to go on and on?

[Audience laughs]

Anyway, but I also did this one, which was of David Bowie, and I thought this one worked much better.


Wilfrid Wood: Yeah, so it’s lovely when I do something as simple as a plasticine head but if it’s a commission thing, somebody else takes it into, you know, just all they did, obviously, is just turn it like that and add a bit of music. But it becomes something else, which is lovely.

Something I really like doing is plasticine workshops. I just get a whole load of people together and, really, I do very little. I provide them with plasticine and just get them to make heads of each other. Some of them are absolutely great.

These are -- yeah, I mean when people get to grips with hair. This woman did her boyfriend.

[Audience laughs]

That’s one. Do you know Mr. Bingo?

[Audience laughs]

Mr. Bingo is always talking at these sorts of things. A good friend of John’s. Yeah, that was one I did of him, actually, be he demanded a cock as a nose and it was a pleasure to apply it.

[Audience laughs]

That’s another one I did of Bingo with extra red ears that he liked and actually bought. He tweeted. He put it on Instagram and compared himself to Mrs. Thatcher, which was pretty good.

This is another very inscrutable face. I like this portrait I saw of her that’s just a tiny bit off in some way. It’s very hard to see. It’s slightly flattened or something or her hair is sort of a tiny bit off. I spent hours looking on eBay for drawings and paintings.

I love this pretty boy with his pussy.

[Audience laughs]

This sort of life drawing, it’s always the -- a common problem with life drawing is making the hands and feet too small. That’s a real obvious one.

This worked well as a pair, I thought.

I used to work for this magazine Raw Vision about outsider and self-taught art. I think the term is slightly changing now. I think it might be going to be called neuro-diverse art, but that’s always been a big thing for me. I used to partly design the magazine and go and interview and photograph artists, especially in the southern United States.

This is someone called S.L. Jones, so I particularly love his sculptures.

This is “Son Ford” Thomas. He was a gravedigger and he dug clay and made heads. The hair and the glasses and sometimes teeth that you see on his sculptures are taken from the bodies.

[Audience gasps]

That’s real human teeth, the particularly spooky one.

Other heroes of mine were working in Berlin in the ‘20s. Now, I really hesitate before speaking any German but have you heard of the movement called the Neue Sachlichkeit?

Audience members: Yes.

Wilfrid Wood: New Objectivity. How do you say it properly?

[Audience murmurs]

Whoa. I won’t even try, but yeah.

[Audience laughs]

A lot of my heroes actually were working here, so I’m longing on the weekend to go and see. I think there’s a good museum of Berlin art, so it should have a lot of these people. This is someone called George Gross and this is someone called Otto Dicks, who did these amazing paintings between the wars.

That’s sort of satirical paintings of the way Germany was at that time or Berlin, perhaps, was. Very decadent, but they’re cutting, biting satirical works. But there’s also a sort of a humor about them and also, literally, the way they’re drawn is so great.

That’s someone called Jean Mammen who did that painting. There was a great show in the Tate recently.

Right, another thought. “Research at Princeton University has revealed that a reading of one-tenth of a second is enough for us to decide whether we trust or mistrust a face: a mere Tinder swipe. It is this elementary social wiring that makes portraiture the most basic of all the genres of the visual arts.”

I’m often worrying in a way that I’m doing something that is so well-trodden, it’s been done so many times so brilliantly by so many other people. What can I add to it? I don’t know. [Laughter] I haven’t got a good answer to that apart from drawing contemporary people in my own way the best I can.

This thing about whether you trust a face, I think, is very interesting. That’s Jeffrey Dahmer, who was a serial killer. If you saw him walking down the street, would you think that’s someone who looks a bit suspicious or would you think that’s rather a good looking guy? I think it’s very hard to know just from someone’s face.

This is a pilot who you probably remember flew his plane into a mountain. You’re always going to want to see. They’re always going to put the face of the person who has done some sort of horrible massacre. Maybe the early editions of the newspaper just have the headline. They haven’t got the face, the picture of the person yet, but you always want to see. You always want to have a look and say -- and really, I think, think to yourself, “Could you tell? Is there some little hint of madness in the face?”

The Victorians thought that if you look like a dog, you behaved like a dog. If you looked like a bull, you behaved like a bull, which is obviously absolute nonsense, but it still goes on today.

[Video started]

[Audience claps]

Female: Push the button, Kelly.

[Audience claps and cheers]


Female: Face reading. Barbara.

Kelly: Okay. Um, I’ve dated a lot of losers and they’ve all pretended to have money and be big bigshots when they just are not. And, um, I’m all for a woman being independent and making their own money, being successful but, at the end of the day, I like gifts, so--

[Audience laughs]

Kelly: I was wondering, how can I find out if a guy is, like, wealthy and successful [laughter] or has potential to be--

Female: Right.

Kelly: --without actually asking him at first.

Female: Okay. Well, first of all, thanks for your honesty.

[Audience laughs]

Female: That took a little bit to put that out.

Female: She’s like, “I’m sayin’ I’m a gold digger.”

[Audience laughs and applauds]

Female: You know, your shovel. No, anyway, but there are parts of the face that will reveal wealth. The aspect, though, is, because the man might have wealth, though, he might be using it to take care of his elderly parents or put his kids through school, so it might not come to you, necessarily, or pay off school loans or something. So, but the parts of the face that show wealth, the nose is the key and the larger the nose the more spiritual or financial abundance. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, for example, had a huge nose.

Male: Huge nose.

Female: So, it shows wealth will come to this person. I’ve looked at a lot of CEOs. I’ve looked at 6,000 people and lots of corporations, so that’s a really good sign. Also, like President Obama, people who have a very large, wide-mouth tend to be generous and affectionate and financially generous. But the features you want to avoid, keep in mind this is a 2,000-year-old system, you want to avoid if you’re looking straight at someone and you can see their nostrils--

Female: Ooh.

Female: --which is, one of the couples before us, they were talking about their money issues, but -- there you are. The girl had visible nostrils and what that means, occasionally, is money comes in and money goes out.

Male: Ooh.

[Audience laughs]

Female: So, the other feature that will show people spend a lot of money is when someone smiling, if you can see their visible gumline, it means they budget and they spend but, mainly, they spend.

Male: [Laughter]

Kelly: Okay.

Female: So, just pay attention to those things.

Female: Also, a gummy smile means that they’re a spender.

[Audience laughs]

Female: Wow.

[Video ends]

Wilfrid Wood: Yeah.

[Audience laughs]

Marc mentioned Spitting Image. I saw a few hands go up. This was a TV program in the ‘80s and ‘90s. John loves to say that I basically did the whole show singlehandedly, but I absolutely didn’t at all. I was there the last two years of the program. I already had been going ten years before I turned up and I was just there almost straight out of college as the head builder. I was an apprentice head builder.

That’s me with somebody called Jeremy Clarkson, who one or two people might have heard of. He’s very famous in England. He’s basically a sort of famous asshole. He does Top Gear. It’s not Top Gear anymore, but another one of those car programs.

That was my boss at that time, Roger Law, who was brilliant. He was a massive, great big, sweary, amazingly energetic bloke. I met him a couple of years ago. I was just walking up Charing Cross Road and I met him. I went up behind him and said, “Roger, I just wanted to say, ‘You won’t remember who I am,’“ and he didn’t remember who I was at all. But I said, “You changed my life,” and it’s embarrassing to say, almost, because I’ve never said it to anyone else and I don’t think I’ll say it again.

He really changed my life because he just introduced me to the fact it was possible to have fun and get paid for it at work because, previous to that, I’d been working at a publisher. I just thought that really work was a necessary slog that you had to do every day that just would never be any fun. He changed all that for me.

Yeah, my dad, the natural history illustrator guy, had taught Roger, unfortunately, at college. Roger was always taking the piss out of me for painstakingly doing details a bit like a natural history drawing. He one time slapped his hand on my shoulder and said, “This isn’t a natural history show!” In other words, speed up and look at the broader picture because, on tele, you can’t see all these little details. You just want to see the big thing, whatever it is. That was great advice for someone like me who has a tendency towards fiddling around with little bits.

Those were radioactive fish that I made for Spitting Image. I did a lot of eyeballs and blinks. That was just the mechanism. When I first went there, they needed people to fit out the heads so the eyeballs would go like this and the blinks went blup-blup-blup like that.

This is someone called Ralph Harris, who I did who turns out to be a pedophile, but we didn’t know it at the time. [Laughter]

[Audience laughs]

If anyone knows who Ralph Harris is, his head was just made out of different bits like the Pope’s nose and the Queen Mother’s forehead or, you know, various bits that made up Ralph Harris because he was a very easy person to do, really. They didn’t need to sculpt him from scratch, in other words.

That’s how he appeared on tele.

That’s a very famous image from Spitting Image. It really comes from a long tradition of British; I’m sure all around the world, but I think Britain has got a pretty good track record. This is a print by somebody called Gillray. That Mrs. Thatcher photo was really a kind of skit on this.

I still do this sort of thing occasionally. This is David Cameron hot-hot-footing it on the beach and my Boris Johnson.

[Audience laughs]

Boris just made himself. I slapped a pink bit of plasticine on the table, rolled out a couple of sausages for his lips and nose and stuck a bit of yellow on his head and there he was - Boris. Just out of interest, that’s how he looked as a kid.

This, I’m embarrassed to show this in front of so many amazing animators, but this is my really, really basic Boris animation. I just did that with Animate It, which is a tiny little app. I got it on my phone. Cellophaned the phone to a bit of bamboo or something and did this in natural light. Anyway, I normally show that to students and they’re quite impressed, but we’ll move on.

[Audience laughs]

This is Jeremy Clarkson, who I did for a cover of the magazine. I only did that a year or so ago, so he’s still the guy that I showed with me holding his head right at the beginning of Spitting Image. He’s still around.

The obvious person, of course, is Donald Trump. A few people have asked me to sculpt him, but I just think, “What can I add?”

[Audience laughs]

He’s already caricatured himself.

[Audience applause]

But I have done Melania.

[Audience laughs]

And then I, with some hesitancy, did Barron. I want nearly all my portraits to have some sort of sympathy in it, not just total piss takes. But Barron was such an amazingly geeky teenager, gawky, geeky teenager, I just couldn’t resist making a sculpture of him.

I used to do more of this sort of thing. This was an advert for a Japanese clothing brand. I used to spend hours and hours and hours trying to make everything very smooth.

I did these figures for Levi’s. This is how they ended up. There was a skinny one for skinny jeans and baggy jeans and regular cut jeans. They made these figures that went in the sort of point of sale bit, so these figures were kind of collectible things. They made great big, well, life-size sort of figures of a similar nature.

I used to make these sort of -- I cast these myself. I don’t really bother with much casting anymore because it takes ages and it’s very liable to go wrong.

That’s one called “Wounded Knee.”

This all about sort of 15 years ago when these sorts of toys -- there was a bit sort of vogue for these sorts of toys. It’s really funny to look back because those sorts of things there, I quite like that. When you get to my age--I’m 51--you start to look back and you start to get a feeling of fashion and how things changed. It’s actually quite interesting because a lot of my work from 15, 20 years is starting to look very dated. I don’t know if it will come back in. You always hope. [Laughter] But, you know, things sort of eventually filter through and good things sort of fix, but who knows.

There’s the collection of the sort of things I was making something like 15 years ago. Really, what happened was, most of these are very sort of smoothly finished. I just got fed up with people asking me if I’d done them on the computer, so I started making things purposefully with thumbprints and the marks of scalpels and whatever it was, you know, making them as tactile as possible rather than people assuming that I’d done them on the computer.

There’s Macca.

[Audience laughs]

This is Brian May, the guitarist out of Queen. I was really pleased because Matt Lucas -- have you heard of a program called Little Britain?

Audience members: Yes.

Wilfrid Wood: He bought -- well, he actually commissioned me to the Brian May. He’s bought quite a lot of my work. The last time, when I took the Brian May to him, I said, “Yeah, I’ll come and deliver it. Any chance I can draw you?” He said yes, so I did that drawing and he was really sweet about it.

Now, I think this is great.

[Audience laughs]

Renaldo; this got so much stick at the time. I think it’s a really good portrait and really funny and just like him, actually. My portrait isn’t nearly as good.

[Audience laughs]

What I’d love to do, though, is this campy one of Renaldo, so that’s -- I’ve got the frame in my studio. I just need to add all the polymer clay.

Doggies, I do. This is a dog head that I made a few years ago for a party. It looks particularly funny on children.

[Audience laughs]

To go with the dog, I’ve got this other character that I do with a friend of mine that’s called MC Tiddlz. My friend Malcolm does the music and I do the heads and do the performance. This is MC Tiddlz.

[Video of Mc Tiddlz singing and dancing]

Wilfrid Wood: MC Tiddlz.

[Audience applause]

Back to doggies. Oh, this is where it was, really - Instagram. I couldn’t be -- well, basically, my agent told me to start using Instagram about four or five years ago, or something like that. I couldn’t be bothered with it at all, but I started looking at it and there are some quite funny things. Then I started getting into it myself. That’s one of my favorites ever.

[Audience laughs]

I started to really enjoy it. Apart from Roger Law, the other thing that has changed my life is Instagram. I get people to draw, commissions. Nearly all my work comes through Instagram these days, including buying work. I saw these amazing vases that someone had made. Just sent him a message, bought them, and there they are turned up.

It really is, for me, the key to my modern working life is Instagram. People’s comments are pretty funny. I don’t like it. I like this one. I don’t like this one. I like this one. She went on and on and on. I like it but only because of the background. I like that fat one. I don’t like it.

[Audience laughs]

Grindr, yeah, just a little. Do you know what Grindr is? One or two people might have heard of it. Anyway, it’s a disgusting, filthy app for shagging, basically, gay shagging.

I used it for getting people to draw. I got the most amazing number of people volunteering. I just said, “I’m looking for models,” so I got all these amazing guys to strip off and drew them. That was a bit of one to hold.

[Audience laughs]

I mean, you know, the position.

But, eventually, I found my current boyfriend through Grindr. He posed for me for years before anything went on between us, but my last show was a show of drawings of him. I’ll just show you a couple of things. They’re quite good fun.

So, yeah, this is a show I had. I mean it’s really, for an artist like me that is kind of very much just follows their own path. I get commissioned, occasionally. People ask me to draw them or sculpt them and stuff like that. Otherwise, I’ve got a hell of a lot of time where I’m just self-driven, really.

A show once a year is my kind of thing just to keep me on the rails. It’s really good to have a deadline. It’s really good to have that sort of focus. This is a show that I had of those drawings and a launch of the little book that I put together.

This is just another little thought and I really respond to this. “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” This is not the Francis Bacon I was talking about earlier but another one several centuries before. I think I do my little bit for inclusiveness by being thrilled by big noses and sticking out ears and things like that.

I drew a model, a beautiful girl who is an actual model, the other day. She sat down in front of me and I said, “The first thing I’ve just got to say is that you’ve got massive sticking out ears. Okay? They’re going to be in the drawing. Is this all okay?”

She said, “Yes, I know. When I was little, my grandma was going to pay to get my ears pinned back. My parents were worried about it. I got teased in school. But now it’s made my fortune.”

I think, as far as models go, what you see on adverts and that sort of thing, actually, models have got far more diverse and interesting in their looks. When I was younger, it was Cindy Crawford and Elle McPherson and things like that who are obviously very beautiful but actually quite dull. The range of models you see now is far more interesting.

I’m just finishing up with a few pictures of people that I draw at conferences and things like that, which I’m just going to do after this outside there in the sort of reception bit. If anyone is interested, I’ll be sitting there drawing people 30 euros ago and just 2 chairs, me sitting down drawing the person in front of me. They take about 15 minutes each. If anyone is interested in it, just come up and see me afterward out at the front.

This is the sort of thing I’ll be doing. Although, I don’t think there are any children to upset with this sort of drawing.

[Audience laughs]

That’s it so, if anyone is interested, see you in a minute. Thanks very much.

[Audience applauds and cheers]