Under the harsh fluorescent lights of Oliver Bedeman’s boxy East London studio, one portrait stares out from the back wall and meets our gaze as we enter. A male figure is sat, arms folded, on what appears to be a tube train seat, albeit one rendered suggestively, like the fragment of a dream. Not even the canary yellow of the woman beside this figure can distract from the piercing stare and ambiguity of his expression. This is Nature Boy, one of a cast of characters and stories that recur throughout Bedeman’s portfolio. The painting was inspired by the song of the same name, first recorded by Nat King Cole, which features lyrics about a “very strange, enchanted boy” who was “a little shy and sad of eye, but very wise was he”.
It’s a description that could easily be applied to Oliver himself, a thoughtful, methodical and occasionally seemingly preoccupied young artist who has been gaining plaudits for his painterly yet graphically composed portraits in oils. In 2016, he staged a successful show at Norwich’s Fairhurst Gallery and made the shortlist for the Columbia Threadneedle Prize, which has a lead to a forthcoming solo exhibition with the Fine Art Society on London’s New Bond Street this September.
The new Nature Boy is one of 28 works being readied for that exhibition and the arrangement is similar to a 2014 version, which was first shown in the Fairhurst Gallery. Much like the crooners who found new ways of reinterpreting the Great American Songbook, Oliver appears to enjoy riffing on old compositions. “I always like to have one painting I’m working on with the Nature Boy theme,” he explains. “If I revisit it, I can hopefully do different things and discover new ways of capturing the intensity of his gaze. I need to think about those stories or characters because otherwise the painting would become a bit dead.” Viewed up close, Oliver’s paintings are anything but lifeless. The textures he achieves in his more traditional canvas paintings are remarkable. Passages around the figures can appear almost like watercolours, such is the fluid staining he achieves with thinned oil paints, yet the herringbone weave of the linen surface shows proudly through, adding a pleasing structure to wilder areas.
In contrast, his oil-on-glass works showcase his more meticulous side. Painting on glass means applying the oils to the reverse of the support, so a greater degree of control and planning is needed. “You paint the eyelashes first and then you work backwards,” explains Oliver. “The outcome is the reverse to what you see as you’re painting.” He was inspired to try this after seeing Eric Kennington’s epic 1915 glass painting The Kensingtons at Laventie in the Imperial War Museum. So time consuming was the process that the war artist famously claimed he had “travelled some 500 miles” while stepping around the frame to view the front of the picture.
Oliver uses standard sheets of glass pre-framed by the Fairhurst Gallery. The glass is sanded and degreased prior to applying the oil paint in thin layers. Gloves are worn to avoid unnecessary fingerprints, and colours are mixed without the addition of white spirits or turps. “I try to avoid applying too many layers because I worry that, if the oil is moving through the layers, they might crack. I keep it to one layer as much as possible.”
In the studio, the white of the walls aids the slight transparency of the paintings, really making them pop, but Oliver is anxious about how they will translate on the darker walls of the Fine Art Society. “The exhibition will be on the first floor and they normally show 19th-century paintings up there,” he says. “I’ll have to put a backing board of white behind them, because the white [wall of his studio] acts like a primer. As soon as you see the painting against a different colour, it changes the effect.”
Oliver has spent much of his time in the company of Old Masters. After completing a BA in Fine Art Painting at the University of Brighton and a postgraduate year at the Prince’s Drawing School (now the Royal Drawing School), he taught for a while and worked at Bonhams auction house, before landing a job with fine art dealers Richard Green. “That was a real learning curve in art history,” he recalls. “They had Monet painting and drawings, a few Bonnards that were amazing, lots of old Dutch masters. It was a very inspiring place to work.”
In fact, it was only after the Fine Art Society offered Oliver the exhibition last September that he was able to turn to painting full-time. But he has since maintained his nine-to-six work ethic and often references the Old Masters in his compositions, from the affectionate Rubens homage of Saint Augustine, to the bearded men populating A Bar In France that echo those in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge. Contemporary influences include Yorkshire painter Ryan Mosley and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who paints in a studio in the same building as Oliver. “I love the way her characters work together in an exhibition. Sometimes the paintings are repetitive – three pictures of the same girl on a couch, say – but they just seem to be really having a conversation. She’s very inspiring.”
Colour is an important aspect of Oliver’s practice. For a long time he shied away from it, producing almost entirely monochrome paintings for his degree show. Learning about his palette has been a “slow process”, he admits. “I like focusing on a couple of colours and seeing how they work together.” In recent years, Phthalocyanine Blue and Cadmium Orange, the latter always from Michael Harding, have often been the two dominant hues. “I try to buy new colours but it takes me a while to get used to them.” Familiarity pays off and allows him to create more nuanced shifts in colour.
Oliver’s growing confidence is evident in all aspects of his approach. After years working from photos and drawings, he is now painting from life using his brother, wife and friends as models, even studying a human skull given to him by his doctor grandfather. Compositionally he is exercising increased control too, still working sections of interesting patterns from clothes or fabrics into his images, while leaving swathes of canvas more suggestive. Given many artists struggle to put the brush down and resist tinkering, I wonder if Oliver knows when to stop? “Yeah, I do,” he says, surprisingly firmly, and then laughs. “I like to move on.”