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Interview: Dan Llywelyn Hall

Thursday 07 June 2012

A graduate from the University of Westminster, Dan Llywelyn Hall’s latest exhibition is taking place at the Hay’s festival in Wales. Titled Portrait of the Pen, Dan’s collection is the result of three years research and time spent visiting his subjects across Britain. Portrait of the Pen is a combination of portraits of writers from all genres to help illustrate the diversity of writing within the British Isles.

Each writer was asked to write an accompanying piece to go with their portrait, which adds a whole extra level to the exhibition. The exhibition is an interesting outlook on the idea surrounding self identity and how we perceive ourselves.

I caught up with Dan prior to the exhibition to find out more about the inspiration behind the exhibition, his career so far and whose portrait he found most difficult.

SP: Since graduating in 2003 you have been part of a wide range of exhibitions and won numerous awards, what has been the highlight for you?

DL: I suppose the most fulfilling project was painting the portraits of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, the last survivors of the Great War. It was moving to be sat drawing Harry Patch: the last pair of eyes to witness the trenches and Allingham, the world’s oldest man; it was painting living history.  I felt as though I had a responsibility.

SP: Your previous work includes a variation of landscapes, what are the different challenges between drawing landscapes and portraits?

DL: I don’t really distinguish between subjects in terms of the way I approach them. The challenges are the same in the sense that you have to keep the painting relevant and topical and true to your emotional reaction to the subject.  I suppose there is more of an imaginative reaction to landscape as I try to inhabit the painting. With people, you have to search the flesh very closely for clues to the puzzle. With both portraits and landscapes I sit with the subject and observe it by drawing and try to gauge my position on it.

SP: Your latest collection combines two art forms: writing and painting. How closely related do you think these two forms are?

DL: I was interested in creating another dimension to portraiture. I think as a viewer, one is always interested in hearing the voice of the sitter and providing a more complete experience of the person.  The relationship to the text creates a form of collaboration and we can make very obvious assumptions about the person form the words they choose. They are, after all, reacting to my own personal gauge of them so the text is a sort of direct comment on our interchange.

SP: What was the inspiration behind this collection?

DL: The inspiration stemmed from a sense of disillusionment about portraiture. I kept thinking that genre occupied this stuffy cultural backwater and was not really progressing or challenging itself as a medium. Because the portraits weren’t commissioned I had a sense of freedom to interpret the sitters exactly how I chose. I had no responsibility to a ‘patron’ or an ‘institution’ so this was liberating and enabled me to be as bold as I liked.  I do think the sitters were brave in some respects; although I suppose they had the last word and were somewhat empowered by that.

SP: Did you anticipate this project taking three years?

DL: I did not have a time constraint or deadline as such, so allowed it to evolve at its own pace.  I was dependent on the sitters giving me time so this dictated the pace of the project. In hindsight, I needed this length of time to consolidate my thoughts about the project’s direction. Also, the planning for an exhibition on the scale takes some work!

SP: What was your selection process for choosing which writers to paint?

DL: There was no criteria as such. I started by contacting the writers I knew as testing it out on them to start. I then began to approach writers whose work I had read and connected with. There were of course many rejections to sit. I think by-and-large, writers are private somewhat reclusive creatures so I sort of expected people to turn me down. The nature of the collection depends on the writers desire to be portrayed so I don’t feel that I have missed out on the ones that got away! I also wanted to broad spectrum of writers from different genres so amongst these are art critics, poets, novelists, bloggers and a children’s author. I hope I have most avenues for written word covered. The reason for writers as a group is that I wanted to choose the most eloquent people who can express thoughts with the clarity of their craft.

SP: Did you find some writers harder to connect with than others?

DL: Certainly. I could sense the slight reluctance in some whereas others were truly immersed in the experience. Some interacted and other ignored me. It was not essential that I could relate to them as people or indeed communicate with them. I just needed to sit in the same space and occupy the same time of day.

SP: Who was the hardest portrait to paint and why?

DL:  A difficult one to answer. On reflection, the people I knew best. Possibly the most challenging was Owen Sheers. We’ve known one and other for over ten years and have collaborated on projects, so have been reacting to one another’s work for a while. He heard on the grapevine that I didn’t want to paint him until he ‘had taken a few knocks,’ so when I eventually asked him about sitting, he possibly suspected I thought he’d taken enough of a beating from life! I was of course conscious of this throughout the painting.

SP: Which writer had the best response to their portrait?

DL: I wouldn’t say any were better or worse as they all carry a weight – even in a single word. However, I suppose Sue Hubbard’s short story really entered into the spirit of the project and made me as vulnerable as perhaps each sitter did. As much as I enjoyed the story I thought she captured the reality of how a portrait is painted and how it really feels to be on the receiving end.


Do you ever worry about the subject’s reaction to their portrait? Not at all. I had to accept that the writers could say anything they wished just as I could expose any part of their face I wished. It was the trade-off.

SP: Have you ever changed a portrait following a subject’s reaction?

DL: Once and never again. I don’t work from commissions because of the experience. I felt a pressing weight on each brush stroke and lost all sense of purpose whilst painting.

SP: Who would be your ideal portrait sitter?

DL: I would like to paint the Queen. It’s the ultimate portrait subject. I guess because the sitter has a distinct position in the world and I can add to the dialogue and sense of intrigue and mystery of the person. They are after all living the same way as everyone else but have this added duty which has to show somewhere on the face. I also like sitters who put the kettle on!

Words: Annie Owen