"Waking up the Soul" - Daniel O'Sullivan interview

By Javier Melian. Cover photograph by Emma Zarifi

"Getting back into painting after nearly 20 years out of it, is something that I will always be proud of. Whatever happens in the future I can truly say at least I tried my very best. After the startling realisation that I can't not paint anymore, came the further realisation that I can't dawdle anymore either, I must run. So here I am chasing this like a hound". - Daniel O'Sullivan


Daniel O'Sullivan is a London born artist based between Madrid and London. His work is an attempt to go beyond the skin and flesh without stopping at the mere mimetic representation. Delving beyond the surface of the individual, their expressions and gestures, the artist has an infinite number of possibilities when dialoguing with the soul of his portrayed, obviating the words what the eyes can utter. Daniel's figurative practice emphasises the importance of the human face. It is the whole face which opens the door to the privacy of the soul, taking over the attention and curiosity of the observer.


Formed in Fine Arts at Leeds Metropolitan University, he had the opportunity to do a exchange term at the Complutense University of Madrid. He fell in love with the city so much that decided to start his family there. He participated in several exhibitions, both collective and individual, as well as taking commission work. But life at one point pushed him to abandon his passion for twenty years until in 2012.

"I stopped painting for too many years. Life just happened and I kidded myself that what I was doing professionally was creative enough to quench that artistic yearning. For many years it worked, I would attend the occasional exhibition with a very critical eye, comparing what I thought I could do in my head to what someone had actually done. What arrogance! Here I was, a “creative” comparing myself to an exhibiting artist. I realised I had no right to do that if I wasn't actually painting and at that moment it all became very simple and clear. I just had to paint again.

I went to the garage and looked for the old bag of oil paints from university that had followed me across countries and many house moves. It would have been too heart breaking to admit defeat and throw those dreams away, and there they were, dried up and squashed but still with me" - Says Daniel

There are many reasons to love O'Sullivan's work. These are impactful, honest pieces that act as a well one falls into to reach the subject's soul. There continues to be an evolution in Daniel's paintings since his return. After a first series, the artist discovered that when meeting with the subjects of the paintings, sometimes months after being painted, they often did not resemble the original image. The physical resemblance prevailed, but the emotion (the soul) that he had striven to capture in painting, had disappeared from the subject's face, replaced by a different emotion. The result was a remarkably changed face. This observation led him to wonder whether he would be able to capture more than one emotion in one painting and how it might translate it into a canvas. 

Hence, in his latests paintings he has been adding a fixed image of another singular aspect of an emotion, sometimes continuing with overlaying video projections. The results are striking pieces were emotions come alive and become very real. This special way to connect with the onlooker is truly engaging and captivating, as one no longer see a face but feel a deep emotion masterfully recreated by a piece of art. At the end, this is what art is all about. This makes us realise how truly fortunate we all are that Daniel O'Sullivan has returned to what he was born to do.

Has your practice always been figurative painting? How did you come about to your current means of expression?

I finished my degree in Fine Art almost twenty years ago and the last things I painted at that time are echoes of what I am currently doing. I've moved on in the last 4 years since I returned to painting full-time, and am more confident in following experimental processes with less guarded preciousness than I had as a student. I've discovered that what fundamentally interests me has changed little, that I'm a figurative painter who loves to observe people. What has evolved however is the process. My love of oil paint, its textures and vitality has combined with a love of digital possibilities and how our intimacy to technology enhances the search for the inner emotions I strive for in my work.

How do you choose the themes of your works?

What interests me is not a face, I try to delve deeper than the skin and bone. What I'm looking for I struggle to define, it's sometimes nothing more than a glance, a look, an emotion. A "something else" I can see. Could I call it a soul? Something that often emanates from the eye, then is lost in an instant. Sometimes it appears in a mouth, but a smile is just its crude extension. An inner energy (negative or positive) that breaks through the surface and is caught for an instance then gone. Ideas come from various places, perhaps an individual has it, sometimes its a more generic emotion I want to capture. I ask many people including professional actors or models to try and recreate them for me, it sometimes works sometimes it doesn’t. My paintings progress from this seed of inspiration and for me are continual workings and attempts at solutions to questions that arise whilst painting. “I've seen artists capture someone's soul in oil paint, could I be capable of that?” “Is a soul and its reflection through emotions on a face of a singular time and place or universal and timeless?” or “How can I capture different and even conflicting emotions on one canvas?

Portraiture is a genre in constant evolution throughout history, to represent multiple things from status to inner feelings. Where do you think portraiture is currently heading to?

I think the weight of historical portraiture suffocates most attempts to represent more subtle ideas, inner feelings or anything outside of a very predefined set of tradition rules. Although my goal is to paint emotions represented through the human face I have always roundly rejected the term "portraits" for my work. Rather than try to add a small nuance to this heavily preconditioned genre, I feel impelled to push away from this definition completely and all that the title "portrait" implies.

Let me explain: traditional portraits I feel struggle for the very opposite of what I'm looking for. I've observed directly how capturing so very closely someone’s feelings can affect how the painting is later compared with how the sitter then looks. How different someone can be a few months later once those inner emotions have changed. Traditional portraits I feel, aim to eliminate these temporary emotions in order to capture a more neutral version of the subject, achieving a version that intentionally does not change in the days, weeks, months or years ahead. 

My goal, however, is precisely to capture this emotion in transition, and furthermore to capture the power in conflicting emotions when they interact. Sometimes I use very base emotions; sometimes they are more subtle.

 Is there a message in your art? What is it?

There is a power in painting that I cannot explain, and that is powerful enough for people to still view painting as art without message. A room of Rothko's is a great example of that. With my work I am constantly surprised when people see something completely different to what I intended and I therefore like to leave that interpretation open, I learn much from it.

I agree with Bill Viola who said:

"Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul. Because we live in an industrialized, fast-paced world that prefers that the soul remain asleep."

Of course I aspire to connect with the viewer, and know that I might have as little as 3/4 seconds when they are browsing in a gallery to do that. We are bombarded by messages every second of every day and personally when I go to see art I consider it a great opportunity to escape this saturation, I would love people to approach my work in that way. I strive to capture emotions that I see and that are, for me, a reflection of a soul. I hope they are universally recognizable and therefore resonate with the viewer on some level.

Could you please tell us about the creative process since initial thoughts to completion?

I sketch all the time, everywhere, out and about, in the studio, on the tube, switching off is hard. I observe friends and strangers and how they convey emotions. I work through many, many sketches before I have answers for a painting. As I've mentioned, sometimes ideas come from a unique person, sometimes it’s a ore common emotion I want to capture and ask many people including professional actors or models to try and recreate them for me. Then I sketch again from this source material, some of these sketches seem to pop out at me, they seem much more alive than others. Those I upscale more than once and keep playing with contrast, light and composition and the rest are discarded. If they still work on a larger scale they are a contender for a final piece. I do this because my final paintings are a large scale and that has an inherent presence just through the oil paint and the physical size of the brush marks that can sometimes lull me into thinking a certain composition is successful through its sheer scale. I therefore try each on many scales, overlaying different emotions and comparing to see which will work and which won't. When its clear to me that it wasn't luck or a singular good sketch and when I've ruined a few, then I plan a painting. 

At the same time I'm editing video clips of subtle and interesting facial movements slowing them down, outlining them, trying to tease further resources from the source material.

Once the base painting is done then I consider it's over painting and either a fixed image of another singular aspect of an emotion, or using it as the background for overlaying video projection. During this final stage I glaze and work the painting to try and find a balance for the two different paintings or images. Trying to merge them and not let one overpower the other. I have trashed many paintings at this late stage, even with all the prep it still might not work as I envisage it. 

This process is magical and when it works I see it straight away, the painting lives and breathes right in front of me. When it doesn't work, that painting gets used for experiments and eventually what I call "usefully ruined." Its a very great resource to have a stack of variously unfinished paintings on hand when you want to try a new paint technique out, without having to use the current painting to try it on.

What would be your dream collaboration?

This has me thinking. I find the process of painting a deeply solitary one. As a figurative painter its clear you are obliged to form your own way. I often feel like an outsider. What I do is not seen as having a future by many in the art world, or even to be very current. I've had replies from galleries that literally say: "We don't show figurative art." It has a ring of the famous  "Groups of guitars are on the way out". I love this challenge and it inspires me to be better. “Bring it on!”, I say to these attitudes. 


A dream collaboration would be one who could help me define clearly my questions and doubts. 

The one thing I miss about Fine Art at university was the diversity of people all with a common goal. I miss talking about art at this level and hearing other peoples criteria and attitude to art.

Who has influenced you the most?

As a painter it would have to be Velazquez, someone who marked a before and after in my life when I saw his work. As an artist I take my hat off to the YBA generation. They actually lasted, I thought it was a bad dream at the time, but can now see they do some things very well and their professionalism and perfectionism is inspiring. 

What other artists do you admire? What is your favourite piece of art?

Speaking of the YBA, I've always been huge fan of Jenny Saville. I love Bill Viola and follow a great many other contemporary artists from a distance. Some art I've seen has been so powerful that it has changed my way of thinking about art, about what art can be, and through that its changed me, my direction as a painter and therefore my life. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it, that you have the possibility of walking into an art gallery and walking out a changed person. As an oil painter Rembrandt's later self portraits can make me cry and Rothko at the TATE can leave nobody indifferent. I salute Lucian Freud of course, and his absolute conviction to his way of doing things. He was a lighthouse for figurative painters throughout the later half of last century as Cezanne was before him.

My favorite single piece of work is "Mars Resting" by Velazquez. It sits unassuming, shadowed by Las Meninas in the central room at the Prado in Madrid but its magical. The first time I saw it over 20 years ago I was mesmerized and I literally ran across Madrid to a bookshop to find a book on mythology to try to figure out why he had painted the God of War in this way. It shows a wicked sense of humour and I love it, it's 1640's satire and Velazquez showed me art and painting doesn't have to be so serious all the time.

How would you describe the current art scene in London and UK vis-à-vis Spain?

I think I'm not the person most indicated to describe the current London art scene, I'm currently in the process of making the step back to the UK. I am familiar with Madrid but not so much regarding the rest of Spain. Malaga, Barcelona or Valencia for example have very different but also vibrant art scenes. I visit exhibitions and shows in Madrid regularly and having observed gallery and institutional thinking and structure over the years and it would be easy for an emerging artist to get frustrated with the way galleries and some institutions operate or at least have until recently. However there is hope, Art and artists in Madrid are very much alive and kicking and the art scene is changing rapidly and in a very positive way. There are exciting ways to show your work in Madrid. Buzzing exhibitions inaugurated weekly and imaginative spaces. Also places like CEART in Fuenlabrada, an amazing curated space that gives everyone a chance to be considered for an exhibition alongside renowned international artists.

For many reasons the "old order" of Madrid art galleries is slowly being replaced by new and more dynamic one. New galleries that interpret "contemporary art" in the same way as I do and amazing professional curators and owners pushing art like never before. "Contemporary" had often been used to refer to a mid twentieth century genre rather than current practicing artists, and with that, perhaps more effort used to be spent by galleries in Madrid maintaining established value rather than promoting new artists. With the economic crisis came tough times, that, combined with recent profound changes to commercial rental law in Madrid: Those changes lead to the end of very cheap long term commercial property rents and now the very traditional face of the city is changing drastically. This all means that galleries that had perhaps grown complacent now need very deep pockets, mergers or renewal of ideas to avoid closure. I often detect understandable nervousness in some established gallery owners and newer galleries too, lets not be mistaken here, (and some amazing newer galleries just didn't manage to ride out the storm despite stunning exhibitions and artists) I sincerely hope that they see the promotion of new artists, rather than the downward spiral of pushing the back catalogue, as the only option to a brighter future, and many do it seems!

Truly interesting times in Madrid and I welcome them and applaud the truly inspiring professionals that are dedicated to this scene. For me the painting process is quite a solitary thing. It would be nice to have professionals dedicated to help the divulging and promoting of my work, but until someone see's the benefit in doing that, I'll just carry on the way I am working, and applaud their efforts from afar.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your forthcoming projects/ exhibitions?

I'm currently making steps back to London. Even with the Madrid art scene changing for the better, I still feel more opportunities exist here in London and I'm keen to explore those. I'm always painting, experimenting and working. I've many things to pursue with my current work and two digital pieces in my last exhibition surpassed my expectations and made me sit down and rethink how I work and how aspects of the interaction of video and paint worked so well. So many new ideas to work through and so little time!

To find out more about Daniel O'Sullivan's work, please visit www.osullivan.es

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