Gig Alert: ‘An Artist at the Table’ with Stephen Martyn Welch at Bistro Gentil


Portraiture as essence - Stephen Martyn Welch.

Portraiture as essence. The work of Stephen Martyn Welch.

Bistro Gentil’s ‘An Artist at the Table’ series continues next week (yay!) with another evening of gastro-art, this time featuring New Zealand’s top portraiture artist, Stephen Martyn (‘Marty’) Welch.

You might associate portraiture with fusty paintings of the Queen or the staged, picture-perfect renderings of Maori dignitaries by Charles Frederick Goldie. This is not that. Welch is probably best-known for his TVNZ series ‘The Sitting’, in which Welch chatted with, then painted, famous New Zealanders including Jacinda Ardern, Michelle Ang, Russell Brown, Lucy Lawless, Spacifix frontman Tau Manukia, Al Brown, Tiki Taane and Graham Henry. At the end of each show the portrait is revealed to the sitter. It’s a glimpse not only into the technical process of art-making, but into the idea of essence–not just what a person looks like, but who a person is.

Wanaka-based Welch, who won the prestigious Adam Portraiture Award in 2012, does this very well. (As media commentator Russell Brown says upon seeing his portrait on ‘The Sitting’:  “You’ve picked up my inner ginge! And you’ve got my quizzical look.”) We had a chat with him this week to learn more about how he does it.

You’re originally from the Kaipara, then you lived in Auckland. What brought you to Wanaka? 

I did a South Island tour by myself and when I came to Wanaka, I thought, “Yep, this is me”. It must have been the lake, because there was an inversion that day and I didn’t even know about the mountains until about a year later when I brought my wife down and it was sunny. Also, I really wanted a place where the kids could walk down the street and see a mate.

We heard you’re self-trained. Can you tell us about that? 

I did want to go to art school, but when I saw some of the stuff coming out of art schools then, I felt like an epileptic monkey could do a lot of it. Some of the work was awesome, but I didn’t like the colour palette–the beige and the browns.

I became drawn to European portraiture. I studied French academic painting, learning the technique from books and, back then, very low-band internet. It was painting from a very technical formula. Then I came across the American artist John Singer Sargent and his “economy of means” style. You load up the brush and you put it right with the first stroke–if it’s not right, you scrape it off. It’s handling oil paint the way it was designed. I’m still trying to master it.

How does modern portraiture work? Do people sit for you?  

Most of my work (about 99% of commissioned work) is done from photos. If I could, I’d tell everyone they have to sit, but we don’t live like that any more. I do meet everyone I paint. Doing a likeness is relatively easy, it’s essence that’s the motherfucker–that comes from thinking and talking, and a willingness to listen.

You did two seasons of ‘The Sitting’, painting 43 people. Who was your favourite subject? 

When I went to paint Richard O’Brien [creator of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the character Riff Raff in the film], he opened the door of his house in Kerikeri in a frock. I instantly knew this is a guy who knows who he is. His painting is one I’m upset I gave up, it’s one of the paintings where I got closest to Sargent’s work.

Your sort of trademark is the statement “Everyone deserves a portrait”. Can you explain a bit about that? 

A portrait is not a reward, it’s a chronicle. It’s recording someone else. The people I paint are not all lovely looking. There are people with chromosomal disorders, intersex people, burn survivors, someone who is sad, someone who is happy. They, and we, are all part of the same gang: humanity.

Join Stephen Martyn Welch at Bistro Gentil for the upcoming ‘An Artist at the Table Dinner’ on December 28 or catch his pop-up exhibition at the Bistro, free entry from December 29 to January 11. 



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