On Air ! BBC World Interview with Tania Rivilis

Tania Rivilis BBC World - On Air!

Tania Rivilis Interview BBC World – On Air !

I am delighted that today my interview on BBC World Service was released. Together with British artist Laura Quinn Harris, I had a wonderful conversation with Kim Chakanetsa about portrait painting, our work on portraits, the Royal Portrait Society, and many other topics.

It was an incredible experience to share our insights and passion for art with such a wide audience. We discussed the intricate process of capturing the essence of a person through portraiture and the deep connection between the artist and the subject.

Being able to talk about our creative journeys and the challenges we face as artists was truly rewarding. Laura Quinn Harris and I exchanged ideas on techniques, inspiration, and the importance of preserving the tradition of portrait painting in the modern world.

If you’re interested, I invite you to visit the BBC World website, where you can find the recording of our interview. For those who prefer a written format, I have prepared a text transcription of the audio, which you can find below.

I feel grateful for the opportunity to showcase our work and contribute to the dialogue surrounding portraiture and art. It’s a true honor to be featured on such a prestigious platform, and I hope that our conversation resonates with art enthusiasts and inspires others to explore the world of portrait painting.

Thank you for your continued support, and I look forward to sharing more of my artistic endeavors with you in the future.



Women painting portraits

BBC: Hello and welcome to the conversation. The program about how women are shaping the world. Long before selfies and sophisticated camera phones, we relied on painters to capture visual snapshots of ourselves. For centuries, portraits helped to immortalise how we saw ourselves and how we saw each other. But portraits were, for the most part, reserved for religious figures and royal families. Today, though, this traditional art form is being transformed thanks to a new generation of creatives who are bringing their unique and modern twist to their work. Laura Quinn Harris is a UK artist specialising in oil portraits of people and animals. She’s known for her highly detailed pictures, which can take up to several months to complete. Her work has been displayed in exhibitions, including the prestigious BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Tania Rivilis is a Ukrainian artist who began painting in her 20s after she moved to Germany from Moscow in 2012. It was then that her husband gave her oil paints and brushes as a gift to help her cope with the upheaval. In 2022, Tania received the William Locke Prize from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Tania and Laura, welcome..

Laura Quinn Harris: Thanks for having me.,

Tania Rivilis: everyone. Thank you for having me.,

BBC: what for you is the appeal of focusing on the human face?

Tania Rivilis: a good question. You know, like human nature always fascinated me. People can be so mysterious and enigmatic and yet paradoxically, so predictable. And with that polar sides of souls, their changeable self, that fascinates me all the time.,

BBC: Laura, you also paint animals. How is painting one different from the other?

Laura Quinn Harris: go about the whole process in the same way, but I would say I probably find it more difficult to paint people and they certainly take longer to do because I think it’s just a bit more difficult to get the correct lightness. I think fundamentally we’re just we’re the same species, aren’t we? So we’re sort of hardwired to notice all the little, little differences and things that might be wrong. Whereas I think you can probably get away with a lot more with a painting of a dog. Say.

Tania Rivilis: can’t even imagine how you paint the portraits of animals because I just tried a few and it’s pretty difficult, I should say. I mean, to to get that likeness is very difficult because, you know, like an animal has different features that we probably can feel it only from inside somehow. Yeah. So it’s really difficult. And I saw your portraits. They’re brilliant. So I just wanted to.

Laura Quinn Harris: you. Oh, thanks so much. Yeah, I know. I know what you mean, though, about painting animals. It’s like I find people more difficult to paint, I think. But with portraits of people, I do try to convey aspects of their character through my portrait. And obviously that aspect is a lot more difficult. With animals, we can only guess, like you say, about what’s going on in their head. So. So there’s definitely a different layer to human portraits that you just can’t achieve with with animal portraits.,

BBC: if you were to describe your styles, Tania, how would you describe how you paint? I know you use a lot of colour.

Tania Rivilis: true. You know, I sometimes think why I use that bright colours and it’s probably because that’s how I see the world around me actually. And that little patches of, you know, kind of like semi-abstract patches of colour tones. That’s how I see the shadow under the nose or the cheek colour of, I don’t know, like my husband or wherever I look, I just see the little patches of the colours and that’s how I try to, you know, to depict the world with oils. That’s why there is a lot of colour probably.,

BBC: Laura, your work is hyper realistic. I did a double take sometimes when I was looking at your work. So tell me, how would you describe your style in your words? I would describe.

Laura Quinn Harris: as very realistic, but not photorealistic. I am a bit obsessed with detail, so I do like to notice every tiny little nuance in someone’s face. And, you know, it’s all about finding all those little elements that make a face unique for me. I use a lot of thin layers of oil paint to build up the detail in my work, but I do stop once I get to a certain point when I think there’s enough there. I do like my paintings to still look like paintings when you see them in real life. I think true Photorealist paintings, you can’t tell that they’re not a photo, even when you see them in real life and artists who do that, I’ve got incredible skill, but I think I just don’t have quite enough patience for that.,

BBC: I want to discuss your work in more detail, but before we do that, let’s talk about. How you got started. Tania, what was your interest in art as a child? Were you always drawing colouring in?

Tania Rivilis: pretty embarrassing to say, but it’s actually none. Oh, yeah. You know, I had a feeling all the time that I had to express myself somehow. But the problem was that I didn’t know how. I tried music, dancing, all that. But, you know, actually, until I was like 25, I didn’t have that feeling that I want to express myself through art. As a child, I was just a, you know, like a usual child just drawing behind my notebook or something like that. So actually nothing special. I can’t say that I was a prodigy or something. No, definitely not about me.,

Tania Rivilis: so just notebook scribbles.,

BBC: what was your interest in art?

Laura Quinn Harris: was definitely very into art. When I was a child. I was always drawing and colouring in, and I used to make greetings cards for all my family for every single birthday and anniversary. I’m sure there were probably sick of them, to be honest. Yeah, they used to take me forever, but I definitely didn’t think that I necessarily wanted to be an artist when I grew up because I think this idea is perpetuated in society that art isn’t a proper job and you can never make any money from it. And so in my teenage wisdom, I thought that I was good at some more academic subjects like maths, and I thought, I’ll have a better chance of getting a good job if I go down that route. So that’s what I did. I went and got a maths degree from University College London, but then I realised when I was doing that that I didn’t really want to a maths based career. And actually being in London I was just immersed in all the wonderful art that London has to offer. I was spending my free time in galleries and museums and, and that kind of really fed my love of art. And so I ended up going back to, to college after that, got my art foundation diploma. And then I actually went on to study for a degree in scientific and natural history illustration in Blackpool. We’ve been taught how to paint very detailed images of plant and animal life, things that you might see in textbooks and stuff like that. I really thought I would go on to be an illustrator, probably, you know, I still had my practical head on and I was thinking, well, if I if I’m an illustrator, I might have a slightly more steady income than than a fine artist. But then as part of our course, we were asked to produce a piece of wildlife art and enter it into a competition. I painted this group of ring tailed lemurs and I entered it into the National Exhibition of Wildlife Art, and it was selected for the show and then it sold as well. And I was just like completely blown away by that. I just got the bug then, and I knew at that point that I wanted to be a professional painter.,

BBC: Well, so there was that very clear moment for you, Tania. I want to hear your story. So what made you turn to art?

Tania Rivilis: know, I just wanted also to add that my parents also didn’t want me to go in any creative job or career because in Soviet Union mentality, the job should be something that brings you not joy, but the money. So I had to decide on that. And I went to media design and studied all that computers and video 3D and all that.,

Tania Rivilis: so.

BBC: study this, you take a pragmatic approach to your studying. So then when did you turn to art?

Tania Rivilis: moved to Germany and because I moved to a country where I had no friends and like no hobbies or anything I can do, my husband, he gifted me brushes and oils because I talked about my love to art history and art. So he said, Well, you can try. You have time now and you can try. So I tried and I started with a copious of old masters that I loved and that I learned in art history. And I started with a tiny brush, very scared, very nervous. But after hundreds of copies, I realised that I can do something myself. And, you know, like I had kind of my own voice started growing up in me. So I started experimenting more and adding some expressive styles or some experiment with mediums or colours. Yeah. So that’s when I was 27 and till now.

BBC: I understand, Tania, that things took off quite quickly. I mean, how long after you began painting did you have your first exhibit?

Tania Rivilis: should say that almost every gallery found me on Instagram. First. It was a small gallery somewhere in a little town in Netherlands. But then somehow I came to the point where Arcadia Gallery in New York suggested me to take part in their group show.

BBC: Was there a moment when you started seeing yourself as an artist?

Laura Quinn Harris: I finished my illustration degree, I just started painting Pets and Wildlife in my spare time whilst I was doing another job as well. But then I entered a. Portray into the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year show. And it was selected for the show and I made it all the way to the final. And that was definitely a big encouragement for me because it was the first portrait I’d actually painted. It was a self portrait. And so to have these respected figures in the art world judging that my work was good enough to be in this show and to get as far as I did, that was hugely motivating for me. That was quite early on. I would say the biggest moment for me personally was probably in 2017 when I had a portrait selected for the BP Portrait Award. I mean, it was the show that I used to go and see all the time every year when I was living in London as a maths undergraduate, it felt like a real vindication of the path that I’d chosen.,

BBC: has.

BBC: been a defining moment for you, a moment that sort of solidified that you were on the right path?

Tania Rivilis: definitely can say that group exhibition at Christie’s in London in this April was a highlight, definitely in my art career. And as well, of course, as William Locke Prize that I won in 2021. But I would say that almost every exhibition is a celebration for me. Definitely something to be proud of.,

BBC: let’s talk about the process, Laura. Do you have people sitting for you or do you use photographs or both? How do you approach your work?

Laura Quinn Harris: work mainly from photographs simply because my paintings take me such a long time to complete, so they could be 3 or 400 hours. So it’s just not practical for me to have somebody sitting there for that long. Really. I do sometimes use a mirror if I’m painting a self portrait, but that’s fine because there’s only me that I’m inconveniencing there. Obviously I like to look at all the details and get really, really close up into into someone’s face as well. So that’s also not really practical. But if it’s a commissioned portrait, I like to meet the person, have a sitting, take hundreds of photographs and get to know them a bit as well so that I can try and capture the essence of their character so that I can see what their typical expressions are and how they move and just what their personalities like.,

BBC: is your process different to Laura’s?

Tania Rivilis: actually agree definitely that having a life model is sometimes pretty difficult in financial way and also in time. So I also try to work from photo references, but I actually started working from I references one year ago because that’s an amazing tool for artists and I have a lot of portraits with kind of like flowing fabrics flowing on the wind, and that’s pretty difficult to do with a live model. So I started using AI for making that movement. I want I always try to use technology if I can. I’m a big fan of new technologies and I try to see it as a tool, first of all, and see how I can use it in my advantage. But of course I love to work with models with live sessions. I have a lot of friends coming to my Portuguese studio sitting for me, but it’s usually a sketches that we do while we’re chatting or drinking coffee, so it’s more relaxing for us.

BBC: so with artificial intelligence, I use of AI, How is it working exactly?

Tania Rivilis: So it’s pretty easy. There are several AI programs that artists can use. Then you just write a prompt, which is a description text asking what you want and also adding what kind of light it should be. Is it a studio, is it a daylight? And so on and so forth. Then the AI shows you the pictures based on your prompt and then you just starting changing some colours or some poses or something like that. And then I just use that references as a base for my paintings, but faces, I still really love to get sneaky photos from people in cafes or like on the street. The people I really love that fascinates me. And then just to paint the portrait by remembering that. So not to look in on the reference, but just trying to depict the kind of like aura or image that I have in my head. Okay. Based on that person..,

BBC: let’s pause there. A reminder that you’re listening to the conversation. And today I’m joined by two women who are transforming the traditional art of portrait painting. They are the Ukrainian artist Tania reveals, and Laura Quinn Harris from the UK. Laura, when you are working alone, are you working in silence or with music?

Laura Quinn Harris: Now, I usually work with audiobooks playing, sometimes podcasts. I just find that they really help me to concentrate on on my task. If I just listen to music or silence, then I find my mind tends to wander, so it’s not great for productivity.

BBC: What keeps you focussed?

Tania Rivilis: listen to music, but I try to choose music without words. Music that has just a bit. And also podcasts like I love any interviews of Jerry Saltz. He’s kind of like motivating me when I’m listening.

BBC: he’s an American art critic?

Tania Rivilis: Saltz Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

BBC: when do you know that a painting is finished?

Laura Quinn Harris: That’s a really good question and one that I would love to know the answer to, to be honest. Yeah, I just keep going until I don’t it’s I don’t know, it’s really hard to say because I just I suppose I just have a vision in my head of how I want it to look, and it never really ends up exactly how you think it will. But, well, I say this, but to be honest, usually there’s a deadline looming, and that means that I have to just quit at some point. You know, there’s been portraits in the past. I think I’m maybe a little bit better at at stopping now than I used to be. But in the past, I think I would have just kept going and going and going if I didn’t have a, you know, an exhibition deadline coming up or or a commission deadline. So so, yeah, no, it’s a really tough question to answer.

BBC: deadlines help, do they? Yeah, they definitely do. Tania, what helps you to know when a painting is done?

Tania Rivilis: of all, deadline Definitely helps a lot. I should definitely agree with that. And it’s pretty weird what I will say right now. But whenever I I’m noticing that a portrait kind of winking to me or kind of like moving the face, you kind of feel that this person is alive and it has the mimic the movement in the face. And so that’s how I understand that the portrait is, is right. It’s when it starts kind of like leaving and having that movement in that face. I don’t know if it makes sense.

BBC: I understand. Yeah. How fascinating. So you feel that the portrait has come to life. That’s when you know you’re done..

Tania Rivilis: That’s how you should say it.,

BBC: what would you say, Laura, is the difference between painting someone you know and a stranger?

Laura Quinn Harris: go about it in the same way, but obviously I like to try and express aspects of a person’s character through paint. So that’s obviously a lot easier when it’s somebody that I know. And if it’s someone that I don’t know, then I like to meet them and find out as much as I can about them, how they move and what they’re like and what they like. But it’s not always possible. I mean, sometimes I paint posthumous portraits, in which case I just try to learn as much as possible about about the person that I’m painting so that I can build up a more rounded view of them and hopefully to express some of that in my portrait.,

BBC: how do you come about your commissions? I mean, do you ask people or do they approach you?,

Tania Rivilis: usually people contact me on social media or via my website. Another thing that is very beneficial to artists is being Royal Portrait Society member for sure, because they have a very nice commission service that helps to connect art collectors or people who want to commission a portrait to connect them with artists. This kind of service helped me a lot to work on commissions.

BBC: were you produced a series of portraits of people in North Korea, a really fascinating series. How did that come about?,

Laura Quinn Harris: I visited the country in 2007 as a tourist, and that was a really unusual experience. I mean, we were chaperoned everywhere and we weren’t allowed to speak to any members of the public. And then about ten years later, I thought I would love to go back and see how it’s changed, whether it’s still as strict. And I thought that we probably wouldn’t be allowed to happen. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could produce a series of portraits of people who live there and then show them to people back here in the UK and elsewhere in the world? Because I think it’s such a secretive country that that we don’t really get to see the human side. We only ever hear about the regime and the leader in the news. It took a lot of negotiating, but eventually I was I was allowed to do it. And I went over there in 2018 and met with people from a cross-section of society, had sittings with them and took loads of photographs and then started painting them back at my studio. But I still have a long way to go. I think I’ve completed two portraits. I’ve got one more that’s nearly finished, but there’s there’s about 7 or 8 more that I would like to do, and then hopefully I’ll be able to exhibit them all together and give people a bit of a glimpse into into the lives of ordinary North Korean people.

BBC: were you able to choose the people you wanted to paint or were they chosen for you?

Laura Quinn Harris: were chosen for me mainly, but I asked for a broad spectrum. Really. I just wanted to meet with people from all walks of life. And it did lots of different jobs and what have you. And I’ve actually painted all those portraits in landscape format, and they’ve all got backgrounds that are relevant to the subject. So where they live or where they work or study.,

BBC: when you set out and are about to begin your work, what would you say is the end goal for you? What are you trying to capture and convey with your art?

Tania Rivilis: a very good question, actually, because sometimes you you even don’t know what what you want to, you know, to show in particular portrait. It’s sometimes just a feeling that you you have inside you and then you want to express it with your colours.

BBC: What would you say that you are trying to convey with your work?

Laura Quinn Harris: the same as Tania. Really, it’s about portraying aspects of a of a person’s character. Mainly for me, obviously the likeness is important, but a portrait doesn’t have to be just a visual representation of a sitter. I think often the most arresting portraits are the ones that that reveal something about the sitter’s character or or they make you wonder about the life of the sitter. But really, it’s just different for for each different portrait that I make. For example, I painted Christian Foley for Bbc1’s extraordinary portraits, and he was a very gestural person. He was a spoken word artist and he was always moving. And I really wanted to express that in my portrait. So I actually painted three different versions of him in my in my portrait of him. I felt that I just really had to do that to accomplish what I wanted to express. But other times I just have an idea in my head of an image that I want to create, and there’s just no real reason behind it, and I just feel compelled to make it.,

BBC: so you’ve spent hours and hours working on this on your art, and then the moment comes for you to show your work. What is that moment like for you? Tania When you have to finally show the work you’ve been doing?

Tania Rivilis: a question that me and my art friends discuss all the time, actually. And it’s funny because sometimes you are waiting for some show and sometimes you’re so excited about it. Like that happened with me at Christie’s. I prepared the works and I sent it to them. I was so excited. I was so nervous. But then when opening happened, and then there was that fancy party and I saw my paintings inside the Christie’s legendary place. And then I just felt nothing. The next day I met my friend. She was also exhibiting the works there and we discussed like, Ula. Did you feel something? And she said, No. And you and I also said like, No, what’s wrong with us? And then we realised that probably that excitement, it happens during the preparation for exhibition. You’re nervous about the ship and you’re nervous that painting should be not wet while you are packing it, that nothing will happen on customs office or it won’t be lost during the shipping or something like that and all that. You know, after you come and you see the painting on the walls, you just that kind of relaxed that you can’t even be excited anymore because all the excitement was before when you were preparing for the show. Probably weird, but that’s how some of artists works.

BBC: What is that moment of doing the big reveal like for you? Let’s say you’ve done a commission and the person is now there to see it.

Laura Quinn Harris: pretty nerve wracking, I think. But but with commissions, I do keep people informed of how the portrait’s going and they I send them photographs so that they can see if there’s anything that they’re not happy with and they want change in at all. So it’s not usually that much of a surprise with a commission, with personal work that I’ve done that’s a bit different. I’m creating a painting and for a lot of the time I’m thinking that it’s it’s not going well and it’s going to look terrible. And then, you know, eventually it all comes together and then I might think it’s really good and then have other ones that I think, you know, didn’t work so well. And it often ends up that they’re the ones that people like the most. So you really kind of don’t really know how it’s going to go with a reaction, I think..

Tania Rivilis: I just I just remember all the things that happened with me. When you think that portrait or painting is not good and then people come in and start saying all the compliments of the world to you about this painting and you’re looking at this painting like, really? So I definitely feel your pain.,

BBC: Tania, let me ask you this, though. Have you ever had it the other way around? Have you ever had perhaps less than favourable reactions to a painting?

Laura Quinn Harris: lucky enough to say that probably all people who commissioned me were happy. At least they showed me that. I’m not sure what happened after I left, but it’s funny that I had some of works that I almost wanted to ruin or overpainted with another works. And then my husband said, No, no, please don’t do it. And then he secretly sent it to some competition or something and they won. And I have no idea how the art world works after that. Because you think your work is, I don’t know, like, not good, but then it wins some competition. So I have no idea how it works.

BBC: you could paint anyone in the world, who would it be? I’ll start with you, Laura.,

Laura Quinn Harris: as a football fan, I would have to say Sir Alex Ferguson. Yeah, he’s a he’s a hero of mine and he’s got such a characterful face. I think he would be amazing to paint and I bet he’d have some brilliant stories to tell as well.

BBC: he’s a former manager of Manchester United, right? That’s right. Yeah. Okay. So Alex Ferguson. Tania, who would your dream person be to paint?.

Tania Rivilis: I would love to paint hm if Jerry Saltz would commission me a portrait, I would to paint him.

BBC: So Jerry Saltz. Okay. So an American, the American art critic. Okay. Well, Laura and Tania, thank you both very much.

BBC: you so much for a nice interview.

Laura Quinn Harris: I just say, Tania, I absolutely loved your your painting that won the William Lock Prize. That portrait that you did was easily my favourite in the show. I thought it was absolutely stunning. So I just wanted to say that, Oh, my God.

Tania Rivilis: Thank you so much. And it’s actually one of the portraits that I’m not happy with. And then I sent it. I know you can’t you can’t predict it. You can’t control that. It’s just happening. I have no idea how it works. Really.

BBC: Thank you both.

Laura Quinn Harris: thank you so much for having us.

Tania Rivilis: Thank you.

BBC: We been talking about reinterpreting the art of portrait painting with Laura Quinn Harris and Tania Ravilis. Thanks for listening. I’m Kim Chakanetsa.