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Pete Underhill: A Nose for Faces…

When you look at Pete Underhill’s portraits, what strikes you first is the incredible detail and the undeniable skill of the artist.

However, what really pulls you in to his award-winning paintings, is his choice of subject matter – the ordinariness of the people he chooses to commit to canvas…

The faces he immortalises in oil are often not the smoothest or the most glamorous. Many look on with weary eyes, conjuring an avalanche of intrigue. Who are they and what are they thinking?

Ken Tye is one such figure – an ex-miner and retired bus driver who captured Pete’s artistic interest when he spotted him at a classic car show. After approaching him and taking a few pictures, the Hinckley artist painted a striking and captivating piece, which was picked out of thousands of entries at last year’s Leicester Annual Open.

Picture: Ken Tye

The painting won the coveted Attenborough Prize, with judges praising its character and “extraordinary detail.”

“I enjoy taking ordinary people like Ken and celebrating them through my art,” explained the 63-year-old.

Because I paint for the joy of it, I don’t do ‘pretty pictures’ – people who are conventionally beautiful. I like to paint characters- people that I find interesting.

“When I explained to Ken that I paint portraits of people I find interesting and that he had a fabulous face, he patiently allowed me to gather my reference to enable me to complete this work,” he revealed.

“I took two or three photos and caught a brilliant profile which just begged to be painted…”

Pete’s piece was chosen as the Attenborough Prize winner for 2023 out of over 1,000 entries from across the county.

He is the first artist in history to win it twice, having won previously in 2019 with his striking portrait of cabaret performer Hannah Matthews.

Naughty Sugar

The painting, entitled ‘Naughty Sugar’ (the performers’ stage name) is actually one of Pete’s favourites, owing to the ‘jolly’ and radiant nature of its star. A total of 85 hours was spent perfecting the piece, with 15 hours spent on the sequins alone!

However, I think you’ll agree that Pete’s paintings are most definitely worth the time, and the meticulous effort he takes to perfect each one. For him, painting is a labour of love and a passion which he discovered ten years ago, following a long and enjoyable career in illustration and graphic design.

“I’m a bit of a disciple for quality in drawing and I love oils. Because I’ve spent time as a technical illustrator, it’s important to get all the details right and to have everything in the right place before I colour it in,” he said, explaining his process.

“I used to work with watercolours, but once I discovered oils I never looked back.

“Because they dry slowly, it provides more time to make changes. I love the way you can layer up the paint – leave it for a day or two and keep coming back until you’re happy. When there’s nothing left to fix, only then will I mark it as complete,” he went on to reveal.

It’s like doing a jigsaw – the process of putting it together is satisfying. Effectively all I’m doing is jigsaws with paintbrushes – marks and splodges and smears and I’m lucky that they seem to land in the right place!

Picture: Pete Underhill

As well as portraits, Pete enjoys painting still life, with a particular penchant for vintage toy vehicles. The finished result is extraordinary – so realistic that it looks as though you could reach in to the painting and pick the items right up!

However, despite his awe inspiring talent, Pete remains humble when he speaks about his work.

“I’m blessed with an ability to see and draw. It’s just something I do and I enjoy it. You do your best and if it gets recognised that’s great,” he said.

“I don’t have a message, or I haven’t got a soapbox or a cause to champion. I just love painting – I enjoy making marks and standing back and going ‘well that worked.’

“We’re not here forever and if I can leave a pretty stain that is just a mark of my brief visit to this planet, I’d be happy with that.”

By Louise Steel

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