In Frank Willcock’s 1967 self-portrait, the straining posture indicates a taut sensibility. The eyes themselves appear intensely fixated, deeply apprehensive or wildly visionary, an impression deepened by puce and black shadowings around them – also pervading his cheeks.
It is a painting of strong, subtle tonal contrasts – especially between the black and bluish sweater and his white shirt (painted almost as if torn to shreds), and between the pinkish flush of cheeks and the tawny background.
Features, hand and hair are freely yet expressively painted. His thick hair seems to resemble a vibrant, abstracted landscape. The exuberant way the right hand, holding a cigarette, is painted may be related to the fierce colourism of Cobra painters, like Asger Jorn and Karel Appel.
The artist says, ‘When you’re staring at yourself in the mirror, you have to crouch to look at yourself. I re-painted the self-portrait several times. Then suddenly there was this big bang finish, with patches of light and dark emerging, light pouring on surfaces. I am holding a cigarette, and was inspired by Edvard Munch’s 1895 Self-Portrait with Burning Cigarette.
Frank Willcock was born in 1941 in Caterham, Surrey, ‘a place much bombed in the war– so my parents later moved to Reigate to get away from memories of war. I studied at Camberwell School of Art from 1960-64. My tutors included Ben Levene, Anthony Eyton. Euan Uglow and Frank Auerbach. I found Uglow the most inspiring person – observing him painting in the still life class – though I felt no affinity to his ‘measuring’ approach.’
Willcock lived in France for over forty years; since 2012 he has lived in Bath and is a full-time artist. ‘I’ve spent a lifetime busy understanding what painting isn’t about – how not to become like Uglow, for example, or Delacroix or to aspire to be like any other painter. To get over all that is a long process. Each artist has his own signature; it is there in a self-portrait; if you do a landscape, it has the same expression.’
Around 2014 he embarked on a series of self-portraits with an attenuated black-and-white palette. The result is a diverse, audaciously exploratory series of extended drawings of a scintillating range of silvery lights and leaden darks – each image a kind of beautifully controlled detonation on the picture surface.