In Conversation with painter Humphrey Ocean


Cutler and Gross’ In Conversation series celebrates the brand’s customers and their personal style. We look closer at their work and how they ended up in their individual creative field, what their specific craft looks like, the style journey they are on, and how their Cutler and Gross frames fit in with their unique aesthetic. 

Interview and Art Direction David Hellqvist Photography Tom Jamieson | Image Ocean Humphrey wears the archived 1302 in Crystal

Humphrey Ocean’s studio, at an industrial estate in south London, is a bit of a creative hub. Set over two floors, it obviously offers Ocean room to work but it also feels like a gallery space with lots of his pieces – old and new – displayed throughout. One downstairs corner houses a library full of art books, and when you venture upstairs there’s a kitchen, dining table and a sofa group which most of us would accept as good enough for our own houses.

I imagine Ocean spends fair bit of time here, not only because it’s such a nice space but because he’s quite the prolific artist, working on several projects in one go. Ocean might call himself a portrait painter but over the years he’s also made a name for himself painting objects and animals, as well as sculpting. But whatever the subject, Ocean brings his no-nonsense approach to the work: no frills just his paired back version of what he sees in front of him.

Ocean has walked a long and winding professional road: his first solo exhibition was back in 1984 at the National Portrait Gallery where he showed paintings of Paul McCartney from his 1976 Wings tour. The music connection goes further than just painting musicians though. Ocean was taught painting at Canterbury College of Art by Ian Dury, and later joined the punk icon’s band Kilburn and the High Roads as a bass player.

But Ocean is probably the first to admit his legacy is cemented as an artist rather than a musician. His bass playing days were few, but his artistic output has taken his work to storied places and galleries such as Royal Academy of Arts, National Portrait Gallery, the V&A and Royal Opera House. His style is somehow minimal yet full of emotions. In the interview Ocean talks about his favourite painters capturing a sense of existence which you can’t see, only feel. Ocean accomplishes, at least to me, a similar feat where his work is as much about what he leaves out as what he decides to capture on the canvas.

Why do you paint? When you wake up in a morning what is it that drives you to go into the studio?

It’s an extension of when you want to say to someone, ‘Hey, you know what I saw? I saw something amazing, something wonderful.’ And you try and explain it and you can’t, so you get a bit of paper out and you do a drawing, that’s what it is.

What’s your earliest memory of experiencing art?

I’ve just been to see a Van Gogh self-portrait exhibition at the Courtauld and I actually saw the same exhibition in 1961, my mum took me. I was looking at it again the other day and there is a sort of come-hitherness about the portraits. Some of Van Gogh’s self-portraits are quite fierce, one had this radiating lapis blue surrounding, and it just sort of said, ‘Come on in, the water’s nice.’ The first time I saw it I remember thinking, ‘Until I get a proper job this is what I’m going to do.’

Humphrey in his studio in South London wearing the 1302 Optical

My next question was going to be if there was a specific artist who’s inspired you, but it sounds like it might be Van Gogh?

Van Gogh is extraordinarily top of the range, but I also love Edward Hopper. What I love about Hopper is what you can’t see in the work. He paints ‘existence’, which you can’t define visually, but it’s there. So there’s something not there as well as something there. And Van Gogh has that so strongly as well, this person, this intense living being.

You paint both people and objects, what would you say was your first love out of the two?

At heart I’m a portrait painter, and in a way that’s what we are doing now: I’m looking at you, as a person, and you are more interesting than anything else in the room, and I want to paint that. Everything else in the room is created for you, the table is designed at this height, the chair is the length of a pair of legs. When we meet people we talk, we look at each other, we lock eyes, and that’s the beginning of it all.

It sounds like you are very interested in people, of coming together and interacting with them … would you say you are curious?

Ah, that’s a different thing from enjoying meeting people. I’m solitary by nature. I like being in my studio on my own, that’s what made me a painter, not because I could paint, I just liked being, as The Beach Boys said, in my room, close the door and think my own thoughts where I don’t disturb anyone else – that’s what I like most of all. The reason I’m a bit of a chatterbox now is because I don’t see enough people, and when you come in and you have to tolerate me, haha.

How and when did you start painting chairs and other objects?

I was in Scunthorpe General Hospital, a friend of mine was being diagnosed – he’s still alive, this was 20 years ago – and I’m sitting there in the waiting room looking around myself and I see the ugliest chair known to mankind, which reminds me of tea with aunties and watching ‘Songs of Praise’. It was a hideous chair, but it was a strong experience, and I made a drawing of the chair. It had shifted me, even if it was just a millimetre. But the drawing wasn’t in response to the chair, I was responding to what was happening at that moment, those strong emotions I experienced in that room at the time.

Humphrey in his studio in South London wearing the 1302 Optical

“When we meet people, we talk, we look at each other, we lock eyes, and that’s the beginning of it all.”

Humphrey Ocean

What about the birds? I suppose animals are somewhere in between the people and objects you paint?

Yes, the birds are a slightly different thing. I discovered birds in my 40s so it was all silent springs before then for me. I’m not a very good birdwatcher, in fact I’m a terrible birdwatcher, but I love the fact they’re moving around, and I actually cannot believe that I didn’t see them.

How much of you goes into a painting, as opposed to just reproducing what you see in front of you?

If I’m excited enough about something I actually I don’t want to change it, I want to note it down, and that’s what I do, and by noting it down I’m copying it. I’m an impartial UN observer, I’m a journalist in a warzone. The reason that what I produce is particular to me is that I’m responding to what I see with my imagination.

How do you know when a piece of work is finished?

When I don’t feel ill anymore when I look at what I’ve done. I’m setting out on a tightrope, a greasy tightrope with a 1,000-foot fall underneath me. When I paint a portrait, until I get to the other side and I’m safely there, until then I’m nervous.

What’s the trickiest part of painting someone’s portrait?

Painting someone’s portrait, haha!

How did you start out wearing Cutler and Gross glasses?

I had heard about Cutler so I went along to see what they’d got, and when I put on a pair of glasses the girls behind the counter seemed to faint with pleasure, so I said I’ll have three pairs of those, haha. I had that style for probably ten years, and then I had another pair for the next 15 years. I got these new ones last month. And these were quite interesting, I saw a photograph of a young Henri Cartier-Bresson, and he was wearing a really nice pair of glasses and I thought actually I’d like a pair like that. So I went in looking for something like that but I actually fell in love with these during the process.

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