Intimate, emotive and deeply personal, Tom White’s canvases offer delicate glimpses into ephemeral moments shared between friends. Through focussing on renderings of those closest to him, his work speaks of a universal yet often ineffable experience – the magic of friendship. When I caught up with White over zoom on a rainy Monday evening, he spoke of the driving force behind his work: “I’m really interested in intimacy and close relationships, perhaps because I’m an only child. I think that I’ve always held friends really, really close to my heart, they are like my family.”
Tom White’s most recent series, exhibited at GROVE in London earlier this year, took inspiration from the changing of the seasons. Conjuring atmospheres that could be charted across the calendar year, the pieces began in spring and concluded in winter. Each work on show seemed bathed in a very particular light, capturing the warm glow of the summer sun or the bright blue of an autumnal sky reflected back in the faces of the subjects within. Working first with photography, White spent the year leading up to his debut solo exhibition chasing the light and became somewhat of a meteorologist. Indeed, the series was rather plagued by White’s reliance on natural light, “while working on this show, I spent an ungodly amount of time on my weather app.” In the brief moments between inevitable rainfall, he and a friend would venture out to shoot images that would later become reference points for his paintings. White originally wanted to be a photographer, and said, “photography to me is a really important and useful tool, and something I’m really interested in. I can achieve a lot more in terms of lighting through photography because I often need to capture a single ephemeral moment when the light hits perfectly. If I worked from life, and had my models sit there for ten hours, the light would change and I would lose the image.” The photographs he chooses to work from are deliberately unpolished, capturing his subjects in flashes of unguardedness. White searches for these instances from hundreds of images, attributing to them a glimpse of the indescribable essence of one of his most cherished friends.
Despite almost always featuring figures, his works resist being categorised as portraiture. To borrow from the great Alice Neel, White paints ‘pictures of people’. This notion is cemented by both the spontaneous and open nature of the figures in his works, and the immense attention he pays to surrounding detail. White has little interest in capturing an individual’s likeness, instead, his work seeks to immortalise a sacred moment shared between himself and his subject – “because I know the people I’m painting so intimately, I can recreate their presence, their character, and envisage moments we’ve shared together that are reflective of what I’m painting.”
Indeed, this notion of a shared experience is at the heart of White’s practice. His entire approach is predicated on a combined vision of the individual he is painting. He does not strive towards memetic representation, and instead seeks to render the subject as seen through his eyes. The final piece is an amalgam of the individual as they are and perhaps, more importantly, the light in which White sees them. His works are thus imbued with love, each subject brought to life by the hand of their boyfriend, best friend, son or closest confidant.
Because I know the people I’m painting so intimately, I can recreate their presence, their character, and envisage moments we’ve shared together that are reflective of what I’m painting.
This sense of intimacy is often laid plain in his work; in his earlier pieces, White focussed predominately on figures naked in bed whereby a feeling of closeness and even a touch of voyeurism was par for the course. His more recent work is increasingly subtle in its approach, relying on sensation as a bridge to connection. The largest piece that was exhibited at GROVE, ‘Sur L’Herbe’ drew the viewer into intimate contact with the subject through its immense scale. In regards to this piece, White’s intentions were to mimic the promise of summer, “it’s the biggest work I’ve ever done. The idea for the work was that it would be all-consuming because, for me, summer is a really open and expansive season”. Without attempting at hyperrealism, White’s ability to evoke the feeling of an environment creates a realm of interaction – on viewing the work, we are almost able to smell the fresh grass and feel the heat of London’s long-awaited summer sun. As we experience these distinct sensations, we become a part of the work. In the same vein, the smallest pieces within the show encouraged a physical closeness that mirrored the intimacy of the experience from which they were recalled. In ‘All That Before was in Darkness’, we were presented with the open face of a singular subject bathed in candlelight – “candlelight is obviously an incredibly intimate light and you feel close to whoever you’re with when you’re in candlelight.” For White, this work was intended to necessitate the proximity needed to decipher a facial expression in low lighting, and thus position the viewer within touching distance of the softly rendered visage.
Each of Tom White’s exhibitions contains an anchor of intimacy to which every subject can be tied. An emblem of the unbreakable connections between the many figures pictured is always presented in the form of a self-portrait. For White, this particular work feels essential to every show as it situates the other pictured individuals in their context – “I’ve realised recently that I always want to have at least one self-portrait in a show, whether it be me within a group of people or on my own. It’s because the work is about me and the people I share my time with. I think it’s important that I’m implied in every painting, as it’s really all about my relationship with that person”.
Tom White’s works act as votive objects – odes to the many individuals who shape us, love us and ultimately define the people we become. The exhibition title of his most recent show, ‘The Odd Uneven Time’ spoke to this very notion; drawn from Sylvia Plath’s journals, the phrase acted as a double entendre. In a literal sense, it suggested the time between seasons; the strange days when unpredictable weather unsettles our souls. On a deeper level it captured the preciousness of youthful friendship, alluding to the enduring connections that guide us through ‘The Odd Uneven Time’ of early adulthood. A moment of intrinsic uncertainty when the expectations placed upon us may expand far beyond our capabilities and the challenges we face are abundant. It is these times, more than any others, when we cling tightly to the ties that bind us and fleeting moments become too precious to forget.
Art writer, curator and public relations specialist, focussed on platforming emerging talent across the visual culture sector. When not walking my dog in rainy East London parks, I can be found on my sofa writing articles for Bricks Magazine, FAD magazine, Art Plugged and Off the Block Magazine.
Enjoyed this story? Help keep independent queer-led publishing alive and unlock the BRICKS WORLD Learner Platform, full of resources for emerging and aspiring creatives sent to you every week via newsletter. Start your 30-day free trial now.