A much-loved presence on Instagram, Wilfrid Wood's witty clay sculptures and charming paintings continue to draw an appreciative audience.
Based in East London, Wilfrid studied graphics at Central Saint Martins, then ended up working behind the scenes at Spitting Image, helping to create the satirical TV show's grotesque puppets. Following that experience with 3D, he became a freelance sculptor and the rest is history, as they say.
Today, he continues to make caricatures in his signature style – from Angela Merkel and Brian May to Karl Largerfeld and Harper Lee... More recently (and rather timely), Simon Cowell. He also draws and paints people, often from the creative industries, giving an insight into personalities. One person commented on a recent portrait, Do some people ever dislike the end product? To which Wilfrid replied, Often...it can be very awkward. We chatted to Wilfrid about this and more in what he has deemed his "most revealing interview ever".
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
I grew up in an arty family and took the easiest option by going the same way. As a kid my grandma gave me a set of mini tools that I made robots with at the end of the garden, I credit her with planting in me a desire to make things. I did graphic design at college because I thought I should do something that would get me a proper job. But in my heart, I always wanted to be an artist.
You famously worked behind the scenes of Spitting Image. Was there more material to work with back then or now?
Just about the same, I should think. The thing that has changed is that politics and politicians have become more like walking caricatures. People have several times asked me to do Trump. But what can I add? He’s been done so many times, so convincingly, and in real life is practically a cartoon character. It’s more fun to do understated people like Angela Merkel. Although saying that, Mrs Thatcher was a pretty extreme character in reality and the even more exaggerated Spitting Image puppet is probably what the show is most remembered for.
What did you learn from that experience?
That it is possible to have fun and earn money at the same time. Before that, I was under the daft impression that work had to be some form of purgatory.
Is having a sense of humour important to you?
Yes but I don’t want it to be the whole story. Overtly humorous work is tempting but I try to show some restraint otherwise all you get is a punch line. Good art has to have a few different levels going on. I’d rather do things that contain what you might call 'wit'. Wit appears in all art forms. Someone said James Brown’s rhythms were "witty". Light and heavy at the same time. Quentin Blake draws with a witty line, eccentric and energetic. You can probably have witty food for all I know. All the best things are witty.
So what's the process behind your heads and sculptures? What do you use? How does each piece begin?
I usually start by spotting something funny online. Then I draw. Then sculpt. If it's a quick temporary sort of thing I use plasticine. If I want it to last as a sculpture then polymer clay.
Have you had any unusual requests?
People ask me to draw them naked because I used to get models off Grindr. But I had to put a brake on random nude encounters when I got a boyfriend.
We love your drawn portraits of people. Has anyone disliked what you've done?
Sometimes I do quite a flattering portrait and it's obvious that the sitter doesn’t like it. Other times I exaggerate puffy eyes and saggy jawlines and they love it. It’s so unpredictable. I drew the great painter Ishbel Myerscough. She’s totally uncompromising in her own self-portraits but somehow I managed to do a daft flattering picture. I was so pissed off with myself, she’s the one person I’d like to impress with a serious portrait!
Who are these portraits of? What do you look for to draw out someone's character?
Most of my sitters are random people that message me on Instagram. It's a joy! The most difficult people to draw are young pretty evenly featured girls. Men are on the whole easier because they have bolder features. Old men with big red noses are the easiest. All I do is record faces. If something of the person’s character is revealed then it happens almost by accident.
You're a fan of Instagram aren't you?
Yes, my life has been changed twice, first by Spitting Image, then by Instagram. I didn’t want to bother with Instagram at first but my agent encouraged me. Then it turned out it was really fun and that my work quite suited the format.
Instagram is revolutionary in that it completely bypasses the gallery system. It’s highly democratic compared to the snobbish arse-licking that goes on in the art world. My posts add up to a constantly enlarging portfolio. I avoid putting up pics of food/holidays/myself in lycra.
You talk of arse-licking. Is there anything else that bugs you about the creative industries?
The art world is what it is. Opaque and unpleasant but also exciting and fascinating. In order for essentially worthless things like bits of paper with lines on them to have great value, all sorts of weird forces have to prop up the system. I’m not really part of it, I don’t have a gallery, I arrange my own shows and publicity etc. It means I have complete autonomy but little curator massaged gravitas.
It’s great not having anyone tell me what to do. But if the White Cube rang this afternoon and offered me a show, all my art world criticism would end in an instant and I’d be licking arse like a terrier.
Is it easier for graduates these days? How does it compare to when you left CSM?
I graduated from graphic design in 1991. There were far fewer places at art school back then. It was just at the point when computers were starting to take over but the Internet barely existed. Almost all paid work was printed. Currently, paid editorial work has practically dried up. God knows what illustrators actually get paid for these days.
Back then, it was a real problem letting people know you existed as an artist. Now you can pop a pic up on Instagram and it may get seen by thousands. The problem is that so can everybody else. There’s so much more of EVERYTHING. Which is both good and bad. In small medieval villages, the only images the population would see in their entire life might be the frescos in the local church. Imagine how precious they must have seemed! Images are so throw away now.
Do you ever get the fear that work will dry up?
Yes, but the greater fear is that I’ll simply lose the knack of doing decent portraits. It’s a very hit or miss process. If I do two or three bad ones in a row I feel a rising panic. Too many artists are great when they’re young and gradually ease themselves into a complacent and repetitious middle age.
How would you like your work to be seen? What would be your legacy?
I’m just thrilled to be doing exactly the sort of work I want and getting some recognition. If I died tomorrow my legacy would be stacks of drawings and about half a ton of plasticine.