Our podcast guest today is artist Nick George who paints abstract face art. We first spotted Nick’s work on Instagram and were completely wowed by it. It was very different to anything we had seen before. Imagine the silhouette of an exaggerated face filled with an eye, fragments of text, collage and cartoon characters. They have the feel of street art, like walls where posters and stickers have been layered and peeled back over time.
We were also excited to see that Nick is teaching on Kara Bullock’s portrait art course Let’s Face It course 2022. We are looking forward to watching his lessons.
Can you tell us a little bit about you growing up? Were you interested in art as a child?
When I was seven or eight years old, I would draw different characters in front of the television. But I probably did that for about a year and then completely stopped and headed more in a direction of sports and performing arts.
Were any of your family artistic or did you have an art mentor of some kind?
No, nobody. I went more in the direction of playing basketball because I was hyperactive. It was a perfect fit. But I was always artistic. But when basketball took off, it was so demanding that it was like a runaway train. There was no time to really explore that side too much. I remember my teacher sat me down in a room and they said, you can either continue being creative and all this stuff, or you can do basketball, you can’t do both. Basketball gave me an opportunity to travel the world and do all these amazing things. So I just ran with that at the time.
Did you go to art school, or are you self taught?
I just went online. I tried to build a foundation before I started creating the way I did. I did a lot of online learning on YouTube and all these different outlets.
I heard you say in a video that you became a professional basketball player in the US. How did you go from basketball to art?
So when I was a kid, I ended up playing with my national team, Great Britain. I got a lot of attention from international scouts. So I moved to America, did two years of high school, played professional collegiate basketball division one at VCU and from there ended up playing professionally in Europe. So I got offered a contract after college, to play in Europe and I travelled and bounced around different countries from there. Once the ball stopped bouncing, I spent some years coaching, but I knew deep inside I wanted to do my art, but I just didn’t have the courage to step away from that athlete’s world. But I think during lockdown, it just gave me the opportunity to just go for it.
So when you went to the US to do basketball in high school, did your parents go with you?
No, I was all alone. I went from being in a chaotic environment to suddenly being amongst people who are highly religious. And there was a lot of structure. It was really interesting, though.
You paint abstract faces, has it always been that way?
Well, I started out just doodling at first and just letting go. I didn’t really go into anything with an idea of what I wanted it to look like. I don’t know how I came to this point. Sometimes you just let go and these are the things that are coming out. The abstract portraits were something that just happened really. I used to work in pen and ink for about two or three years. Then during lockdown, I decided I had a lot more to say and I just want to really make a push for this. So I started working with different mediums and this is what came out.
What did the small artworks you were creating look like?
I think they were completely different. I did a lot of very intricate geometric drawings. I’d take different silhouettes, and then fill the silhouettes with fine lines. It was very different. I think there are certain similarities in regards to how chaotic things are. But it’s completely different stuff.
You’re very elusive. We can’t see those old artworks. Did you get rid of them all?
I think at the start of this year, I was trying to build up my confidence. And I was like, right, I’m just gonna eliminate everything I’ve done, and present this new work to the world. I should bring some stuff back because I just have it archived.
Your abstract face paintings have a theme or message behind them, can you tell us about that?
Whenever I approach a painting, everything is dictated by what’s going on in my mind at the time. Or maybe things that have been festering for years that I just want to let go of. That’s usually what happens. When I started painting, I realised that there were a lot of things related to certain mental health issues, basically all the painful things I’d ever been through, that’s what usually ends up coming out. I find myself holding on to the positive. When you’re playing basketball, and you’re an athlete, sometimes people have a certain perception of you. It’s like you’re this invincible athlete, you’re this big, strong figure. And I just didn’t have the courage to say certain things out of fear of being judged. Now it’s just “Listen, this is everything I’ve been holding on to, you guys deal with it.”
Your work does leave us asking lots of questions. And that’s the kind of work I love.
I put out a few works at the start of the year. That was my whole idea in the beginning. Then, I was offered a solo show, after I put out these works. For my solo show, I’m making it a little more obvious. I think it will still leave you guessing, but you have a clearer idea of where I’m going with it. I always feared that people were going to start asking me what this means, because it’s so personal, but yeah, I think doing artwork has also helped me open up and tell my story, as well.
What’s your process for creating art? Do you have a very specific idea in mind or do you just start and see what happens?
Yeah, that’s pretty much it, I just start by sketching out different ideas. And I completely let go, because as soon as I start painting, it’s so therapeutic. Immediately something pops into my head. It’s almost like it’s, everything’s overflowing in my mind. So as soon as I put the pastel to the canvas, it opens up this door. And I just go with whatever I’m being told to go with. In the early days, when I was developing my confidence, I would sketch out an idea beforehand. But now it’s just going straight in.
What art materials/mediums do you use for your faces?
During lockdown you could order online from Arts and Craft stores and pick up at the store. So I just bought everything I could. All types of everything, the cheapest stuff at the time, of course. So it was a lot of oils, watercolours, acrylics, pastels, oil, pastel soft pastels, and I started a bunch of sketchbooks and just started exploring. By the end of the year, in 2020 all these faces started to emerge. That’s pretty much how I came to that style. That was the whole process, just trying everything. I saw a video on YouTube, with somebody who was well established and they said, don’t get so caught up on doing one thing. Try everything because you never know what could work for you.
I’ve narrowed it down now to just using acrylics and oil pastels and collage. That’s a formula that works well for me at the moment. But I’m looking at adding oil paint in the future. Because I’m still exploring myself.
You use words and imagery within your abstract faces? How is that created?
I have a mixture of collage and also just writing things out. Whenever I add text, sometimes I like to make sure it’s all perfect and well designed, then I put it right next to something that’s harshly written, then I’ll add collage next to that. So mixing all these different elements creates different emotions and feelings.
The collage I collected throughout my journey. I collected all sorts of magazines from when I was in Italy, or when I spent some time in Holland. I use all these different types of methods of creating artwork and telling my story. For example, I might be telling a story of what my time was like in Italy, and I’ll find a magazine that I’ve got stored somewhere. Maybe I’ll use a word that has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m talking about, but it’s related in some way.
Just going back to when you said during lockdown, you were making a lot of artwork. Were you making art every day? Or multiple pieces?
Yeah, every single day, any opportunity? I had to do something. I just bought a bunch of sketchbooks, and I was creating paintings every single day. I have hundreds of paintings that are just absolutely awful. It looks like somebody just vomited on them
Do you ever use the art that you don’t like as bits of collage?
You know, it’s funny, you said that because I was thinking about that the other day, I was looking back at a lot of my old work. And I was thinking, Oh, maybe I could glue this onto the canvas. And use it to depict a moment where I was taking those first steps. Even though all these pieces weren’t very good, I would always try and take anything from it that looked decent and try and bring it over. That helped me find my style as well. Because I was like, right, this is just sludge, but then there’s this little bit here I like with these white lines running across a blue background, so I’m going to carry that over. That’s how I found my style as well, I think.
So when did this face silhouette emerge?
I think it was pretty much as soon as I started painting. I immediately went for the faces but you know, but I started out working in graphite. I wanted to have the ability to create a portrait and be able to work on making it look realistic. Then that’s when I broke the rule. I started out drawing portraits with graphite learning about shading and tone and all these different things. And I stuck with the faces from there. Everyone is pretty much me in a different situation.
I didn’t realise that it’s supposed to represent you?
Yeah. Well, the more I look at them, I’ll stop and try to understand what I’m doing. Things are pouring out of me even faster than I can try and understand them. But the other day I thought, Oh, that reminds me of a rough period. in college, or those types of things.
What would you do if somebody said to you, I’d love to commission you to do a portrait of me?
It’s so funny you guys are saying this. Because I was thinking about that yesterday. I think I would, I would do my best to tap into that person. And rather than a lot of generic things, I would want to know about them. What did they love, what did they hate, what they’ve been through? I like digging deep into things. But it would definitely be a challenge because your own self would creep into the work. But I would love to do that.
You’d be painting someone from the inside out really?
Yeah pretty much. Sometimes I’ll go through social media and everything is always so perfect at times. I always tend to look at people and I think, Wow, that’s an amazing house, amazing car, beautiful family, everything looks great. But I used to do a lot of Personal Training and Fitness work, and you get to work closely with people. It’s amazing how a lot of the time it was never really about the training, it was just the company and just needing somebody to talk to who isn’t going to judge you. Someone who isn’t going to ridicule you for anything. That inspired my art as well, like showing that even though I’m giving you this image on social media there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on. I just hope that I give people the courage to let go of all these things that they’re afraid of, and just put it out into the world. Because you could end up helping somebody else by talking about your pain or your difficulties or even your joy. So I think that’s what I’m getting out of this work.
Are you working in a studio? Because you sound like you’ve made so many paintings that I don’t know where you’d put them all?
Yeah, I’m in a beautiful studio called my bedroom.
Where are you putting all these paintings that you did over lockdown?
A lot of them were in little sketchbooks. I’ve got everything I’ll talk about in a wardrobe. Then at the moment, I’ve got an exhibition that I’m working on for next year. So I’ve got all these huge canvases in this tiny little room. I’m gonna take a picture of it and put it on Instagram once everything’s complete. So people can see the reality of trying to make things work.
What inspires you and your abstract art?
Anything can inspire me. The other day I was walking down the street and I saw that somebody had spilled a strawberry smoothie from a coffee shop. It was right next to a blue door. And on the blue door, there was all this yellow text. And I just thought, God, that looks beautiful. And I held on to that moment until I got home and then just started creating. What I created had nothing to do with the actual door or the smoothie, it just inspired me to bring something out of myself. That’s usually how it starts really. Things that have absolutely nothing to do with what I’ve been through or what I create, tend to get me going
Do you have any favourite artists that you admire and why?
There are quite a few I love. When I was a kid, I remember the first artwork I ever saw was by Salvador Dali. I was in a bookstore with my mother, I was probably six or seven years old. I think she was going to buy Pride and Prejudice or one of those types of books. I saw a book and on the cover, there was a naked White Lady surrounded by bumblebees and pomegranates and elephants. I turned to my Mum and I said, I need that book. There was just something about it. She just looked at it and then looked at me and said, No.
Other artists I like
Jacques Michel was a young black artist at a time when there weren’t many people like him breaking into the art world. He was telling his story. It gets you so excited.
Your art has a street art feel. Are you into street art?
It’s so funny. I don’t even ever think about these things until people say them to me. And then God, yeah, you’re right. I remember I walked away from basketball. I was going through a really difficult period. And I spent a lot of time travelling. I would always love going down the side street and going around the back of the restaurants, where you would find stickers and people promoting things and graffiti. There’s just so much beauty in that. I think that’s what inspires my work as well that chaos, that accidental beauty that you would find in these moments.
When I took a year off from basketball, I remember I went to Holland just to meet up with some friends which helped bring me back to life, I guess. I would go behind the backs of these restaurants, and you would see a sticker for maybe Snoop Dogg who is going to be performing. Then next to that there’s somebody promoting this skateboard brand. It created this beautiful picture. All this build-up years and years of promotional stickers and posters. Not only is this beautiful, but this is also real life. Sometimes I would think, I wonder if they think, oh, let’s say they have a pink sticker. And they’re promoting the student night, if they think about, oh, I’m going to place it here because there’s yellow over there. Were they thinking about the composition? Or were they just sticking it on? Trying to leave as soon as possible before the police come? That kind of stuff helps my style as well.
You use stickers in your art, don’t you?
All the characters it’s just me just drawing them on there. But I’m definitely inspired. I love using a lot of characters to tell the stories as well.
So where did those characters in your abstract faces come from? Were they the ones that you used to draw when you’re a kid?
No, no. When I was a kid, I used to draw a lot of really cool Hip Hop type people and bizarre-looking characters. Have you guys heard of a show called Spitting Image? When I was a kid, it was popular. I didn’t really understand it too much, because there was a lot of politics. But there was a guy on my street who was one of the character designers for the show, so he would always come to the house. He knew my father. He would say I’m working on this, I’m doing that… So I think that’s where the idea of characters comes from.
You were part of a group exhibition with the Mitochondria Gallery in the summer. Can you tell us a bit about it and how that came about?
Mitochondria focuses on black artists or mostly African people or people of African descent. They’re giving people of colour a voice. But not just one, but all different stories, because all black people have different stories; everyone’s from a different world. So, you might have somebody who grew up in Africa who is talking about all the different street scenes that they saw as a kid, you’ve got me who grew up in England. So it’s really good.
Each week, they contacted me and said, right, we sold another one, we sold another one… you sold all four pieces. I honestly just broke down, because, as an artist it’s so hard to try and navigate, especially for me not knowing anything about the art world. But before this, it was so much of putting in, and not getting anything, that you have to be passionate about it. It was a good feeling for people to actually recognise you.
Like Tara, you are teaching as one of the guest artists on Let’s Face It 2022, the Portrait course. Can you tell us what people can expect to learn in your lessons?
Kara was the first person to reach out to me for anything at all. And I remember thinking holy crap I don’t know anything about teaching I’m just still learning. She contacted me on Instagram. It was a huge confidence booster for me. I hope to give people an insight into my process and why I do what I do. And because certain people that I’m around are still sporty people, so they think it’s just this absolute random chaos that I’ve come up with. It’s going to be nice to take people inside my way of thinking. Not getting too deep and too heavy and trying to make it enjoyable for people. I don’t want people in tears by the end of it, you know?
What are your future plans for your art?
I would love to get my work seen by as many people as possible. I’d love to have my work in a gallery at some point and continue to exhibit my work. To be honest, that’s my biggest thing, just getting my work out into the world and hopefully, it can inspire people and maybe help people. Because especially after the year we just had, a lot of people are still trying to bounce back. Hopefully, I can bring some sort of energy to their lives and bring people back to life, and let them know that you’re not the only one going through it.
So have you got an exhibition on at the moment? or is that coming up? One in Texas?
Yeah, that’s coming up. My first solo show is coming up on the 10th of December. So I’m really excited about that. And I’ve got another one next year in London. So those are the two things I’m working on at the moment.
Find out more about Nick
Pretty much all I’ve got now is my Instagram, which is at Nick George Art. I’m working on putting together a website and developing my Facebook, but for now. It’s just Instagram.
Let’s Face it Portrait course where Nick is a guest teacher
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