Jay Varma stares up at the banners for the Portrait Award exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. He hasn’t been nominated yet but there’s determination in the Indian artist’s eyes. “I don’t have much time to establish myself,” says the 51-year-old from Bangalore. “It has to be now.”
And these are exciting times for Varma. Currently in England for a month, he has secured a commission for the portraits, which have become an increasingly interesting element to his portfolio. He has steadily been building his profile ever since winning an art award in the US 13 years ago for a hyperreal coloured-pencil drawing of a ruined temple in the Indian state of Karnataka. Entitled Pillars Within, it struck a chord with the former US President Bill Clinton.
“It was great to receive the letter with a presidential seal saying how much Clinton loved my work,” says Varma. “But I’d already sold it to someone else, so Clinton had to make do with a print.”
The “someone else” was actually another prize winner at the same awards. Recognition from his fellow artists, Varma says, actually meant a lot more than from former presidents. Combined with the break up of his marriage, it gave Varma the impetus to make a break from his previous jobs running media and advertising businesses.
“I had a long think and realised that I wanted to do something I would never get tired of, something that would make me happy,” he says.
It’s only strange that it’s taken Varma so long to make that change. He comes from a long line of artists – his great grandfather was Raja Ravi Varma, one of the great Indian painters of the 19th century. His mother Rukmini paints in oil and has exhibited all over the world – and his grandfather, Kerala Varma, made quite a name for himself with his charcoal and pencil work, which is Jay’s chosen medium, too.
“I wasn’t even that aware of this family history while growing up,” he says. “But I didn’t want formal training in art. I had to find my own way, and even when I went to Michigan to study art I gave it up because it was far too academic. I didn’t really do art full-time until I enrolled in a studio in Philadelphia in 2009.”
Because he was juggling work commitments, another award-winning drawing – Inner Courtyard – took almost five years to complete in the early 2000s. But this is the problem with the hyperreal technique – it needs to look technically perfect.
So it’s no surprise that recent years have seen much more portraiture in the portfolio on Varma’s website – it’s less time consuming. The quality varies but his love of the medium means there’s a progression in evidence here. And like the coloured pencil drawings of buildings, realism is key.
“It’s an endless source of fascination for me,” he says, looking up at another portrait in the gallery’s cafe. “I love the way the process mirrors life. When you see someone you know from a distance, you can’t see lips or eyelashes, but you know from the shapes that it’s them. It’s the same with portraiture – you go from the large shapes to the intricate ones to bring life to the picture.”