Most people use their phone during their commute, others read while waiting for their stop to arrive. But for artist Chris Allan, he does entirely something else: he sketches portraits of his fellow passengers.
In his series Imagined Lives, the London-based creative secretly turns other commuters he comes across in the tube into subjects for his art. Working with just a sketch book and a few pens, eh quickly draws each person’s portrait.
And even though Allan rushes his drawings just before his subjects move or leave, the results do not feel like it. His series perfectly captures the details of each person, from the hair, to the eyes, to even the wrinkles on their face. If you look long enough, the images even seem to express the subject’s personality.
More recently, Allan has also come out with a new series. This one – called Anomalies, Lines, Forms, and Vertices – features ghostly images that ponder on our struggles with identity and social media.
“It’s about vanity, the struggle tear ourselves away from our own reflections when viewed through the skewed prism of social media. My anomalies are stranded in a social media haunted world, devoid of emotional depth and intimacy,” he said.
“The process that birthed this collection of work reflects who I am as an artist, my subjects are seeking information on their true personas based on feedback sourced from the heaving, filtered hive mind of social media. They are meant as intimate reflections of those stranded souls, lost in their pursuit of self-actualisation.”
In this interview with Allan, he goes further into detail about his work, specifically with Imagined Lives and Anomalies, Lines, Forms, and Vertices.
What made you decide to do portraits about your fellow London Tube commuters?
“A few years ago I started drawing people on my commute to where I work in west London. I showed one to my peers and their reaction was strange – they thought they all looked a bit melancholic and vulnerable. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew I was tapping into something powerful.”
Take us through your process here. Do you do the sketching while on the train? How do you choose your subjects? How long does each illustration take to finish?
“Yes, all the sketching happens on the train. I use an ink pen and Tombow brush pens and a small Moleskine sketchbook which I carry with me everywhere.
“My subjects need to be fairly passive, if they are busily looking around the train they don’t make a good subject. Besides, that I find it easier to link into them when they’re in a more inert state of mind.
“That’s when I can also get an impression of them, read them and conjure a poem too. At heart, I’m a frustrated poet! So someone reading, or scrolling through their phone is an excellent subject.
“They are not all portraits of individuals because sometimes people get off the train. I have developed a fairly quick process, but some do end up as a mishmash, you feel a bit like Dr Frankenstein, drawing different elements to fit together and create a sort of psychological self-portrait.
“When you start to project ideas and emotions on to your work of art, it can’t help but be a bit of a self-portrait. I resisted accepting that for a long time.”
Is there a message these portraits are trying to tell the audience?
“For me, it’s important to answer questions about normal people and their representation within the world. There’s a real lack of first-hand representation or self-representation of a normal person. Something about them not being heroic, not being a type, not being recorded as some sort of self-perpetuating celebrity.
“But if there is one continual reference it’s the world around us. The people that make up this tube carriage, this city. That is the one continual thing. That’s you, me, and us, so we’re definitely a part of it. We need to own up to that a bit more now.
“We need to see the inner worlds of contemporary people. I want to depict modern day people, the glossy veneer is gone, the Instagrammed toned abs are replaced with a pot belly, and photogenic poses are swapped with bored slouching, gazing in the black mirror of your iPhone. I depict your modern day life, bring attention to what you perhaps did not take in day by day.
“So while there is a technical element involved, I’m also considering questions about class, race and identity. There’s social commentary going on, but I try and do it in a way that’s beautiful – a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Let’s talk about your other series Anomalies, Lines, Forms, and Vortices. Can you tell us more about it?
“Here I use found images and stories sourced from the internet, usually Instagram. I’m interested in the narratives people project, the fictions, vanity and self-loathing. It’s about our struggle as humans to tear ourselves away from our own reflections.
“I use the term ‘anomaly’ to define something that deviates from what is standard, expected or normal. My ‘anomalies’ are the deviations of my subjects, stuck in a social media haunted world, devoid of emotional depth and intimacy.”
What reaction do you hope to get from people when they see these haunting yet beautiful images?
“I’m glad you think they’re beautiful. It’s about self-actualisation, and how we base this on feedback sourced from the heaving, perma-filtered hivemind of social media.
“So the work is a reflection of our egos. Our sense of self frames everything- our window on the world, and I want to capture fragmented moments of a life. This could be a moment from your Instagram story, a Facebook post, a tweet, a piece of a larger whole, often hidden from view. The work explores what it is be your truest self.”
What’s next for you?
“The list is endless! I’m a dad of two, and I’m off with my son to piano class, soon! Beyond that I’m also working on my Brazilian jiu jitsu skills! Art-wise I’m hoping to work with PopTart gallery again this year. Working with Karel in 2017 was an absolute dream.
“This week, I relaunched my website. I think what people don’t talk about often enough is the behind-the-scenes stuff that comes with being an artist.
“It’s not enough to make great work, there is a lot going on that is sort of non-art related. It can be fun to try to get to grips with things like marketing and PR! The book ArtWork really helps with setting up some of the back end stuff for that too.”