Milan Topalović is a Bournville-based artists and illustrator with a penchant for portraits. At Winterbourne, we’re lucky to not only have many of his wonderful prints and cards available in our gift shop, but to also offer portraiture workshops with the man himself!
To get the full scoop on Milan’s artistic influences, love of teaching, and what to expect in his forthcoming workshops, Ellie, our Learning Officer, caught up with him for a special Q&A session.
I am an artist specialising in portraiture and an illustrator of murals, greeting cards, and prints, which can be found in the gift shop at Winterbourne. I love drawing and teaching and have been lucky enough to make art that raises funds for Birmingham Children’s Hospital and Guide Dogs.
How long have you been teaching?
I have taught since 2015. My first taught session was a stone’s throw away at the wonderful Barber Institute of Fine Art, and I have enjoyed developing my classes and courses ever since. My heart is with pencil portraits, however, over the last few years I have become more and more engrossed in working with coloured pencils, pastels, and oil paints.
What do you enjoy about it?
I predominantly draw, as many people do, because I want to immortalise someone I admire in that moment – an artist, musician, a pet, or family member. But, I also enjoy the calm and tranquil state that drawing and painting puts me in, as well as the level of peace art offers.
I hope to pass that love on to students too and give them the chance to open their sketchbook at home, test themselves, and enjoy learning a skill when the world is a bit crazy. Teaching the arts crosses cultural, age, language, and educational barriers: everyone can be inspired and moved by a wonderful portrait.
I read a lot about the benefits of art all the time, including how much art lowers anxiety and can even slow the onset of dementia. A quote that stays with me is from Prince Charles, also a painter, who regards art as “one of the most relaxing and therapeutic exercises I know”.
I also love seeing the progress made by a student over a few sessions or a term – it is so rewarding!
How long have you been drawing portraits?
For as long as I can remember! My early sketchbooks contain drawings of Spiderman and Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, even though I was too young to watch the programme. When I was younger, I loved trying to draw expressive portraits on comic covers and magazines.
Are there any historical influences that particularly inspire your portraits?
Photorealism artists, Jason Brooks and Chuck Close, are big influences on my portraiture as they reproduce astounding, palpable detail in their art. Photorealistic portraits often use a grid system, which acts like bicycle stabilisers to help place proportions, and are a celebration of incredible realism through exquisite shading and near-tangible texture.
I also love the polished, otherworldly atmosphere of Romanticism, as well as the painterly pioneers of Impressionism, such as Renoir. I am working on a reproduction of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by the ‘master of light’, Vermeer, and Hetty Lawlor’s portraits are a great contemporary throwback to the Dutch Golden Age with her sun-gilded portraits.
Singer Sergeant’s peaceful ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ has such a lovely atmosphere and sensitive palette too. Although the painting precedes Winterbourne by 17 years, the moment could easily be a quiet picture book scene within the leafy grounds.
What do you like about drawing people?
I love asking about people’s histories and finding out what they are made of; their face is the bookmark for their story, and their portrait is an accumulation of their life so far. From special celebrations and milestones to sticker albums and classic film posters, portraits evoke childhood and a person’s best memories.
Once I have finished a live project, such as a surprise portrait for a 50th birthday or wedding, people’s reactions to the unexpected gift is incomparable to any other. It is one of the most rewarding feelings you can experience, and it gives me a lot of joy when students I teach send me a photo of a special someone’s first reaction when they receive a wonderful portrait. Unless it is a cat… they don’t care!
Do you have any advice for any aspiring artists?
You don’t have to spend a lot on the ‘best’ materials to advance from a beginner to a very competent artist. There are some myths flying around that art it is a specialism that only a few are capable of or can afford; however, the greatest barriers to actively doing art are time and will. Everything else – confidence and progression – will come!
Leonardo da Vinci officially spent three years completing Mona Lisa but actually worked on her for over 17 years, as he famously couldn’t capture her expression the way he wanted to. If he had stopped painting when he realised she was a tough cookie to crack, there would be no Mona Lisa – the most famous painting on Earth.
For those wanting to learn a particular technique, perspective, form or aesthetic, I’d recommend looking to the masters. In terms of subject matter, I believe in doing what you love!
What can people expect from the workshop?
The workshop will include introductory exercises to test perception and observation. After all, you can’t draw someone’s likeness if you don’t look at them properly. During the class, students will be encouraged to fine-tune their artist’s eye and really learn to see what is, rather than what is imagined.
Towards the second half of the workshop, the focus will move to boosting students’ skills and confidence by developing shading and blending techniques the at help to mimic the textures, age, and atmosphere of a portrait using specialist materials.
I love being supportive of students and building a warm atmosphere in the room. Many artists and galleries commonly reduce the connection and education between themselves and visitors (including aspiring artists) to uninspiring ‘Oil on canvas’ information plaques. However, I enjoy offering knowledge and removing the obstacles that disable so many people from thinking they can draw or paint what they see on a gallery wall.
One of the biggest challenges of teaching drawing and painting classes is teaching confidence. It can sometimes be tricky to get students to see that they’re capable of drawing so much more than a stick man, or that it isn’t just their sibling who is ‘the arty one’, but I take a lot of pride in challenging these ideas.
I’ve heard you bake a good cake. Can we expect a Milan cookery class any time soon?
Paint and Bake? It has a ring to it. Drawing is like baking: it involves patience and a balance of elements to make it look like the one in the picture. Plus, the reward and sense of achievement is all yours! If the students are well-behaved, I may even bake something special for the workshops…
“I’m drawing a great deal and think it’s getting better” Vincent van Gogh