Skip to content
Bowie painting
Bowie painting
From the Silhouettes and Shadows exhibit at Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin, 2020
From the Silhouettes and Shadows Exhibit
Sara Captain Bowie exhibit
Sara Captain and friends
'ALL TOO FAST'
David Bowie Sara Captain Schiele
David Bowie portrait in the style of Egon Schiele by the marvelous Sara Captain!
David Bowie
"Drifting," painting by Sara Captain
“Funtime”
'IN MY MIND AGAIN' Portrait of Phoebe Bridgers
'MAN OF WORDS, MAN OF MUSIC‘
“Sound and Vision”
David Bowie Sara Captain
"Waiting for Jimmy"
Bowie paintingSara Captain Bowie exhibitDavid Bowie Sara Captain SchieleDavid BowieDavid Bowie Sara Captain

Exclusive Interview: Artist Sara Captain, Painter of Bowie and more!

Sara Captain is a tremendously talented British artist whose main subject is David Bowie. I came across an article about her and her work last year and was blown away. I was happy that Sara agreed to participate in this interview. Although the following covers a lot of ground, there’s still more to discuss, so I’m hoping to reconvene with a video interview in coming weeks.

Please make note that this post shows a gallery of Sara’s art, so be sure to look at the examples included here.

Also, if you want to see more or purchase one of her works, or a print, poster or t shirt featuring her art, please click HERE.

And now, here’s the interview:

—-

Q. Do you too feel like the more you paint Bowie the more you want to paint Bowie? What is it about Bowie that makes you (us) want to keep returning to him as a subject?

A. To answer your first question…hmm it’s not exactly like that… it might be more accurate to say that the more I paint Bowie the more I want to paint full stop. I always say he is like a guiding light – my artistic playground, as it were. I use him as a subject to explore the possibilities of painting itself, ideas I might later use for other paintings. It’s not just about him, it’s about art. And he was art…so it’s one and the same. Maybe my returning to him as a subject is also a quest to discover what it is about him that so fascinates me/us. When I paint him, I get to look at him very closely and I try to sense what lies behind his expression, what he was feeling at the time. In a way, it’s like spending time with him.

Or maybe it’s because quite simply I haven’t had enough of him – never will. If I could, I would want more life for him, more music, more travels, more time, more witty interviews…so I am kind of trying to give him that through art. To keep him alive, as it were.

I think there is also, undoubtedly, a purely aesthetic pleasure: something in his face, his features move me in ways I cannot quite explain. So it pleases me to paint those features over and over again in different guises. I suppose it’s the same for the people who purchase my paintings – it delights them to see his face, be in on record covers, in film, videos or in works of art, the latter especially when they capture his soul, so to speak.

Generally, as well as the pure aesthetic pleasure, perhaps the fascination with him as a subject might have something to do with the impact he made – culturally I mean – on society as a whole. He did so in so many different ways: not only with the music itself but its lyrical content; with his image and personae and not least with his impish ‘epater le bourgeois’ in interviews… be it about sexuality, what it means to be a rockstar or the importance of black music. He broke boundaries and opened minds, thus heralding a better, freer future. If he wanted to do something artistically valid, I can definitely say he succeeded! Also, there is something utterly captivating and yet undefinable about him, way beyond the trope of his many facets, characters and such like. It’s a strange fascination, and as he would say ‘that is that’.

Q. Do you listen to Bowie music while you are painting? What are you thinking when you are painting?

A. Yes, of course I listen to Bowie music – but not all the time! I normally listen to Bowie BEFORE I start a painting. If I were to do a 1969-inspired image, for example, I will immerse myself beforehand in a myriad images and sounds from that period – listen to Space Oddity, rare songs, interviews…maybe even take a walk around Beckenham. If it’s 1977, it will be all the Berlin trilogy stuff but also La Dusseldorf and Neu! I try to get a sense of what David was like at that time and connect with it so that I can, with any luck, channel at least a tiny bit of it in my work. Call it research, if you like. That way, while I am painting, those songs will be playing in my mind and inform, inspire the piece I am working on.

During the painting session, instead, more often than not I will listen to something with non-intrusive lyrical content such as the mellow, divine Khruangbin or, say, traditional Japanese Koto music. And Low of course! Other times it can be a beloved album like REM’s Automatic for the People, because if I know it well it won’t demand too much attention. It can be totally unconnected! Sometimes, however, the best music is silence, just the wind rustling the leaves on the trees or birdsong from outside my window. I am very, very concentrated when I paint so music can be distracting.

If you are asking what I think about when I am painting, well…my thoughts usually glide upon whatever it was that the day brought, so they can range from problem solving to existential questions all the way down to trivial stuff – needing a bigger table for the studio or something I wish to do. A lot of thoughts are given over, however, to solving the specific artistic challenges each painting poses: how can I make a moving background go across the image without interrupting the brushstroke? Is the background too overpowering? Where can I find a new brush as good as now the messed up one that served me so well? What if I covered it all with resin – would it give it great depth or ruin it altogether? How can I make people interact with this artwork? Does it really look like David – have I captured him? And so on…I don’t plan too much in advance when I paint, so at each step there is something new and unexpected to think about.

The other thing that occupies my mind relates to the subject, so for instance when I was painting ‘Waiting for Jimmy’ I was thinking about David’s friendship with Iggy and about their Berlin days, but also about nostalgia and about the sense of freedom you get by finding yourself in another environment, and so forth.

Q. Your painting is beautiful — if you painted random people, the paintings would still be beautiful— why focus on Bowie?

A. Hey, thank you! That’s super lovely to hear and very encouraging. So why do I focus on Bowie? Because he infinitely interests me! I will keep painting him until I have the vein to… I don’t have much control over my inspiration, it comes from…somewhere!? There are so many images I am yet to paint, almost as if I were on a mission to keep him alive and remind the world of how unique and beautiful he was, and to communicate such wonderfulness all around me – his mysterious je ne sais quoi. So I just have to follow my muse, paint what I have the urge to paint.

But I also have other focus than Bowie – I do paint random people too, real and from the imagination – it’s just that Bowie fans don’t get to see these works as often because they are mostly private commissions or they have a different kind of audience. For example, I did a charcoal drawing of three young siblings – the two older ones cradling their new born brother and I adored the way they turned out. Another one I though came out beautiful, I feel, was a portrait of singer Phoebe Bridgers, which to my delight ended up in the collection of a friend of mine with fine artistic taste. Another favourite is a very minimalistic painting of Iggy Pop called ‘Funtime’ where he looks dead serious and a little pissed off. I thought it was funny. OK, I know these are not-so-random people, but I paint them as if they were anyone, for the feeling they communicate with their expression and not as celebrities as such. I always try to say something universal, even when I paint someone known. So I focus on Bowie as ‘everyman’, and on ‘everyman’ as a representative of our common humanity.

Q. Bowie was very conscious of his visual presentation including his sets, his clothing, his lighting— everything. Your paintings tend to focus on his face, which distinguishes your art from his art. Am I thinking of that the right way?

A. Yes, to some extent. Especially just after 2016, like I said I was on a kind of mission to preserve all the little delicious quirks of Bowie’s face for posterity. Backgrounds bored me then, clothes too – they can take forever and say little. Plus, I will freely admit I am not the most patient of painters, so I don’t enjoy painting details that much. Both impatience and the need for spontaneity are the reason why, for example, I prefer fast drying gouache to malleable oil. Later on it changed – it was almost the reverse. I used Bowie’s clothes as graphic elements, such as the stripes in the series ‘David in the style of Schiele (I, II, III)’ and backgrounds, abstract or otherwise, as symbols of the inner world, usually with some art history reference. That meant going from zig-zag black shapes a la Franz Kline, Clyfford Still-like psychological cracks and experimental flowing streams of consciousness (or sound) like in ‘Drifting’ and ‘Sound and Vision’, the latter a nod to Gerhard Richter. For example, in ‘Man of Words, Man of Music’the background is more prominent than Bowie – he is painted in turquoise blue while the bookshelf is all colourful with touches of complementary red. It contains an array of hidden references that make it intriguing for the viewer, particularly Bowie geeks.

My painting are always in evolution – a bit like Bowie, I get bored quickly and once I am safe with a certain style, I have to move forward. Therefore, although his face is likely to feature quite prominently, the backgrounds or absence thereof will always be a very specific compositional choice with a very specific meaning.

Q. If Bowie asked you to paint his portrait and offered to sit for it, say in 2015, and gave you total creative control over everything, how would you approach the task? What would you pitch to him in terms of the picture’s composition?

A. What an interesting question! And what a dream it would be, huh? Just wow. Well I think this being a painting of Bowie as an older man, maybe with ‘his cheek bones back’, I would discuss with him what he would want to communicate in general, about life in general I mean. How would he sum it up? Since his knowledge of art history was second to none, I would mention some great portraits such as the Kenwood House Rembrandt where two circles allude at life and afterlife, while the face is in sharp focus and Schiele’s as reference points – and he might add something to the discussion. You see…when someone commission a painting, it’s kind of a collaborative work as there is a lot of back and forth between myself and that person – we keep bouncing ideas off each other etc. and the painting develops partly as a result of those discussions, and then partly on its own once started, often going in unexpected directions. I think Bowie was big on collaborations and gave as much inspiration as he gave freedom so this would be very exciting!

For the composition, I would probably try to think of something rather minimalistic and stylised – an economy of colours and lines that bring out what matters and disregards the rest. I would tell him that my painting will be both elegant and expressive, and that he will look beautiful in it – ugliness is not my department.

Q. Are there threads that connect the people who purchase your paintings? Do you get to learn anything about who they are and what their interest is in Bowie?

A. Oh yes, many! One day I tried to create a Google map of where all my painting are in the world, and I realized I know most of the people personally, and a lot of them know one another too. It’s a double edge sword, though. If you are riding a wave of popularity, it makes it exponentially good, everyone wants a piece of you…aherm…of yours, I mean…! It is wonderful to know friends own this or that painting, and to think about all the places in the world where there’s the house of a Bowie fan with a work of mine on the wall to give them joy. But if you get on the wrong side of someone – let alone someone important or known – on, say, political or moral grounds, then it can be very damaging. When everyone knows one another, gossip spreads like wildfire. It’s hard to escape the storm. Not that I try to. For me my values will always come before fame or fortune.

As for your second question, yes! I love getting to know my collectors. Art is a wonderful way to connect, and I am always curious as to what it is that draws a person to a specific work and not another. Some of my collectors live across the pond or the Channel, but social media, for all its downsides, does allow us to keep in touch and eventually get to spend time together. Here in the UK there are lots of occasions for gatherings. To get to know all this motley crew of Bowie freaks has been quite an eye opener: I have met the most wonderful people, true fans and very special humans, but also my fair share of unsavoury characters, which made me understand a lot more about Bowie and what he called ‘the rock and roll circus’. Fame seems to attract such people, and maybe you need those people to have fame? I do wonder.

Aside from that, there is something that most genuine fans say, which to me encapsulates what Bowie was about: they say he gave them the confidence to be themselves, follow their inclinations. There’s something wonderfully liberating in being a Bowie fan – you feel it’s OK to be free, to be different…to be an individual. Also, Bowie seems to have given a sense of belonging to all outsiders, which is for me one of his most towering achievements. I like to think that, in way, all Bowie fans are somehow outsiders that shine in different ways, like stars in galaxy – they are now the custodians of the special stardust Bowie possessed.

Q. Do you expect to have any shows in New York State or anywhere in the United States?

A. Yes, at some point it HAS to happen! I don’t have an immediate date or plan, but I have toyed with that idea since my exhibition in Dublin in 2019, where I met a super bunch of fans I call ‘the Young Americans’…and since I also have a fair number of wonderful collectors in the US – some good friends and real art lovers among them – something was always in the works! The idea nearly solidified when Covid struck.

I would aim, for a NY State show, to have a significant a body of new work that would stun and surprise – something I deem worthy of the effort needed to take it across the pond. So I am working and working and working on it. I will keep you posted.

Q. I’ve been mulling over the idea that in death Bowie went from being a flesh-and-blood rock star to being a cultural phenomenon. I think your art illustrates this— his image— especially the image of his face has itself become part of our cultural fabric (I took a picture in front of a building-size mural by the artist Kobra in, of all places, Jersey City, New Jersey). What do you think is happening? Did it take his death to elevate him to this status?

A. This is a very interesting question and something that has preoccupied me too. Definitely something happened on the day he died! I think Bowie was always a cultural phenomenon in a sense – he wanted to be part of culture and dotted his songs with cultural references for the fans to go and discover for themselves. His curiosity was infectious…! He had a unique, very subtle and non-patronizing way of divulging what we might call ‘high culture’ (from Kabuki theatre and Nietzche to references to the art world) by mixing it with ‘low culture’, i.e. popular music, thus making it accessible to a whole new audience. Intellectually, he aimed high and this is a rare thing in his field. His songs are very rich, very layered and pretty avant-garde in a sense, so I would say that he deserves a place in the realms of culture – he belongs to Art with a capital A.

And yes, I think it did take his death maybe not to elevate him to this status, but to wake us up from a kind of stupor in order to realise that he should be regarded that highly. The world suddenly was Bowie-less, and the world missed him – he was no longer there, neither in the background nor the foreground. Now he was… everywhere and nowhere. When he passed away, it’s as if the world suddenly remembered what he had given, and Lazarus-like he was cool again. Always self-aware and prescient, Bowie knew it would happen. It was a kind of general reawakening, which in fact had already started in 2013.

Nowadays, every gallery in the land has some kind of Bowie painting on show, to varying degrees of artistic merit. Saying to the world that you like Bowie is…kudos! There is a downside too: alongside some great art and great tributes that are being poured in, there is also a commodification of Bowie symbolism, a trivialisation of Bowie imagery and this kind of cheapens it all. Yet, David’s achievements are what will remain, I believe.

As for myself, it’s a very spontaneous tribute I am paying. All my paintings try to say one thing about Bowie – that he really was the special one. They are a love song to that mysterious quality, and, like I said before, an attempt to keep him alive – but not so much as an icon, just as him himself. I celebrate his unique good looks, his intelligence and wit, his open mindedness. If I contribute in any way to making him part of the cultural fabric I am glad, but it was entirely unintentional.

Q. What do you think of Bowie’s own paintings? Such as the cover of 1. Outside?

A. Oh, his paintings are way, way underrated! I think he was a fantastic portraitist for starters. I mean, with a few strokes he was able to capture someone’s face so well. A few fluid lines melting on the canvas, and it’s instantly recognizable: ooh, it’s Mike Garson! Bowie was always very humble about his talents as a painter, which is endearing. He was so good! I hope more of his works surface…

The cover of 1-Outside reminds me of Marlene Dumas or such like and I love it …more than some of the music inside I have to admit. It’s minimalistic and dynamic at once. I also adore his more expressionist works relating to places and subjects close to his heart. The ones that stand out for me are his ‘Boy in Berlin’ and ‘Berlin landscape with JO’, as well as his portrait of Mishima. Although one can clearly see the artistic influences in all of these, Bowie the magpie has a way to make them uniquely his, and I love them. They are so very him! I cannot wait to see them again, hopefully when the new V&A Centre for Performing Arts opens. Just a thought – wouldn’t it be fun to paint Bowie in the style of Bowie the painter?

Q. Finally— and I ask everyone this — what’s your favorite Bowie album and song?

A. It’s hard to choose as different albums suit different moods, different moments in life…but if I had to take just one on a desert island it would have to be Low. I shall never forget the excitement of buying it: poring over that gorgeous orangey cover – the ‘low profile’ – and then putting it on the turntable for the first time. So atmospheric, and yet a little unsettling… almost frustrating. It’s someone struggling to speak. As I was listening I was thinking ‘Sing, David, sing! Why are you not singing?’ There’s a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth where Thomas Jerome Newton laments that he doesn’t like all the instrumental music he keeps being sent, and says; ‘Singing! I want some singing!’ Come on David, I thought to myself as the turntable spun and spun- talk to me through the gloom! And then, from those subdued melodies, the music erupted into the joyful bouncing notes of ‘A New Career in a New Town,’ and then sweet perfection of ‘Sound and Vison’ swept over me. I was captured forever…Ah, I could write a whole book on it.

My favourite song is easy – it’s ‘Heroes.’ For someone who adores some of the most obscure tracks, it seems like a very odd choice. The reason I favour it is that I feel that, on a very personal level, KNOW what it’s about – no, not the back story, but as Bowie would put it, ‘the information’, the message of it. I connect with it for many a reason, not least my mum’s connection with Germany (actually, I love the ‘Helden’ version above all) but also the lyrics. I have lived similar things. The whole feeling of being up against it and yet to steal a season, the idea of doing something great and pure even if it’s bound to be doomed. Love is like that, a moment, the ultimate act of heroism. The shame is on the other side! On the side of those who sow hate and build walls. Love is the last thing left when all seems lost. Love is the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s Box. Never mind the guns over our heads.

###

I’d like to thank Sara again for participating in this interview and more importantly for making this great art! I look forward to speaking with her in the near future for a video interview and hope that New York show comes together!

Back To Top