I used to go to London Zoo, quite early in the morning, before it had opened to the public. Some of the Royal College students could go there for free on Tuesdays. Strictly speaking, it was only the Graphics students who were allowed to go there – I was Fine Art – but I was never the kind of person to worry about that sort of thing.
When I went to the zoo, I couldn’t bear seeing apes in cages, behind glass, and when you looked at the gorillas, there’d be this gorilla sitting there and the way he looked at you, the torture of him being there, with these people coming past him all the time and taking flash photographs of him. Horrible!
But it was there that I met an orangutan for the first time. This orangutan was at the back of her enclosure and I immediately wanted to draw her.
So, I would sit and draw her and they’d bring her some fruit so she’d come to the middle and have some food. Making contact with her took some time, but I would come and she knew that I was drawing. She knew that the way I was looking and the contact I was making was totally different to the normal human being, I was very aware of that, because she was interested.
I don’t know how long I’d been coming to draw her when one day she suddenly came down her enclosure, right up to the glass and she wanted to see what I was doing. I picked up the sketch book and showed her and she really looked at it. When I put it down, she put her hand against the glass, where the book had been, and I put my hand right on top of hers and – you know when you feel as if your heart’s going to stop? It was utterly extraordinary because the contact was so total, there was nothing between us except this piece of glass….
I have exactly the same attitude to drawing a person as drawing any animal or even plant. My approach, what I am going for, is what I call underneath the mask. I’m trying to capture the life behind the mask. Somebody once came to see my pictures and told me that I don’t paint people, I paint feelings. I had never thought about it like that, but that is what I’m trying to get at.