Some time ago, I watched a documentary about the great English painter, Lucian Freud. It was an odd film not least because Freud himself made no appearance in it, other than in several still photographs. There were only his studio, his gnarled, fleshy portraits and his sitters: friends, former lovers , fellow painters, like David Hockney, and his many children, among them the accomplished sisters, Bella and Esther Freud, and Rose and Susie Boyt. The film traced Freud's relationship with his subjects and, more abstractly, the portraits he made of them. For someone who takes as long as I do to finish a work, it was reassuring to discover that Freud's painstaking dissection of his subjects – during which he labours for several hours at a time to get the paint exactly as he wants in just a few square inches of a large canvas – involves as many as a hundred sittings over a year for a single work. Each is made bearable by Freud's charismatic presence, clever conversation, imaginative cooking and champagne.I'm not much good at small talk so, for a long time, I've relied only on myself as muse and model. This changed after I spent three months in a mental hospital, last year. A psychiatrist there suggested I was spending a little too much time focussed on myself. I started look for young women who might be willing to pose for me. My process is very different to Freud's, not least because it eschews some traditional aspects of the relationship between artist and sitter. I get to know my subjects from a distance. Sometimes acquaintance is initiated via social media, then explored further by phone and email. I don't offer much about myself. Instead, I ask a lot of questions: the best models are those who are neither discomforted nor confronted and who respond without trying to figure out the 'right' answer. By the time I meet them in person, I already have a good sense of who they are – and what I want to extract from them for my work.On the other hand, I'm never quite what my models expect: "She welcomes you, quite calmly and happily, as though she were, well, normal," one wrote, recently. "You kind of don't expect it because she's so cold and steely feeling in her virtual world. I was even surprised at how she had dogs – for some reason I never pictured her with pets. You would assume, from her texts, that Hazel doesn't smile much. This is far from the truth."Yesterday was my second meeting with a model who cared so much about working with me that soon after we'd met for the first time, she began sending me long, well-written, starkly confessional emails, sometimes one or two every day, so I might learn more about her. In person, she was just as fearless. As we chatted and looked through some of my recent drawings in ink, she started to undress. Naked, she sprawled across the futon I use as a daybed in my study and waited for me to tell her what I wanted her to do.
Nothing needed to be said. I picked up a camera and went to work.