Paul Oz is half painter and half social media impresario. Schön! meets the man turning the art world upside down.
When it comes to Paul Oz, you can forget any daydreams of the reclusive artist; he simply doesn’t fit the bill. As likely to complete a painting on the back of a yacht in Monte Carlo as in his studio, Oz is hard to dismiss.
It begins with his work. Large in scale and created almost exclusively with a pallet knife, his paintings are full of bold colours and incredible texture. His style is distinctive; his focus is on portraiture and he taught himself how to do it all. Art school doesn’t figure in Oz’s artistic journey.
“As a sixteen-year-old, I was persuaded that I would never make any money as an artist,” he says now. “I was told that I was probably better at maths and physics anyway. I got a C in GCSE art and A’s for some of the sciences, so that’s where I focused. In hindsight. it was probably the best thing to do.”
Rather than art, Oz studied business, but he was an avid Formula One fan, and that interest – so far from the art world to the outside eye, but in fact so entwined with it – would become his way in. Oz got his start painting Formula One stars and connecting with other fans (and potential buyers) over social media. Before long, he found himself attending the lavish parties where his subjects spent their time.
“A lot of the biggest PR flags I’ve had are off my own back, being proactive on Twitter and opening doors in the Formula One world,” he explains. “It’s not that profitable – I’ve spent an absolute fortune following them around the world – but you don’t have to be a fan to understand what live painting on the back of a yacht in Monte Carlo means. To get your name on the table would have cost thousands, and I’m there live painting at the back just because I’ve donated my time. It’s quite bizarre. Some of the people you meet… it’s just crazy.”
Live painting in itself is a strange phenomenon. It’s just what it sounds like: Oz volunteers his time to paint a portrait in the middle of a soirée, offering himself as something of a party trick. At the end of the evening, his work is auctioned off and the proceeds go to charity. It’s a genius way to get his name out there, but it does make his relationship with galleries – big players in the careers of most artists – far from conventional.
Normally galleries offer up-and-coming artists their connections and resources in the uphill battle that is finding a reliable pool of buyers. But Oz doesn’t need a gallery to sell his work, in the same way he didn’t need art school to break into the art world. Oz does have relationships with galleries – he holds his meetings at Imitate Modern gallery in a swish West London neighbourhood – but doesn’t require their whole range of services. Therefore, he says, the relationship can be a tightrope.
“I do most of my own marketing, which traditionally would be a gallery role, which does make the relationship interesting. It takes a certain type of gallery – business partner, effectively – to cope with it. There has to be lot of trust involved. I could exist on my own, but being without any galleries behind me wouldn’t be the right way to get up and running.”
While some of his biggest successes have had ties to Formula One, Oz is slowly trying to move away from portraying the stars of the sport. A recent series, and the subject of a recent solo show, focuses on the wildlife that lives at the Bristol Zoo. A massive painting of an elephant hangs behind the desk at Imitate Modern. Its thick swathes of grey on grey are classic Paul Oz in all but the subject matter.
“It’s a different set of challenges,” says Oz, gesturing to his work. “Getting an elephant on a grey background to be interesting is a different set of challenges than painting someone accurately. I can relax. I can get an elephant 30 percent wrong and it’s still an elephant, whereas with a portrait if you get two percent wrong, it’s someone else entirely.”
Oz takes commissions, some of which excite his artistic mind and some of which certainly do not, but he’s not one to wait around for inspiration to hit, especially since he could easily spend two days doing nothing but replying to emails. “I feel quite strongly about this,” he says. “I’m sure there are artists who have a successful career like that, but in my view if you wait until you’re motivated and paint what you want to paint, you won’t have a career. It’s better to have a head for business. If you have a career, you’re able to invest in your art. You’re able to create.”