Artist Small Paul on Recreating Classic Works Under Lockdown

By Ned Kelly, August 12, 2022

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When British creative director Small Paul found himself locked down in Shanghai, his artistic instincts needed an outlet. Under his artist nom de plume – nom de camera? – XiaoBaoLuo, he set about recreating classic works with only what he had lying about in his apartment.

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Let's face it, it was our duty to catch up with him to find out more...

How did you first conceive of the lockdown series?
It started as an idea for a round in a lockdown quiz, I thought I’d recreate paintings and see if people could guess them. I also posted them in a group and they got a pretty good reaction. 

So, then I decided to make a series which included a mask in every image. I was going to do 10, then 12, but had too many ideas so I settled on 22 for 2022.

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Talk us through the process of creating an image?
Each image is quite quick once I get the idea, but I set myself a few rules as a challenge:

1: Everything must be captured in a single photo, using only the timer – because I didn’t have anyone else to help press the shutter.

2: Shot on my phone (although now I wish I had used a better camera, and a longer timer).

3: Must use stuff I have at home (due to lockdown).

4: The biggest one – NOT to use Photoshop to comp things together or manipulate the image because so much stuff is cheated or faked these days. Some friends suggested using PS, but I was adamant that I wanted to keep it pure.

For example, I could very easily have made myself smaller for the most recent Keith Haring one and comped it into the background the right size, but I think seeing me struggle to fit on the yoga mat is all part of the fun of it.

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I will admit I do use PS a little bit, but only to adjust the color and contrast bit closer to the originals. I see this as the same as traditional processing, developing and printing of the image in photography. 

In terms of shooting, the hardest part is finding the best spot in the house with the right background / lighting to recreate the image. I realized that the best time of day for me to shoot is in the morning when I get the most natural light through my windows.

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This project made me realize what geniuses the Old Masters like Vermeer were at capturing natural light, centuries before photography or electric lighting.

Once I have found the right spot, setting up is quick because I have already planned the props / costume. The first thing after finding the right angle of the lighting is getting the height of the camera right.

Then the posture; the problem with using a timer is that you can’t see yourself posing and you must move out of position to go start the timer again. Plus, you only get 10 seconds to get back in pose, (you can use your watch but then you only have 3 seconds to hide the watch and pose).

When I was doing The Bather I had to run past the window wearing a towel, then drop the towel and get in position, all in under 10 seconds – not sure what the neighbors thought.

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Once I’m shooting it usually takes 20-30 shots to get it to a level I’m satisfied with. The last part is coming up with a name. I’m trying to keep a nod to the original in all the names.

How long does each image take to set up / take?
Some are quicker than others; setting up is usually less than 10 minutes, now that I have cleared space in my spare room. Then I’d say probably another 20 minutes jumping up and down to press the timer.

As I said, there is no comping done to the pictures, only color adjustment, so very little time is needed at that stage.

The only exception is the final picture in the series (see below at the end of the article) which is comped because I needed to appear in it twice.

How do you pick which paintings to replicate?
I want them to be funny. That’s the most important part. Some just come to me when I see something in the house that’s sparks an idea (e.g. the red rug on the Miro).

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Others, the idea came first and I tried to figure out if it was possible, like the Hirst sheep in the storage boxes or the Cattelan banana one, made out of sofa throws and blankets.

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How do you find the props to use?
Everything, so far, is something I found in the house. Yes, I have a lot of random junk!

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The Koons gold suit was an old costume from a company dinner.

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The crown for the Queen's Jubilee portrait was particularly hard to create; I ended up using belts, clips, Nespresso pods and a guitar strap.

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I also used food like lettuce, bungee cords, a stuffed cat, etc.

Which is your favorite re-creation so far and why?
Personally, I like the more abstract and ridiculous ones, like the Cattelan Banana, the Miro or the Hirst Sheep.

The most popular ones with my followers seem to be the more classical style images; I guess because with the natural light and detail they technically look better and closer to the original paintings.

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Have you tried to do any that just didn’t work out?
I kind of visualize them in my head before I get as far as setting them up. So, unless I have a clear plan, I don’t start setting up. I’ve had a few requests that I haven’t worked out yet (like Munch’s Scream).

Some are harder than others to get the posture right. For example, the Picasso guitarist is physically impossible.

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For the Keith Haring, the yoga mats were too small to pose totally accurately. And the banana was hard to get the blanket back in place with my arms inside. But that’s all part of the fun.

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Any more similar series lined up?
I am doing 22 for the 2022 Lockdown. I have one left to shoot*. I also did two topical ‘special edition’ one offs; one for the Queen’s Jubilee weekend and one spontaneous one when someone threw a cake on the Mona Lisa a couple of weeks ago.

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I’m contemplating Season 2, doing only requests, but that may mean having to buy some props. I have also shot videos for a lot of them but haven’t had time to edit and post on DouYin yet.

I'm also hoping I can find somewhere to print them up and exhibit them properly. Feel free to contact me on WeChat if you are interested in helping make that happen, or would like to purchase any of the images...

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*UPDATE: The series is now complete, and the final offering is a work of genius – and by genius, we are referring to Michelangelo and XiaoBaoLuo...

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Follow Small Paul’s artistic adventures on Instagram – and check out the full lockdown series – by searching smallsmallpaul or scanning the QR:

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Or search the #XiaoBaoLuo hashtag on Wechat / Facebook.

[All images courtesy of Small Paul]

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