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Yuriy Ushakov And the Sincerety of the Moment


With their expressive lively brushwork and the complex textural quality of the painting surface, the works by Yuriy Ushakov have always stood out at the student exhibitions organized by his alma mater, the Imperial Art Academy in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Considering his ability to perceive and capture the sitter’s personality, it did not come as a surprise that for the graduation project, the artist chose to create an entire gallery of portraits of his friends, as well as a lively and compositionally complex painting Friends, depicting a team of young artists full of enthusiasm, humour and high hopes for a long creative life.  Nor is it surprising that this bright, energetic series was chosen to open the graduation projects defence ceremony that day.

Yuriy Ushakov Kostya Russian Ark Gallery Oil Painting
Yuriy Ushakov Victor Russian Ark Gallery Oil Painting

Portrait of Kostya, 160 × 80 cm and Portrait of Victor, 160 × 90 cm. Artwork © Yuriy Ushakov. Artist in the Studio. Photo © Anton Orlov 

The Russian Ark  Yuriy, how did you come up with the theme for your graduation painting? 

Yuriy Ushakov  At the Art Academy, you normally choose the theme for your final project in the years preceding the sixth and final graduation year. In my case, such theme did not come easy. If you consider that your graduation project is supposed to sum up everything you learnt at the Art Academy, you normally try to choose a really serious, impressive topic. In my case, however, I decided not to try seem cooler than I am. A serious topic will not suddenly appear out of nowhere. 


So, I approached this problem with a different sense of responsibility. While studying at the Art Academy, you develop a certain rhythm in your work, and I did not want to lose that cadence. I wanted my graduation year to be a natural continuation of the previous years, so that when I graduate I could continue working in the similar manner.

I realized that nothing interests me just as much as the ever-changing world around me. I also realized that I was deeply in love with the portrait genre, and also loved my classmates to bits. So I simply chose to capture that moment in my life.

"My approach towards modernity is to keep my eyes open and, if possible, love this moment, as it will never repeat."


Preparatory Sketches for Friends. Artwork © Yuriy Ushakov. Graduation at the Saint Petersburg Art Academy. Photo © Yuriy Ushakov


In this artwork, Yuriy depicted a conversation among fellow artists in their workshop during a break. The artist employed an interesting composition, placing the friends around a small round table surmounted by a book and other vaguely identifiable objects. As for the book, it bears resemblance to the album on the artists’ mentor, Yuriy Kalyuta and his workshop.


Their poses are natural and relaxed. Two female figures sit opposite each other, leaning back on their seats. This dynamic arrangement gives more depth to the image. These two figures are also contrasting with the rest of the painting. The red skirt on one of the girls and the black outfit of the other create colour accents. The male figures are painted in a colour scheme that is more neutral and blends more with the interior.

Yuriy Ushakov Friends Diploma Painting Russian Ark Gallery Oil Painting Repin Art Academy
Yuriy Ushakov Friends Diploma Painting Russian Ark Gallery Oil Painting Repin Art Academy

Yuriy Ushakov, Friends, oil on canvas, 200 × 190 cm. Artwork/Photo © Yuriy Ushakov


All characters from Friends are easily identifiable in the individual portraits and studies.

Years of observing his friends allowed Yuriy to find an appropriate and unique compositional arrangement for each portrait. Some were planned out and some were rather accidental. Nevertheless, in each portrait, Yuriy intuitively manages to demonstrate his big gift - artistic insightfulness.

"I also painted portraits of my friends, who, like me were graduation-year art students at the time. It was a moment during the 2020 pandemic year when it was no longer necessary to self-isolate at home, but the Art Academy was still closed. The guys had been assigned a workshop outside the Art Academy building and it was still open. They let me in, allowed me to paint alongside them, and even kindly agreed to pose for me.

The main challenge was to determine how to paint each one of them. Together with each sitter we were looking for a suitable spot in the studio, a spot that could become an organic environment for the sitter and highlight their personality. I wanted to employ a background that would be rhythmical, harmonious, and visually engaging."


“For me, the main importance was finding the visual language which would be suitable for each sitter. Let’s take the portrait of Nastya Platunova. Every day walking through the Art Academy wing where the architectural department is located, I noticed an old architectural drawing board with a picture of a centipede painted on it in gouache. I got attracted by the texture of this strange and old golden piece of plywood with a massive centipede and thought it could become a perfect background for Nastya’s portrait, with her dreadlocks and bright orange clothes."

Yuriy Ushakov Friends Anastasia Diploma Painting Russian Ark Gallery Oil Painting Repin Art Academy


"I painted my friend Sergey in a corner of the studio, against a background of the portraits of miners that he had painted as part of the work for his graduation project. This produced a harmonious environment to bring out elements of his aesthetics and values in the portrait."

Yuriy Ushakov_Diploma_Sergey_160x90_2020


"Zhihai was painted in a manner literally containing some elements of his own style. He is fond of line drawing and created the background for this portrait himself. What an interesting task to paint a figure against such a background! This portrait also touches upon an important topic for me - the image of a contemporary."

Yuriy Ushakov Friends Zhihai Diploma Painting Russian Ark Gallery Oil Painting Repin Art Academy


"Nastya was painted sitting on a windowsill, backlit. In the distance were geometrical silhouettes of tree branches and a window casement. The light behind her outlined her profile, highlighting her collarbones and continuing along her arm. This, combined with the dark mass of her black dress, helped showcase the aristocratic side of her nature."

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RA  Do you consider portraiture as your main genre?

YU  I create artworks based on life observations, regardless of genre. Both a portrait and still life can evoke vivid emotions in me and I quickly transfer those to the canvas.

The principle reason and purpose of my activity is an internal need to react to the world out there. This need is devouring, wholesome, self-sufficient, and does not allow room to bring in any outside agendas. This need is akin to a spinning bicycle wheel, while the outside agendas are like a finger. The wheel needs to keep spinning, fuelled by reality. Placing an arrogant finger in its way will harm both. It is a pure experience of reality! I am a man of hope and don’t rely too heavily on the rational brain. I prefer to respond to the present moment.

Yuriy Ushakov, Portrait of Sergey, oil on canvas, 160 × 90 cm. Artwork/Photo © Yuriy Ushakov

Interestingly, in Yuriy’s works liveliness and spontaneity can also be seen in the way he treats the paint layer: his palette is rather limited with a large number of earth pigments on it, while a lot of attention is placed on the choice of ground and primer which help the artist achieve the desired effect; for example, creating velvety, smooth, or highly absorbent surface to paint on. His methods of applying the paint are diverse: he uses brushes of all possible sizes while also utilizing his fingers as well.

"I normally stretch my own canvas and prepare my own emulsion primer. The recipe of the primer will differ depending on the task at hand. The possibilities of the emulsion primers are wide, you can create vastly different surface quality. I rarely use turps in my work, the viscosity of the paint squeezed straight from the tube is what I usually need". —Yuriy explains.

Artist's Studio 2020-21. Artwork/Photo © Yuriy Ushakov

"I rarely use turps in my work, the viscosity of the paint squeezed straight from the tube is what I usually need."


Like many artists who enter the Art Academy, Yuriy was dreaming about painting like Surikov and Repin: creating large-scale, historical compositions with boyars, peasants and so on. But the gradual creative awakening he experienced at the Art Academy, the increasing self-awareness in terms of his own artistic interests, as well as perhaps a certain influence from the classmates, all helped Yuriy form his own pictorial language, which would not have flourished in the religious painting workshop he initially enrolled to. After being admitted to the Art Academy, he changed tutorship and joined the workshop of the master Yuriy Kalyuta, which sets different artistic and technical challenges to his students and, as Yuriy puts it, “instills interest towards life in all its manifestations.”

RA  At the learning stage, how much pressure shall a teacher put on their students? Is this pressure more effective than an absolute creative freedom?

YU  The pressure and challenges set by the teachers create a variety of experiences. One could see this pressure as a sort of attention. Constructive feedback, constant pushing for better results – these are exactly the things that take you to the next level, that allow you to try something new. This is a rare opportunity that we need to cherish; rarely we have a chance like this present itself again. There is nothing exciting about staying in your comfort zone.

When students come to the Art Academy, they are “blind”, it is only in the Art Academy that they learn to truly “see”. That is why in the beginning, they may not fully appreciate some of the tasks assigned to them. After some time, however, they start opening their mind and soaking in all the wisdom that the teachers can give them.

Artist's Studio 2020-21. Artwork/Photo © Yuriy Ushakov

Contrary to popular belief, academically-trained artists do not reject abstract art; rather, they understand just too well that at the heart of any painting – be it figurative or abstract – the same foundation can be found: formal composition, the artist’s unique way of dealing with the medium, and a certain level of authenticity.

Yuriy’s works possess a highly expressive energy and his interest in modern art was formed, oddly enough, by the Art Academy. In conversations with the artist, he refers quite a lot to the painters of the post-impressionism circle: Henri Matisse and Albert Marquet to name a few. Typically, Yuriy's works do not employ overly complicated compositions; many portraits seem to have started with an intricate and expressive line from which the painting developed.

With a good sense of humour, Yuriy explained to us why he chooses artistic intuition over logic: “Since I am not so lazy – or perhaps exactly because of my laziness – during the painting process I don’t calculate or measure everything with a compass and a ruler. Instead, I work quickly and expressively trusting my guts. If I start thinking logically, then my life will become unbearable: it would take me hours to decide which candy to buy for tea, let alone making all those complex decisions while painting”.

Despite this self-irony, when it comes to the act of creation, the artist allows no jokes. He treats the surface of the canvas with the utmost seriousness and respect, treating it like a living, ever-changing organism.

Various Sketches. Artwork © Yuriy Ushakov

"I want to paint all the things that are light, cheerful and are associated with happiness."


Yuriy's works lack conventional "prettiness", but are full of beauty which is illuminated by the deep understanding and sincere interest in the life happening here and now. It is precisely this pulsation of life, this simplicity and freshness that viewers appreciate in his works and sketches.


“Sometimes artworks are created as an act of overcoming, however, recently the painting has become a lot more meditative process for me. Things get painted by themselves. Also, I have little appetite to explore dark themes in my practice, on the contrary, I want to paint all the things that are light, cheerful and are associated with happiness."

Yuriy Ushakov_Diploma_Self Portrait_160x

Self-Portrait, 160 × 80 cm and other works. Artwork/Photo © Yuriy Ushakov

Text © Marina Golovneva for The Russian Ark. Artwork © Yuriy Ushakov, Photo © Yuriy Ushakov, Anton Orlov. All rights reserved