Julian Opie – Trying Out for World Domination

Paper Heads, 2019. Photo: Novakart.com
Paper Heads, 2019. Photo: Novakart.com

Graphic artist Julian Opie is a mixture of an artist; graphic engineer, architect and sculptor, modern-day sculptural emoji maker: modern and complex but also simple to understand.

Filmmaker and digital artist, born in 1958 in London, Opie’s artwork is typically English but in a contemporary pop art way; famous for the cover of Blur’s Best of Album and his portrait of Sir James Dyson, the vacuum cleaner magnate for the National Portrait Gallery.

Opie graduated from Goldsmiths University, where he studied conceptual art, taught by contemporary artist Michael Craig-Martin, whom he credits with influencing him, along with Joshua Reynolds, an influential 18th-century painter and Antony Van Dyke famous Flemish artist: showing us his vision of classical meets contemporary.

Interestingly, these traditional styles of painting have been used by Opie to stylise his subjects, seating them in a poise reminiscent of Van Dyke, but in a modern 1980s fashion sense.

His methodology is to create ultra-modern portraits with heavy lines and almost no detail giving them a cartoonesque appeal, Opie’s mission is to make his subjects immediately recognisable but with the bare minimum of detail.

Early Life Inspiration

Opie credits his daughter for early inspiration. Talking in a YouTube clip in 2019 he cites a child’s wooden farmyard characters from a playset as the point in which he started to form his style. These flat wooden cutouts with painted depictions of sheep and cows were reproduced for an exhibition of cutout sculptures at NGV Melbourne.

Julian Opie. Photo: projectmarta.com

Over the years this concept moved on to people, and a combination of the cutout style and everyday symbols. For example, the everyday signs used to depict male and female toilets that have become his trademark.

Technology and Art

Opie is a master of integration, using LED lights, voice recording and film to give his 3D installations a life of their own. Surprisingly, with all this technology, Opie still paints the outlines of every painting, installation and sculpture by hand.

His vision is to immerse the viewer and to take from the mundane to the intricate by focusing on the small details and gestures of his sitters. The work is mainly reproduced from photographs taken of strangers who do not know that they are the focus of his work.

Pop Art Culture  

Opie has designed many public projects around the world including 2012 exhibition in the Lindon Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in London. In this prestigious private wing of St Mary’s Hospital Opie has forty panels of art, all-black line drawings on perspex of people walking from A to B or babies crawling—this is apt for a maternity hospital and captures the mood exactly. 

As part of the Lumiere London festival in 2016, the streets of London were lit up by 3D productions of interactive installations projected on the walls of famous buildings. In a piece called ‘Shaida Walking,’ the animated portrait is of a female character walking towards Carnaby Street. As a piece of street art, the project remains in a permanent installation today.

Walking in London 1, 2014. Photo: fineartmultiple.com

Fast forward to 2020 with an exhibition at the Krakow Witking Gallery, and the animated steel sculptures called Elena, Mark, Tin and Kiri. Here we see a colourful group of characters running grouped together. This is obviously a computer-generated experience and is one of many portraits of walkers and joggers who aren’t in running clothes and it’s no clear where they’re running too.

Witking is offering these continuous computer-animated works for sale but are they suitable for a home installation? Wouldn’t you be tempted to shout, “For God’s sake, sit down!”? 


Over 24 installations are housed permanently in the Tate Gallery, London, along with 4 portraits of the famous ‘Blur’ band members, Sir James Dyson and a self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) New York has 6 works and others are on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, also in London, and in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


Opie is not without his critics. Christopher Allen of The Australian talks about Opie and says he has “a limited repertoire of tricks”, and described his work as “slight and ultimately commercial, if not actually kitsch”. 

Personally I like this combination of simple but ultimately clever artwork: combining painting with film and light is modern, yet weirdly retro. A nod to Warhol, Kloon and L.S Lowry with a little Keith Haring thrown in for good measure Julian Opie said he was trying out for world domination, I’m just not sure it’s this world he’s talking about.

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