David Adamson talks with the illustrator and artist about his exhibition at The Edge in Chorlton

If you've found yourself in an artwork-laden cafe in Manchester and had a cursory glance at the walls there's every chance your eyes have landed on an illustration by Stanley Chow. 

His distinctive style - cartoon portraits of figures from film and television, football and everything in between, including Andy Burnham - has been a hit with many in Manchester and beyond.

Ahead of his exhibition at The Edge Arts Centre in Chorlton - Stanley Chow Presents a Random Selection of his Illustrations featuring people from Film, Stage & TV - he chatted with David Adamson about micro-expressions, Mona Lisa and the power of panini stickers.

2024 02 26 Stanley Chow Interview Patrons
Portraits including The Edge patrons John Thompson, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Mark Rylance Image: Confidentials

David (D): Hi Stanley, so tell me why you decided to hold an exhibition of your work here at The Edge.

Stanley (S): Well my friend Tony Husband [who sadly died in October last year] had an exhibition here and so I thought it'd be nice to follow in his footsteps. It's also nice to have an exhibition in the suburbs, because the city centre is growing so quickly and it doesn't really need any more stuff like this. I think all the suburbs since lockdown need a helping hand and it's important to get people out to places like this. Every venue in every suburb needs support really. Besides, I feel like I'm too old for the city centre.

D: How does it feel to see it all laid out? 

S: I can relax now. It was tricky because I've done literally thousands of pictures, so it was fun trying to pick out a handful and having to narrow a thousand down to 30 pictures. Hard but fun. It was nice to have a look at some pictures I've not seen for a few years. Some are from ten years ago. 

D: What accounts for what you decide to keep? For instance if you have three of a similar ilk, what makes you decide on one? 

S: Well in this instance, because we're in a theatre, I felt like it'd be good to make it themed and have them all be actors. I've got a permanent exhibition in town at the Great Northern, and that's got people like Victoria Wood, Ian McKellen and Maxine Peake, so they don't need to be exhibited here. Some pictures I feel like I've got the likenesses a bit better and then there's some TV shows which I like more than others. 

For example, Succession comes to mind and I think most people that watched it can agree it was a great TV show, but while it was on you just couldn't stop thinking about it, so that meant it went in. Edward Woodward is also in there because I recently bought the box set of the 80s TV show The Equaliser, so because it was fresh in my mind I thought it would be a good one to include.

2024 02 26 Stanley Chow Interview Succession
Logan Roy et al Image: Confidentials

D: What interests me is how you've managed to put across a sense of each person's character; a bit of the essence of the person. Is it something about someone's face? How is it that you find the centre of what you're then going to create?

S: Well the template I use is the Mona Lisa, which obviously is just a still face. So my MO is to get the still image and the likeness first, then all you have to do is just slightly change, for instance, the eyebrows and then you've got a slightly angrier person, like Brian Cox for example; I started off with him as simply a still face, then I moved the eyebrows down a bit, and that just kind of captured his character as we know it. 

D: I love the expression on the Alan Partridge portrait. 

S: Yeah, the smugness. With certain people's expressions, you look at them and it's all micro expressions. You can look at someone and it could be that their mouth moves by literally a couple of millimetres, and you know they're happy. With Partridge it's the eyebrow of course, so it's just about trying to get those more subtle touches, but the most important thing is to make sure it looks like the person and once you've got that likeness right then you can worry about the rest.

2024 02 27 Stanley Chow Exhibition Partridge
Alan Partridge Image: @stan_chow / Instagram

D: What's especially difficult to capture in people?

S: The difficult ones are people like Jim Carrey.

D: Someone with a really expressive face?  

S: Exactly. You look at photographs of them for reference, and there's not one picture that looks the same as he pulls so many different faces that I don't know which one to decide on. So I'm not even attempting Jim Carrey yet because I know he's gonna be hard. One other person is Chris Rock, he's similar to Jim Carrey; he's got a really rubbery face so he was very difficult.

2024 02 26 Stanley Chow Interview Variety 2
Familiar faces Image: Confidentials

D: I'm interested to know if you'd ever do scenes? 

S: I've done commissions in the past a bit like that but I think I've found my niche really, and I'm essentially pretty lazy. (Laughs).

People like what I do so I don't see the need to mess around with it, and I love portraits. Ever since I was about 11 or 12 I've always had a postcard or print or a variation of the Mona Lisa somewhere in the house because I had an obsession with it, and still do. Then at the same time, from the age of eight or nine onwards, I've been collecting Panini football stickers, and I let those two things be part of what I do now.

D: So is it that in framing someone it makes the parameters of what you're doing clear?

S: Yeah, and I just like the composition of it. Plus when people ask me for work they know what they're getting. If they're going to hire me, 99% of the time I know they want the Stanley Chow head and shoulders portrait. 

D: The other aspect of Panini albums is the squad photo as well, have you done one of them? 

S: I did the United '99 Treble Winners, and I've been meaning to do another squad, but it takes so long. It's really labour intensive to stick on the same project and do 20 portraits of people all on the same team, so I very rarely do it. 

D: So you wouldn't do the Man City squad? 

S: I've done a handful of city players. Just because I'm a professional (laughs). I can put my allegiances aside; if someone asks me to do Pep Guardiola I can do it. 

'Stanley Chow Presents a Random Selection of his Illustrations featuring people from Film, Stage & TV' is being displayed at The Edge Theatre and Arts Centre in Chorlton until 30th May.

Prints of varying sizes are also available to purchase.

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