Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
I was asked to do a residency at the National Gallery in 1994, and almost on the first day I moved in they took The Ambassadors up to the restoration studio, and pretty much the day I moved out in 1996 it was brought back down. During my time there, I'd visit once a month to see the progress on it. They took off every vestige of painting that wasn't Holbein, so I saw it disappear, and then I saw it reappearing in the hands of the restorer. I think he repainted the anamorphic skull. For two years I was involved with that picture, the lifesize portrait of two young influential European ambassadors, and I learned all about it, but if I had to make a simple statement about why I like it – it's one of the most realistic pieces of portraiture that's ever been made.
I think this choice will come as a surprise to people as it's very uncharacteristic, but I like the minimalism of Kelly's work. Often the paintings are just a canvas with one colour, or two canvases simply painted and put together. My studio is like an extraordinary kind of museum, every surface is full, but I also have a secret love of minimalism. The concept of taking a canvas and painting it a single colour, like Yves Klein did with the blue paintings and Ellsworth Kelly has done in works such as the 1951 series Line Form Color, intrigues me.
Stanley Spencer, 1932
When I was a student at the Royal College of Art I used to see Stanley Spencer visiting his art dealer, Tooth's, often wearing a yellow sou'wester helmet even though it might be quite sunny. In 1956 my teachers organised a coach trip to the chapel Spencer had been commissioned to paint in memory of the "forgotten dead" who had perished in the first world war. We picked up Stanley Spencer in Cookham and he came with us to the chapel in Burghclere and talked for about three hours. At one point he said: "I don't know why you students are interested in me." The concept of taking a building and completely lining it with the most extraordinary large paintings is something that intrigued me. It's one of the masterpieces of his work, a great tour de force of mural painting.
William Nicholson, 1916
He is someone I admire for his fluid style, able to paint a jug with five marks using a loaded brush. The Hundred Jugs was provoked by his son, the abstract artist Ben Nicholson, when he painted a single jug. Nicholson senior asked, why one jug? Ben replied: Well, why don't you paint a hundred? So he took 100 mundane domestic objects, put them into a rather sordid barn setting, and made something beautiful of them, an exemplar of still-life painting. I love his pictures of single objects and landscapes as well – he's a painter that I look at wishing I could paint like that but knowing I can't.
Henri Matisse, 1911
The Red Studio, which depicts Matisse's studio by showing the negative space between his artworks, is the figurehead for a great body of French painting from that time, created by Matisse, Picasso, Dufy, Vlaminck and others. I think there's a kind of oddness about it because it was offered to the Tate but they turned it down for being too modern, and of course now it's one of the great classics of modern art and is in the MoMA in New York. Every so often you get a generation of great artists, and it happened to come together in Paris in the 1910s, maybe because of the first world war. A fantastic time in the history of art, and this painting is what emerges when I think of it.
Robert Rauschenberg, 1955
The later phase of my pop art was influenced by the American painter Jasper Johns, but I was also very interested in collage makers, and among them was Robert Rauschenberg. His enormous, three-dimensional collages went further than just making a picture: for instance, he put a clock into a painting, one that was actually working, so if you looked at it you could tell the time. Bed was such a simple statement: one morning in his studio he just took off the bedding from his bed, stuck the sheet and pillow down, stuck the American quilt down, and then painted over it. An extraordinary Duchampian breakthrough.
John Everett Millais, 1851-2
I've always been a tremendous admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites. Whenever I used to go to the old Tate, as it was when I was a student, their works were stuck in the basement, so I would always go down there. I was usually by myself, because very few people were interested in them, and I would sit in front of Ophelia, Christ in the House of his Parents and A Huguenot, all the great Millais paintings. I went on to read about their methods – the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais especially, put down a kind of wet ground and painted into that, so I learned an enormous amount about how to paint by looking at their pictures. Ophelia was the one I was most interested in and it remains a favourite.
Diego Velázquez, 1656
Velázquez's large picture about illusion, painted quite loosely but beautifully in mainly black, white and silver. Everyone who has studied it has got their own theory about what it represents and that's what makes it so enigmatic. I first saw it when I was awarded a scholarship to travel in Europe, during which time I went to the Prado in Madrid. It was early in the morning and I was the only person there. I stood in front of Las Meninas for about an hour, gazing at it.
Lucian Freud, 1981-3
This bridged his early paintings, which were very tightly figurative, almost photographic, and the way he went on to develop and paint in a much looser style. The idea of doing a transcription and putting it into a different form, taking the Watteau painting and including friends and acquaintances of his, dressing them in contemporary clothes and putting them into his studio, interested me. There's a sink in the corner, and the tap is dripping. He's painted running water. So you get this odd sense of something else happening in the picture, you're aware of time.
Bernard Perlin, 1948
An exhibition came over to Tate Britain in 1956 called Modern Art in the United States. There was a whole list of extraordinary paintings on show, and one of them was Orthodox Boys by Bernard Perlin, two little Jewish boys standing on a subway platform in New York, in front of a panel that's been completely covered in graffiti. Perlin was part of the magical realist group that consisted of Ben Shahn, George Tooker and Jared French, a school of painting that depicted realism that was also a kind of surrealism. They painted situations where magic was happening, but rather than inventing the magic, it was a kind of everyday magic.