Some subjects almost seem to paint themselves, their image is so distinctive and their presence so imposing. Krishna fell into that category for me, and I felt no hesitation in painting his portrait in one headlong rush, maybe two hours from start to finish. A larger than life character, his calm dignity suggests an inner melancholy, and it somehow came as no surprise to learn of his Tibetan ancestry. Here he tells his own story.
“After the death of my parents I went through a really depressing time, moving from hostel to hostel without much sense of purpose. I had an interview with St. Mungo’s and I was asked what I wanted to do, what I wanted to get to get out of St. Mungo’s. This made me think a lot, and I realised that I needed to gain in confidence and self-esteem. I was sceptical at first, but I agreed to become involved. There were meetings and my confidence grew, then more meetings and I enrolled in the Recovery College. I took courses in assertiveness and self-esteem, and from there I became an enroller myself, visiting hostels and encouraging other people to get involved in the College. I am trying to improve my CV through volunteering so that I can seek employment. Budgeting is my real Achilles heel, and I am working to address that. I’m in semi-independent accommodation now, and my target is full independence. I am more confident about my own future now.”
Back to work after a long break, and I’m tackling a subject that has given me some problems. I did a photo session with Tracy early in the project and I was convinced that I would be able to produce something really interesting. However, the raw material I had just didn’t seem to be adequate. I reviewed the images over and over, doing a number of initial drawings based on them, but at no stage did I feel that I was getting close to what I needed to convey. Worse, I couldn’t decide what was wrong. Eventually I abandoned the portrait and waited until I could set up a second photo session, hoping that I could get some new material that would prove to be more productive, triggering a solution. At this second attempt, Tracy had changed her hair, both style and colour, and for whatever reason seemed to have grown in confidence. Reviewing the material, I felt that her personality seemed to come across much more strongly. There was a real attitude in evidence, one that revealed a complexity and depth of character.
The initial drawing in Tracy 01 is sketchy and not anatomically correct (the ear is too small!), but it is sufficient for me to work with. The painting moves along surprisingly quickly, not quite alla prima, but certainly much faster than some of the early ones in the project. In order to harmonise the piece I have used the Prussian blue of the background to create shadows, while allowing the pink underpainting to show through for the mid-tones to give the flesh-tones a glow. The result is one of exaggerated naturalism, something I need to tone down in the final stages. The important thing at this stage is that I have retained and developed that distinctive gaze that Tracy returns to the viewer.
The portrait is completed with the addition of a series of glazes to correct the flesh-tones, together with some further definition of the hair. I have also added in the tattoo, the faded blue of which had originally given me the idea for the background. The difficulties that I experienced with this piece are indicative of a core issue when working from photographs: it is never enough to rely on one’s ability to recreate what a photograph shows, translating the reference onto canvas with paint. The photographic references themselves have to be sufficiently good, conveying attitude and character, to support and inspire the artist’s efforts.
The finished canvas measures 24 inches by 30 inches.
I did a photo session with Tanya last year and got several good images, but for some reason I put them aside and waited. I wasn’t quite sure why. The reason was to emerge rather slowly after I started work. This sequence is a classic instance of proceeding entirely by intuition. I had prepared a number of canvases with a pinkish red earth ground, and it was only when I had done this that I felt ready to get started. Something about the soft warmth of the ground seemed right. The initial drawing in burnt umber went well and I was immediately encouraged to do some further work on highlights with raw sienna, mixed with a little of the Roberson extra pale Naples yellow that I now frequently use instead of white. With a thin wash of burnt umber this established the preliminary modelling for the features. I then spent a few days just coming to terms with Tanya #1, trying to figure out where to go next, and why the image already felt so compelling.
My next move was instinctive. I started to think about old sepia photographs, the way that ones taken in photographic studios and then printed postcard size would often have dreamy, indeterminate backgrounds. Using a mixture of warm Van Dyck brown thinned with turpentine, I took a cotton cloth and rubbed it gently into the background with a series of swirling movements. I then returned to modelling the facial features, using the same colours as for Tanya #1,bringing the mouth and eyes in properly. When Tanya #2 was completed I spent even more time looking at it, this time under different lighting conditions. It was in dim light, with Tanya staring back at me, that I started to recognise a memory that the image was triggering.
I used to listen to lots of blues recordings from the twenties and thirties, reissued in compilations on exotic American specialist labels. Their 12″ covers would frequently be based on monochrome photographs from the period. Tanya #2, was like one of these covers, even down to the enigmatic gaze of their subjects – a slightly defiant self-assurance, as though challenging the camera to penetrate an invisible defensive screen. With the help of a friend in San Francisco I was able to locate an image that instantiated something of this idea- the image of Bessie Smith even showing a marked facial resemblance to Tanya, with the same hairstyle.
And sometimes that’s all it takes to pin down the idea that unlocks the path to take with a portrait – finding the right memory, the right image or the right thought. My first, and easiest, decision was to maintain the monochrome character of the piece, and avoid overworking its surface. Working in a hinterland somewhere between painting and drawing I continued modelling the face, bringing it to a higher state of chiaroscuro, and creating a smoother effect. After this the hair and T-shirt were both straightforward. While nowhere near as ‘worked up’ as most of the other pieces in the project thus far, I feel that it carries just as much force as the others. In fact, as of writing, it is my favourite.
The finished canvas measures 24 inches by 30 inches.
I have written about the importance of reflecting Nichola’s personality in this portrait, and completing the painting involved a tricky combination of accomplishing this rather ill-defined task while carrying out some more routine work. The easy part was the clothing, getting a more three dimensional effect and toning down the scarf with some more convincing shadows. I decided to change the flesh tones a little while doing the final modelling of Nichola’s facial features, working to get more of a ‘glow’ into her appearance. This contributed to the atmospheric effect I was looking for, but still something seemed wrong. It took over a week for me to identify the problem, keeping the work nearby while I worked on other canvases, returning frequently to glance at it briefly, as though trying to catch my subject unawares and reveal a hidden secret. This is typical of the sort of psychological game the portrait artist sometimes has to play in order to get at an idea or approach that remains buried beneath the surface of analytical thought. Eventually this off-beat approach bore fruit: in focusing on the subject’s direct gaze I realised that it implied that her attention would be on the viewer – this worked against my desire to convey the atmosphere around her. I wanted, needed, her to be thinking of something else, something slightly intangible. Working exclusively on the eyes, and on the positioning of the irises, I moved Nichola’s gaze into an indeterminate space that suggests, perhaps, an air of wistfulness, an inner world of her own. We can’t tell what she is thinking about, but we know it’s not us.
The completed canvas measures 30 inches by 48 inches.
In my previous post I had brought my portrait of Patrick up to a level where I could see my way quite clearly through to completion. Toning down the scarf, adjusting rest of the clothing and bringing in the hair were all straightforward tasks. Similarly, adjusting the flesh tones only required a few simple glazes. Patrick is a formidable character whose strength of will has underpinned a dramatic change in his fortunes since he first came into contact with St. Mungo’s. At a recent event in support of the charity he gave a remarkable speech (although he would prefer to call it a ‘little talk’), and he kindly agreed to let me publish it here:
“I am a member of Outside In, which is St. Mungo’s Broadway’s client involvement group. I joined Outside In to get active, learn new things, move away from isolation and hopefully inspire others with my own story of recovery. Outside In makes my former life and experience feel valuable, as St. Mungo’s Broadway consults me, as a result of my experience, on how projects should operate and how the organisation and its clients should move forward together. I was asked to speak today about the health and wellbeing of Homeless People. I thought the best thing I could do is share my story with you. When I became homeless I was in a very dark place due to a traumatic experience that remained untreated. I was very lucky to come across St. Mungo’s Broadway when I arrived at a residential project in Haringey. With a stable home St. Mungo’s Broadway has given me the opportunity to overcome past experiences that pushed me to end up homeless. That experience was eight years ago. I was kidnapped and subjected to torture over three days. This had a very negative effect on my wellbeing. I didn’t know who could help me and I developed a dependency on substances to deal with the anxiety, loss of self-esteem, loss of confidence, loss of dignity. All this ultimately led to the loss of my home. After finding accommodation in a St. Mungo’s Broadway hostel, I eventually felt able to share my experience with staff whom I trusted. After telling Outside In staff about this experience they offered t refer me to talking therapy with a psychotherapist, which I decided to try. I have found that this has started to help and given me a new way of dealing with my emotions. They also encouraged me to value my strengths and have helped me to develop my own photography course that I lead at St. Mungo’s Broadway Recovery College in Southwark. I am also now planning to lead some peer support groups in our residential projects. It is all these different opportunities that start to add up to feeling like I have a life of purpose in which I am happier.
“St. Mungo’s Broadway, together with Outside In, is now campaigning about the health and wellbeing of homeless people with Homeless Health Matters. Poor health is a fact of life for many people who are homeless. Almost twice as many people who use homelessness services have long-term physical health problems and mental health diagnoses compared to the general public. These shocking health inequalities have no place in our society. I would like to thank St. Mungo’s Broadway for believing in me, and for empowering me to make a stepping stone to change my life. I am now a more confident person who believes you can overcome bad situations with the right support.
“Thanks to everyone who came this evening. I would not be able to finish without mentioning Andy Williams who has been my main mentor and inspiration for making my life better.”
I was pleased with the start I made on Patrick’s portrait, the likeness was apparent from the initial drawing, and I found myself working to preserve a mood rather than create one. Work on the three stages of the portrait shown in this post was carried out intermittently over an extended twelve week period, interrupted at one point by a trip to Hong Kong and Australia. I took several images with me so that I would have plenty of thinking time to plan subsequent work on the portrait. My first move was to work in a neutral background and to echo some of the background colour in shadow glazes for the flesh tones. At Patrick #2 the flesh tones were given an exaggerated redness, and at Patrick #3 you can see how I have glazed over these (using various combinations of raw Sienna, gold ochre and pale Naples yellow) to create a more natural, less florid, effect.
The next step was to work on Patrick’s eyes, mainly to give me further guidance on the overall effect of the portrait. I have written about the complexity of my subject’s character, and I wanted to show this in the eyes, emphasising their steely light. Once this was done, I reverted to building up the complexity of the flesh tones, working in a variety of reds and yellows. I took the unusual step of using Payne’s grey in some of the shadows, an intuitive move, perhaps influenced by a wish to harmonise with the neutral background I had chosen. There is a plethora of ‘rules’ for painting, and for painting portraits in particular. It is a good idea to internalise as much of this information as possible, but sometimes even more important to break away and just follow pure instinct.
With Patrick #4 I had reached a stage with the flesh tones where I needed to bring in the clothing before making any further adjustments. This is just a personal quirk of mine, finding it easier to judge pitch and key when there is more surrounding, contextual, information to go on. As soon as I had done this I felt dissatisfied with the hue of the background and went over it with a thinnish glaze of Michael Harding Italian green umber, a beautiful earth colour to work with. These changes made it much easier to work on the flesh tones, and I went through a gradual process of lightening the surface, allowing the underpainting to continue to have its influence. Patrick #5 feels close to completion, but there are still some major issues to resolve…
“I had a very strict upbringing, always surrounded by adults, so that when I went to school I had difficulty adjusting and couldn’t stand up for myself, but I didn’t realise it was a problem, I just thought that’s the way things are. I didn’t do well educationally, and I got a lot of criticism from my parents. I think that’s when I started to lose self-esteem.
“I came to London to work in my twenties, and again I had difficulty adjusting – that’s something that has continued throughout my life. I ended up homeless because of people taking advantage of me, staying in my flat and not paying rent, things like that. I got into some temporary accommodation and Southwark Council put me on their ‘vulnerable’ list. They put me in a hostel in Peckham, but it was full of drug takers and alcoholics, making things really difficult for me – you could call it ‘socialising with the wrong people.’ Things started to change for the better when I moved into a semi-independent house and it was taken over by St. Mungo’s. In 2012 I joined Outside In, and this really helped me to understand my own problems more. I’ve learned some important life skills, how to relate to other people properly, and through psychotherapy, I’ve been able to improve my relationship judgments – how to stand up for myself, not be too trusting, and deal with people who have caused me problems. Because I was so lonely, I would accept anything, but I’ve learned how to question people and exercise judgment.
“Now, I’m involved in a lot of voluntary work: doing regular reception sessions at the Recovery College; fundraising work at Griffin House; going into hostels and talking to clients about new services; working on the Recovery Approach scheme to help hostel staff give better service to clients.
“My plan for the future is simply to create a better life for myself. I’m starting to build healthy relationships with other people, and to gain confidence. I’m hoping to go to college and study book-keeping and business administration. I need to start coming to terms with life outside St. Mungo’s, and I’ve just joined the Choir With No Name. Soon I plan to join Cardboard Citizens. It’s all about buildng a different type of life.”