New project, new studio, back to working in oil… and the first portrait

In mid-2014 a number of things came together. I had built a new studio at the end of my garden and I had a new project to work on as artist-in-residence at the St. Mungo’s Broadway Trust: creating portraits of the trust’s clients, past and present, for an exhibition and charity auction. The new studio was important because I find it difficult to work systematically in oils without a dedicated space, and the project called for systematic working methods, being able to have several pieces in progress at any one time. I had been creating portraits of homeless people for several years, working in graphite, acrylic ink and watercolour. It was time for something a little more ambitious.The choice of the first portrait subject was a no-brainer: Gordon Chaston, a former client, was one of the first people I met at St. Mungo’s. A real character by any reckoning, he helped me recruit subjects and offered to write commentaries on them or do interviews for the exhibition. Thanks to Gordon I was off to a flying start.

Gordon 01
Gordon #1

I started off with a simple drawing on a burnt sienna ground, using raw and burnt umber with a thin flake white wash for the highlights. The thin wash of burnt Sienna seemed a little fierce so I pushed the pale yellow/green background in early on. I took my time getting this initial drawing right, concentrating on the relative positioning of the key features. I did this mainly in order to give myself a level of confidence around being on the right track. A friend stopped by and remarked on the fact that all the life drawing I had done in recent years seemed to be paying off. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but I suppose he was right. At this point it isn’t a painting, but rather a drawing done with oil paint. Having said that, I find the distinction between painting and drawing rather arbitrary, and one that I try to ignore as far as possible.

Gordon 02
Gordon #2

The next stage (Gordon #2) is the gradual laying in of a series of glazes and washes to build up a complexity of flesh tones. The first stage of my drawing had been done with a soft graphite pencil and I had forgotten to fix this before applying any paint to the canvas. As a result my washes picked up some of the graphite and gave a darker effect than I had intended. Not all of the consequences are negative, but I make a mental note not to repeat this error. Quite a bit of the burnt sienna ground is left in place as a mid-tone, allowing the warmth of its glow to show through subsequent layers of paint. The main concern at this stage is an overall tonal relationship, together with a gradual refinement of the features. As I go along I refine the drawing with the placing and adjustment of shadows using raw umber.

Gordon 3
Gordon #3

Now I’ve worked into the background to bring it a little closer to the shade of green that I want and made an important adjustment to the flesh tones  by glazing with caput mortuum. This isn’t an easy pigment to get hold of and I get mine in powdered form from Cornelissen, mixing it with stand oil and then a little Liquin to thin the glaze. The effect is an unusual one at this point with an almost metallic quality, but the rationale for it becomes clearer in subsequent stages as I use a further series of thin glazes that are much closer to natural skin tones. I am still refining the drawing and work on some of the shadow areas with burnt umber while the glaze is still wet. This is a delicate process and I tend to use much smaller soft sable brushes than most artists might usually choose.

Chuikov - The daughter of Soviet Kirgizia
Chuikov – The daughter of Soviet Kirgizia

Lots to think about now as it starts to become clear to me where the inspiration for this piece came from. I had taken dozens of photographs of Gordon, but I now know why I settled on this particular pose and expression. It had reminded me, subconsciously, of the work of Semyon Chuikov (1902-80), a Russian Socialist Realist painter whose work I first saw in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow in 1993. Chuikov’s most famous work, The daughter of Soviet Kirgizia, was the subject of a well-known Soviet postage stamp. In a move typical of the Socialist Realist school, the slight upward angle and the lighting create a heroic image out of an otherwise mundane subject. Gordon is a politically sophisticated individual with strongly egalitarian views. Somehow, I imagined him as a political commissar, painted by Chuikov in the 1950s…

Gordon 4
Gordon #4

With this now at the back of my mind I know what I need to do with the light to make the portrait work. I work briefly on the shirt using a mixture of cobalt blue and Prussian blue, and then concentrate on a series of thin glazes to build up the flesh tones into a more naturalistic look. I’m using burnt umber, burnt sienna, Naples yellow, cadmium red and flake white in various mixtures to achieve this. Between these glazes I redefine the darkest shadow areas with raw umber to retain the tonal balance. The application of the previous glaze of caput mortuum has acted as a warm grey underpainting for this stage. I note that as the relative strength of the highlights changes, so does the facial expression. It becomes important to stand back from the canvas periodically in order to retain control of this effect.

Gordon #5
Gordon #5

I now have a  clear direction in mind, and start to feel as though I’m on the home run. After further work on the background to make the green less chemical and more organic, I work on the hair with a simple palette of lamp black, raw umber and flake white. Then I lighten the blue of the shirt, improving the modelling of the fabric, while  changing the emphasis of the highlights so that they accord with what I have in mind  for the lighting of the face and neck. The first step here is a thin glaze of raw sienna with a touch of flake white. Before this glaze dries I work into it with touches of  flake white for the highlights (including a slight, but important, widening of the upper part of the nose) and a 50/50 mix of raw and burnt umber for the shadows.

Gordon Chaston
Gordon Chaston

All that remains is a series of final adjustments, particularly to highlights which need to be emphasised. Gordon comes to the studio for a final sitting, but there is less to do than I imagined. I am keen to ensure that I get some flavour of penetrating intelligence into his gaze – this is, after all, a man who teaches courses in astronomy and cosmology at the St. Mungo’s Recovery College (a unique and remarkable institution of which more in future posts). Finally, I decide that the piece is finished. Of course, there is more that I could do, but I now have the feeling that I’m just as likely to detract from the work as I am to improve it – a sure sign that it is time to stop.

The finished canvas measures 60cm x 80cm

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