Every now and then an artist will see a potential subject that just demands to be painted. For me, Paul Dickson came into that category as soon as I saw him. The term ‘full of character’ is something of a cliché, but one that perfectly describes his air of dishevelled bonhomie. If Ivan Kramskoi had received a commission to paint Falstaff, then Paul, I imagined, would have provided the ideal model.
Perhaps influenced by the informality of Paul’s demeanour, I decide to move away from the careful preparatory drawing I have employed for the first three portraits, and start with a much looser approach. The canvas has been prepared with a bright burnt sienna ground, and I work quickly with thin washes of flake white and burnt umber to establish broad areas of light and dark. Next I scrub in a thin background using a mixture of raw umber and earth green. Finally I draw in some of the darkest areas with a less diluted mixture of raw umber and lamp black. At this stage it is simply a rough sketch, and it is more important to convey a sense of vitality than to think in terms of accuracy. There is enough of a likeness in Paul #1 to leave me feeling that I can work on from here.
The next session starts with attention to the flesh tones. I use a thin glaze of Naples yellow and flake white for the highlights, and various mixtures of dark alizarin crimson and burnt umber for the shadow areas. The crimson comes from a box of Ferrario Van Dyck oils that somebody gave me many years ago. Ferrario call it ‘rose madder deep’. These oils have a beautiful consistency and I recommend trying them. I use the same dark crimson and burnt umber for the t-shirt, blending with fan brushes. I dig out some Ferrario sepia for the coat lining, and add a touch of it to some flake white for the woolly outer layer. I darken the green background and take this opportunity to reshape the outline of the hair. Using pale yellow ochre thinned with Sansodor I put some highlights into the beard, and then redraw the eyes and some shadow areas with burnt umber. At this stage it is starting to look like Paul…
Paul #2 needs a couple of days before I can continue, and I spend quite a bit of time in the studio watching paint dry and pondering an issue: it’s the dishevelment question. My overall aim is to get away from conventional images in the public mind of ‘the homeless’, and to represent my subjects in a more aspirational light – one that is much closer to the actuality of what St. Mungo’s Broadway achieves in terms of rescuing its clients from the exigencies of being on the street and sleeping rough. But Paul’s aura is resolutely chaotic and I can’t imagine conveying his character in a cleaned up form. Eventually I come back to thinking about Kramskoi, and how he would have sought to elevate his subject’s humanity by providing a psychological insight, representing a depth of character independent of the superficial elements of physical appearance. With this in mind the adjustments in Paul #3 are minor, but directed towards depicting somebody whose innate sense of humour provides a strong barrier against the damage that life can do.
Starting work again I concentrate at first on the eyes and mouth. I need to make subtle changes that convey a benign sense of mischief. This isn’t something that can be done in a single step, but rather acts as a guiding principle as I proceed. There really is an element of trial and error in this, and with Paul #4 I feel that I am having more success with the eyes than with the mouth. I decide to transfer attention to the beard and moustache, bringing in some highlights, and this is helpful in lightening the mood of the piece. Intuition takes a hand here: something tells me that the flat background of Paul #3 is an obstacle of sorts. I need to focus the viewer’s attention on the minutiae of the facial features. I thin some lamp black with Liquin and then rub it gently into the upper corners with a soft cotton cloth, grading it down towards the hair leaving the illusion of a halo of light around my subject’s head. Satisfied with this effect, I decide that it is time to start thinking about what to do with the hair…
I start by sketching in the hair with burnt and raw umber, mixing in flake white and pale yellow ochre for the highlights. The immediate effect of this is to change the apparent shape of the face, giving a much stronger likeness. I am referring to a number of photographs, and this improvement, checked out rather obsessively, I must admit, increases my confidence level to a marked degree. I work some darker areas into the beard with rigger brushes and then work on the eyes, trying to get a mischievous twinkle into them. I will have to correct their asymmetry, a legacy of the original drawing at Paul #1, but I defer this because I suspect that complete removal will undermine what I have just done. Intuition kicks in again and, after allowing the surface to dry, I decide to apply a glaze of Van Dyck brown (known as ‘Cassel earth’ in the Ferrario range) to the entire painting. I thin the paint with Roberson satin glaze medium, and then rub it into the surface firmly with a soft cotton cloth. I finish this stage by taking a clean cloth and wiping this glaze out of the highlights so that it only remains in the depressions in the canvas in these areas.
I’m getting fairly excited now as the painting starts to take on the look of a 19th century Russian piece. This impression is reinforced by the slight halo effect around the head, reminiscent as it is of traditional icon painting. Somehow that seems to fit the atmosphere around Paul quite perfectly. I get a little more symmetry into the eyes and then brighten the highlights. The shadow on the nose is adjusted, and then I work more highlights into the beard and hair. At this point I start to wonder whether the piece might be finished, and decide to put it aside for a while to think about it. There may be more I can do, but until I am sure exactly what, I don’t want to touch this piece again.