The first thing I noticed about John was his excellent profile. I could easily imagine his image on a Roman coin, so I took a series of photographs, deliberately posing him in an attitude that echoed this thought. I drew a profile on the canvas in graphite, and then decided to get the background in straight away. I just wanted to be able to see that silhouette and how it might work against its background before making any other decisions. I am still working on two other pieces, and the relatively easy task of setting up John #1 gives me some valuable thinking time. I find that working on a single piece can result in a self-imposed pressure to make progress. With several pieces in progress I can allow pure intuition to guide me as to what to work on at any particular point in time.
After some further graphite drawing I get started on the head. The initial flesh tones are rather exaggerated. I am using a basic mixture of Venetian red and burnt sienna. Highlights and shadows are achieved with flake white and burnt sienna blended into this mixture in varying amounts to give the required tones. I also work a thin green glaze into the background. This brings the head forward and creates a feeling of depth, even at this early stage. This initial modelling of the features is taken fairly slowly and seems to go well, giving me a degree of confidence that I’m on-track. I can already visualise the final piece, and, importantly, the path to completion. I need to play these little psychological games with myself – there is nothing worse than standing in the studio confronted by a series of canvases and not knowing what to do next.
One of my favourite quotations is from the Italian artist Francesco Clemente: “I paint because I have to be astonished, and there aren’t things in the world that astonish me enough.” This comes close to describing the sense of surprised excitement I sometimes feel as a portrait begins to take shape and have a life of its own. I start to under-paint the hair and darken the back of the neck with raw and burnt umber, then lighten the flesh tones and the background with thin velaturas of flake white and Naples yellow. When I return to the studio the next day and look at John #3 I am surprised by the way the character of the piece has changed, and excited to find that I am seeing skin where I had previously seen only paint. This motivates me to carry straight on with the piece, driven by the sense of astonishment that Clemente described.
Working quickly and rather loosely, I darken the hair further with a mixture of lamp black and raw umber, trying to get a little more form into this area. I then switch to the t-shirt, carefully modelling the shadows and folds with thin glazes of Payne’s grey, and then, laying in flake white for the highlights. I use a small sable fan brush to blend these areas together and get the fall of the light looking as natural as possible. Taking stock of the overall effect, I decide to go back into the hair with a mixture of Payne’s grey and flake white. This unifies the painting somewhat by keeping a similar ‘temperature’ to the shadows in both the hair and the t-shirt. I think this cooling down is necessary to offset the subject’s rather florid complexion, an impression that I want to preserve.
First, I make some adjustments to the modelling of the ear. Then, for the next stage of the hair I make a thin mixture of flake white, a touch of Payne’s grey, Sansodor and a small amount of Liquin. I use sable rigger brushes to apply the paint with thin strokes in different directions, building up an impression of hair that hasn’t been too rigorously combed. The process requires a degree of discipline: I have to make sure the brush is not too heavily loaded in order to prevent the initial strokes being too thick; these strokes give a bright effect that is suitable for highlights, but because the mixture is thin, the final strokes from each loading are translucent and more suitable for the darker areas, particularly those at the back of the head. I concentrate on getting the overall tonal balance of the hair right rather than achieving a finished effect.
At this final stage I need to make a series of important adjustments. The background has to be rebalanced to fit with the direction of the principal light source to the left of the canvas. Then, using the rigger brushes again, I have to turn up the contrast of the hair: highlights in pure flake white, and shadows with pure Payne’s grey thinned with just enough Sansodor to run freely from the brush. Finally, I decide that the skin tone is too red – a judgment that only becomes clear when the other parts of the painting are complete. I make up a very thin glaze of Naples yellow and raw Sienna with stand oil and fine detail Liquin (quite runny compared with the gelatinous composition of the standard product), and float this over the skin areas with fan brushes. Clemente’s words come back to me again as I decide that the portrait is completed.
The finished canvas measures 70cm x 100cm