What is it about a likeness that delivers instant recognition? There can be no quick or easy answer to this question, and portrait artists frequently devote an inordinate amount of effort to making small adjustments to their work in pursuit of this fugitive ideal. Sometimes the accumulation of these adjustments has an effect directly opposite to that sought, and the image seems to move further and further away from a true likeness – as often as not because the focus has been on successive corrections carried out within an overall framework that will never stand up to scrutiny because the original structure lacks anatomical accuracy. My usual way of avoiding this cul-de-sac is to front-load effort into initial drawing so that subsequent adjustments do not have unwanted knock-on effects on the relative positioning of other features. Richard #1 looks like a casual graphite drawing, but it is the product of an obsessive process of measuring and re-measuring. I won’t even think about using paint until I am confident that face and hands have been set up accurately in a way that won’t cause me problems further on.
I have started this piece with an experiment: darkening the corners of the canvas with acrylic aerosol colours, even prior to the initial graphite drawing. It is a purely intuitive move, and I’m not entirely sure why I’ve done it – perhaps to play a little psychological trick on myself, enforcing a stronger focus on the initial drawing of the face and the stages immediately following it. Richard #2 is a straightforward continuation of the drawing process, using paint to work over the graphite, fixing and developing the image in a more definite way. The phrase ‘elusive geometry of recognition’ comes from an excellent little book ‘Painting Portraits’ by Anthony Connolly. Unusually for an artist of his quality, Connolly is a talented writer. At this stage I really am wrestling with the elusive geometry of recognition, picking out the elements of Richard’s facial features that seem to define his character, and trying to give them enough emphasis to capture his individuality. Take this process too far and the portrait lapses into caricature.
Time to start work on the flesh tones now. For Richard #3 I am using a palette of Van Dyck brown, Venetian red, Naples yellow, pale yellow ochre, rose dore, and flake white. As I make small changes it becomes apparent that the area of the mouth is most important in conveying Richard’s personality. His face settles naturally into a quizzical half-smile, as though there is a private joke that he is permanently on the verge of sharing with us. Keeping hold of this impression will be an essential aspect of establishing and retaining the likeness. I should point out here that I don’t really know how objective this assessment is. I have held the view for some time that it is possible to learn most about another person by looking at their mouth, particularly the way that the tiny muscles that control facial expression have shaped this area of the face, etching an emotional history into its lines, depressions and extrusions. Is this the way things really are, or merely my own way of weighing up other people? Whatever the truth, I am convinced that this plays a crucial role in the elusive geometry of recognition.