I first encountered Patrick when he gave a brief talk at the 2014 St. Mungo’s Broadway Christmas Carol Service. His words were brief but heartfelt, hinting at a real depth of character. I met him subsequently, just after Christmas at the enrolment sessions for the Recovery College. These sessions are invariably an eye-opener, and a great opportunity for me to meet a cross-section of the Trust’s clients, some of whom become portrait subjects. The work done by the College is really quite extraordinary, and is one of those experiments the success of which is testament to the determination of so many of the Trust’s clients to get their lives back on track. The BBC did an excellent piece on it here, including an atmospheric photo of an earlier portrat subject of mine, David Lawrence. I start work on my portrait of Patrick with a simple brush drawing in thinned burnt umber, an initial attempt to get the landmarks of his face in place on canvas. Patrick #1 is anatomically accurate, and even manages to capture something of his resolute individualism.
Meeting Patrick and talking to him was a real pleasure. Sometimes the best way of starting a portrait is to have a conversation with the subject, watching carefully as different moods and emotions change their features and the atmosphere around them. Talking to Patrick reveals a character of considerable complexity, with strong, sophisticated political opinions and a mercurial charm. At the same time he has a real creative spirit, currently manifested in his interest in photography. In that respect we are certainly kindred spirits. After talking to him for a short while I wasn’t surprised to discover that is he running a course in photography at the Recovery College. In Patrick #2 I have developed the initial drawing further, using burnt sienna and yellow ochre diluted with white spirit. The aim is to work up a warm-toned underpainting for the flesh tones, while starting to model the features in terms of the fall of the light.
Progress had been quite good on this one and I had been looking forward to moving it along. I needed to do some work on the hands, modelling them further to get a more natural look, and this was the focus for Richard #4. At this stage something unsettling occurred. Within a few days of each other, two people saw the piece and independently made the same comment – “It looks like a Pope!” This was not something that for which I was prepared, and I have to admit it rather threw me. I briefly entertained the notion that they might be reacting to a subconscious association with Velasquez’s extraordinary portrait of Pope Innocent X, perhaps responding to a connection between Richard’s wry smile and Innocent X’s knowing sneer. I soon abandoned this idea when I realized how much pressure I would be putting on myself as I completed my own portrait. Velazquez is a great role model, but such similarities are better discovered ex post than sought ex ante. Anyway, Richard’s posture is far too casual for a Pope isn’t it?
With some work done on the hands and some pale glazes to improve the flesh tones in the face, I reach another impasse. After a while I realise that I need to get the background, any background, painted in. Reaching this point where I need to get the background in is always pivotal, and it can come at any stage, almost at random. I think it is something to do with situating the figure in space, providing some sort of spatial context for what I am looking at as I work. In this case the hands and face were strangely disembodied, unrelated to each other, until the background came in. Now, with Richard #5, I feel more comfortable about the whole thing and can see where to go next with it. One thing is immediately apparent, the dark green background seems to have intensified Richard’s gaze, so that I don’t feel the need to worry about the face for a while. The overall impact of the figure has become far more important.
Further work on the clothing will help with getting the outline of the hands resolved, so that becomes the focus for Richard #6 after lightening the green background. The folds of the blue T shirt are a really important aspect of this piece. Their positioning, and the resultant story they tell through the fall of the light on them, is the only clue we can have as to the way his weight is distributed and the sense of tension or relaxation in his posture. The significance of this cannot be overstated: it conveys a message that has a subconscious knock-on effect on the way we interpret his facial expression. These considerations may seem surprising, but I am sure that they play an important part in portraiture – the question of body language is not confined to real-life situations. If the portrait artist is depicting more than just head and shoulders, then the subject’s posture becomes a factor in the way the viewer ‘reads’ his or her psychological state. Inattention to this fact can convey conflicting messages and undermine the impact of the piece.
Thinking about the painting in this way means that the natural step to take next is to complete the clothing and chair – I need to do this anyway in order to finish resolving the outer shape of the complex form of the clasped hands. The colour mix for faded denim jeans is always a tricky one to get right. I’ve tried a number of things in the past, with varied degrees of success. This time round I use Prussian blue with a little dark carmine red, and then add varying degrees of flake white to get the right tones. After some trial and error I’m comfortable with the results. For the dark jacket I use a combination of Payne’s grey, charcoal grey and flake white. The darkest shadows are achieved with a mixture of charcoal grey and a little Prussian blue. I work wet-in-wet using fan brushes to blend the dark and light areas to get a natural gradation of shade and tone. The results are gratifying: casual clothes and a relaxed pose. Attention to the face and hands next…
A few weeks back I couldn’t see where to go next with this one, and I thought it might be finished. I put it away for a while and looked at it again – always a good thing to do when undecided about a piece. Coming back to it I felt that some changes were needed, but still couldn’t identify them. After looking at it closely each day for a week or so, two thoughts emerged: I Needed to change the balance of the light, and I needed to get a little more mischief into the expression. The first step was to strengthen the highlights, putting more light into the piece overall, concentrating on the flesh tones. With this accomplished, I had to deal with some unintended consequences: somehow, I had drained some of the mischief out of the expression, not at all the effect I had been looking for. Not quite back to the drawing board, but I needed to slow down again and analyse what was happening.
Paul #7 sat on an easel in a corner of the studio while I progressed some other pieces, not quite mocking me, but definitely offering up a new challenge… OK, a confession: I wasn’t quite sure how to address this one, so I went for a series of little displacement activities, working my way around the canvas correcting a series of minor faults. I think a lot of artists do this now and then, but they don’t like to admit it. It’s a safe way of treading water while I get my bearings. Some work on the eyebrows seems to pull the expression in the right direction and improve things further by going back into the hair, beard and moustache with some stronger highlights. It’s not a big change, but the expression is moving in the right direction with Paul #8.
After another couple of days I come back to it and start to feel quite excited about the painting again. I’m closer to a resolution than I had thought. The last few changes are principally really minor adjustments around the eyes and mouth, together with some more attention to the highlights to get them more balanced. The main change is a deepening of the strongest shadows in the hair and beard – this seems necessary from the point of view of definition.
With this I really do think I’m finished. I’m happy that I’ve got a sense of Paul’s happy-go-lucky nature into the piece, and retrieved that sense of mischief in his expression.