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…