Nichola: ‘the atmosphere around her’

 

Nichola #1
Nichola #1

I must start here with a little story. Nearly twenty years ago I was in Tokyo visiting a Japanese friend and I met her aged aunt. The old lady, who only knew one or two words of English, spoke about me to my friend who soon collapsed in fits of laughter. Enquiring as to the cause I was told that that her aunt thought that I was ‘just like Harrison Ford’. Expressing my amazement (I bear no physical resemblance whatsoever to the film star in question) I was told ‘She says it’s not so much your looks, it’s the atmosphere around you’. Bizarre as the story may seem, the words stayed with me, and have had their impact on my thinking about portraiture, influencing my approach. People do have an atmosphere around them, something intangible that shapes our perception and forms a large part of how they persist in our memory when we are not with them. A portrait that doesn’t capture or represent that special atmosphere will not work – irrespective of how close the likeness may be. I think this may be the problem with some extreme photorealist pieces: everything is absolutely perfect and accurate, but the end result somehow lacks life and fails to exert any durable fascination.

Nichola #2
Nichola #2

My belief is that the difficulty arises because the original photograph from which the artist has worked is one that fails to represent that intangible atmosphere around the subject. If that special ingredient is missing, then no amount of mere pictorial accuracy can restore it. For this reason I try to work from a photograph or photographs that match up to my idea of the atmosphere around my subject. In the case of Nichola I felt that this was particularly important, because she is undoubtedly one of those people who generate an aura – one that is not easy to put into words. Part of it might be to do with glamour or style, but there is also a more substantial component: something to do with attitude and bearing, a frisson of presence when she enters a room. In Nichola #1 I opted for a yellow ochre ground because I thought it would help in establishing skin tones, but also because some key elements of the clothing (orange scarf and mustard yellow blouse) would be helped by it.

Nichola #3
Nichola #3

The initial drawing is fairly sketchy, and developed a little further in Nichola #2 with some thin paint, but I am satisfied that the posture and essential facial landmarks are reasonably well in place. The format is larger than for my previous pieces, so any inaccuracies tend to be magnified at this stage – something I can address in later iterations. The face really starts to take on some proper identity at Nichola #3 where I begin to model light and shade and develop the flesh tones. I am using  a series of different hues: raw Sienna, burnt umber, raw umber, Van Dyck brown, Ferrario alizarine madder and Roberson extra pale Naples Yellow. I have also adopted a new medium, my own 50/50 mix of Sansodor and Roberson’s matt glaze medium. Skin types and complexions like Nichola’s tend to reflect light in an interesting way, picking up purer tones than Caucasian or Asian types. It is important, therefore, to build some of these reflections into early and intermediate glazes wherever possible, so that final glazes can be handled with greater subtlety.

Nichola #4
Nichola #4

This now seems like an appropriate point to take stock and make some important decisions. I want to work in the background in order to start to get a feel for the overall look of the piece. Nichola’s orange scarf will be a dominant factor in the final painting, so I opt for a complementary pale blue background to get a feeling of movement. I don’t quite know why I am doing this, I am running on pure instinct at this stage. Looking at a plain pale blue background for a few days, an idea comes to me that makes sense of the decision. I use an aspect of a design principle of my own that I developed in an ongoing series of abstract acrylic ink drawings. Take a look at some of the Flux Aeterna drawings here and here. The pattern of lines in Nichola #4 excites the retina and creates an atmospheric impression, exactly the sort of idea referred to above and the title of this post. It also focuses attention on the face. An abstract background works well because it doesn’t pin my subject down to a specific place or environment, leaving interpretation more open – something that I sense to be congruent with Nichola’s enigmatic presence.

Nichola #5
Nichola #5

In Nichola #4 I had also continued work on the face, bringing in the eyes and making small adjustments. This continues in Nichola #5, where I use successive thin glazes to introduce more subtlety into the skin tones and reduce some of the overstated highlights – particularly that one near the centre of the forehead. This is accompanied by some detailed modelling of the features in pursuit of the right facial expression – trying to pin down the ‘almost-smile’ that characterises my subject. It’s that ‘enigmatic presence’ issue again. The eyes remain uncomfortably asymmetric, something to be fixed at the next stage. Transferring my attention to the clothing, I am fairly pleased with the way this falls into place, and I conclude that my hunch about the background had been right. The bold colours work well and inject a little more personality into the overall effect. Some further work is needed, but, again, this can wait until the next stage.

Finishing Richard Kirwan

Richard #8
Richard #8

Resuming work on this after an extended break I decide that I was closer to finishing than I thought.  The main issue is the hands. There is a complex arrangement of the fingers, and the third finger of his left hand appears bent in a counter-intuitive fashion –  a fancy way of saying that it just doesn’t look right. After some re-modelling I also have to adjust the flesh tones, they are too yellow. The process is a fairly painstaking one (hands are never particularly easy) and I can’t fudge the execution because that would be out of character with the rest of the piece. Instead, I have to work through a series of small-scale iterations with a precarious balancing act between what I ‘know’ anatomically, and what actually looks convincing. This is the point in portraiture where the artist engages in a private psychological battle with himself, struggling to ignore the voice that says ‘it’s OK now’, and listen instead to the one that says ‘I’m not convinced – you’ve got to fix this.’ Richard #8 is a step in the right direction but there is more to be done.

Richard Kirwan
Richard Kirwan

A couple of days spent reflecting on the piece (I spend a lot of time watching paint dry!) and I decide that the question of the hands has a dimension that goes beyond mere accuracy. It is essential that I get them right because they represent an important psychological key to the whole piece. There is an inherent tension between the relaxed pose and the knotted tension of the hands, one that offers a clue to the personality behind the slightly enigmatic facial expression. My first step is to work on the face, adjusting the skin tones and reaching for a smoother finish. With that finalised, I am able to decide on the right, less florid, tones for the hands. My further re-modelling has to combine tonal balance and anatomical conviction. The adjustments are small, and get smaller (and slower!) as I go along, but after several hours I am satisfied with the results. The acid test comes on the following day when I return to the studio and have to decide whether I now find the overall effect to be convincing. To my relief, I do.

The final piece measures 70cm x 100cm.

 

Doing Frankie a Favour

Frankie McGucken
Portrait of Frankie

Getting back to work after a long trip to Hong Kong and Australia, I wanted to start by doing something in a looser, less obsessively finished style. Before my departure I had met Frankie McGucken at the Recovery College, and after seeing some of the work I had been doing he asked me a favour: could I do a portrait of him that he could give to his girlfriend as a present? Without asking too many questions,  I sensed that this might be an important thing for him, so I agreed. I thought that a one-off outside the structure of the project would give me a good way of experimenting a little and trying something new. The portrait was completed in a single two-hour session, working alla prima in oils without any preparatory drawing.  The paint was applied thickly, and, while attempting to get a good likeness, I was more concerned with overall mood and impact than anything else. When I gave the portrait to Frankie a couple of days ago he was surprised and delighted. We had a long talk about his background, and a fascinating story emerged – here it is in Frankie’s own words:

“I was born in Belfast and came to London when I was fifteen – I’m forty-four now. I did general building work and lived in squats in Kilburn. Those were the good days, poll tax riots, the lot. After a while I ended up drinking heavily and not turning up for work. I got into a downward spiral of street drinking and heroin, this lasted for twenty years, one way and another. Eventually I ended up in intensive care after getting blind drunk and falling down some stairs at a hostel. Laying there in hospital, something just clicked in my head and I decided I didn’t want that kind of life any more. From that day on I’ve had no more drink or drugs, I’ve been clean for fourteen months now. I got a flat through ‘Look Ahead’, and I’m doing volunteer work for St. Mungo’s, going round the hostels and so on, talking to people who are trying to get out of the same mess I was in. I spend a lot of time thinking, asking myself what I want for the future, what can I achieve next? What would I like to be doing in a few years from now?”