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.
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.
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.
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.
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.