I was pleased with the start I made on Patrick’s portrait, the likeness was apparent from the initial drawing, and I found myself working to preserve a mood rather than create one. Work on the three stages of the portrait shown in this post was carried out intermittently over an extended twelve week period, interrupted at one point by a trip to Hong Kong and Australia. I took several images with me so that I would have plenty of thinking time to plan subsequent work on the portrait. My first move was to work in a neutral background and to echo some of the background colour in shadow glazes for the flesh tones. At Patrick #2 the flesh tones were given an exaggerated redness, and at Patrick #3 you can see how I have glazed over these (using various combinations of raw Sienna, gold ochre and pale Naples yellow) to create a more natural, less florid, effect.
The next step was to work on Patrick’s eyes, mainly to give me further guidance on the overall effect of the portrait. I have written about the complexity of my subject’s character, and I wanted to show this in the eyes, emphasising their steely light. Once this was done, I reverted to building up the complexity of the flesh tones, working in a variety of reds and yellows. I took the unusual step of using Payne’s grey in some of the shadows, an intuitive move, perhaps influenced by a wish to harmonise with the neutral background I had chosen. There is a plethora of ‘rules’ for painting, and for painting portraits in particular. It is a good idea to internalise as much of this information as possible, but sometimes even more important to break away and just follow pure instinct.
With Patrick #4 I had reached a stage with the flesh tones where I needed to bring in the clothing before making any further adjustments. This is just a personal quirk of mine, finding it easier to judge pitch and key when there is more surrounding, contextual, information to go on. As soon as I had done this I felt dissatisfied with the hue of the background and went over it with a thinnish glaze of Michael Harding Italian green umber, a beautiful earth colour to work with. These changes made it much easier to work on the flesh tones, and I went through a gradual process of lightening the surface, allowing the underpainting to continue to have its influence. Patrick #5 feels close to completion, but there are still some major issues to resolve…
“I had a very strict upbringing, always surrounded by adults, so that when I went to school I had difficulty adjusting and couldn’t stand up for myself, but I didn’t realise it was a problem, I just thought that’s the way things are. I didn’t do well educationally, and I got a lot of criticism from my parents. I think that’s when I started to lose self-esteem.
“I came to London to work in my twenties, and again I had difficulty adjusting – that’s something that has continued throughout my life. I ended up homeless because of people taking advantage of me, staying in my flat and not paying rent, things like that. I got into some temporary accommodation and Southwark Council put me on their ‘vulnerable’ list. They put me in a hostel in Peckham, but it was full of drug takers and alcoholics, making things really difficult for me – you could call it ‘socialising with the wrong people.’ Things started to change for the better when I moved into a semi-independent house and it was taken over by St. Mungo’s. In 2012 I joined Outside In, and this really helped me to understand my own problems more. I’ve learned some important life skills, how to relate to other people properly, and through psychotherapy, I’ve been able to improve my relationship judgments – how to stand up for myself, not be too trusting, and deal with people who have caused me problems. Because I was so lonely, I would accept anything, but I’ve learned how to question people and exercise judgment.
“Now, I’m involved in a lot of voluntary work: doing regular reception sessions at the Recovery College; fundraising work at Griffin House; going into hostels and talking to clients about new services; working on the Recovery Approach scheme to help hostel staff give better service to clients.
“My plan for the future is simply to create a better life for myself. I’m starting to build healthy relationships with other people, and to gain confidence. I’m hoping to go to college and study book-keeping and business administration. I need to start coming to terms with life outside St. Mungo’s, and I’ve just joined the Choir With No Name. Soon I plan to join Cardboard Citizens. It’s all about buildng a different type of life.”
Here I am at the E17 Art Trail last Sunday, doing a Portrait Slam to raise funds for framing the work you can see elsewhere on this website. The front garden at Vestry House Museum was a great location – beautiful light filtered through the trees. Many thanks to Gary Heales of Vestry House for making it possible.
Vestry House is one of London’s hidden gems, well worth a visit.