Tanya Ramsey

Tanya #1
Tanya #1

I did a photo session with Tanya last year and got several good images, but for some reason I put them aside and waited. I wasn’t quite sure why. The reason was to emerge rather slowly after I started work. This sequence is a classic instance of proceeding entirely by intuition. I had prepared a number of canvases with a pinkish red earth ground, and it was only when I had done this that I felt ready to get started. Something about the soft warmth of the ground seemed right. The initial drawing in burnt umber went well and I was immediately encouraged to do some further work on highlights with raw sienna, mixed with a little of the Roberson extra pale Naples yellow that I now frequently use instead of white. With a thin wash of burnt umber this established the preliminary modelling for the features. I then spent a few days just coming to terms with Tanya #1, trying to figure out where to go next, and why the image already felt so compelling.

Tanya #2
Tanya #2

My next move was instinctive. I started to think about old sepia photographs, the way that ones taken in photographic studios and then printed postcard size would often have dreamy, indeterminate backgrounds. Using a mixture of warm Van Dyck brown thinned with turpentine, I took a cotton cloth and rubbed it gently into the background with a series of swirling movements. I then returned to modelling the facial features, using the same colours as for Tanya #1,bringing the mouth and eyes in properly. When Tanya #2 was completed I spent even more time looking at it, this time under different lighting conditions. It was in dim light, with Tanya staring back at me, that I started to recognise a memory that the image was triggering.

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith

I used to listen to lots of blues recordings from the twenties and thirties, reissued in compilations on exotic American specialist labels. Their 12″ covers would frequently be based on monochrome photographs from the period. Tanya #2, was like one of these covers, even down to the enigmatic gaze of their subjects – a slightly defiant self-assurance, as though challenging the camera to penetrate an invisible defensive screen. With the help of a friend in San Francisco I was able to locate an image that instantiated something of this idea- the image of Bessie Smith even showing a marked facial resemblance to Tanya, with the same hairstyle.

Tanya Ramsey
Tanya Ramsey

And sometimes that’s all it takes to pin down the idea that unlocks the path to take with a portrait – finding the right memory, the right image or the right thought. My first, and easiest, decision was to maintain the monochrome character of the piece, and avoid overworking its surface. Working in a hinterland somewhere between painting and drawing I continued modelling the face, bringing it to a higher state of chiaroscuro, and creating a smoother effect. After this the hair and T-shirt were both straightforward. While nowhere near as ‘worked up’ as most of the other pieces in the project thus far, I feel that it carries just as much force as the others. In fact, as of writing, it is my favourite.

The finished canvas measures 24 inches by 30 inches.

Nichola – completed

Nichola
Nichola

I have written about the importance of reflecting Nichola’s personality in this portrait, and completing the painting involved a tricky combination of accomplishing this rather ill-defined task while carrying out some more routine work. The easy part was the clothing, getting a more three dimensional effect and toning down the scarf with some more convincing shadows. I decided to change the flesh tones a little while doing the final modelling of Nichola’s facial features, working to get more of a ‘glow’ into her appearance. This contributed to the atmospheric effect I was looking for, but still something seemed wrong. It took over a week for me to identify the problem, keeping the work nearby while I worked on other canvases, returning frequently to glance at it briefly, as though trying to catch my subject unawares and reveal a hidden secret. This is typical of the sort of psychological game the portrait artist sometimes has to play in order to get at an idea or approach that remains buried beneath the surface of analytical thought. Eventually this off-beat approach bore fruit: in focusing on the subject’s direct gaze I realised that it implied that her attention would be on the viewer – this worked against my desire to convey the atmosphere around her. I wanted, needed, her to be thinking of something else, something slightly intangible. Working exclusively on the eyes, and on the positioning of the irises, I moved Nichola’s gaze into an indeterminate space that suggests, perhaps, an air of wistfulness, an inner world of her own. We can’t tell what she is thinking about, but we know it’s not us.

The completed canvas measures 30 inches by 48 inches.

Patrick Ring – In His Own Words

In my previous post I had brought my portrait of Patrick up to a level where I could see my way quite clearly through to completion. Toning down the scarf, adjusting rest of the clothing and bringing in the hair were all straightforward tasks. Similarly, adjusting the flesh tones only required a few simple glazes. Patrick is a formidable character whose strength of will has underpinned a dramatic change in his fortunes since he first came into contact with St. Mungo’s. At a recent event in support of the charity he gave a remarkable speech (although he would prefer to call it a ‘little talk’), and he kindly agreed to let me publish it here:

Patrick Ring
Patrick Ring

“I am a member of Outside In, which is St. Mungo’s Broadway’s client involvement group. I joined Outside In to get active, learn new things, move away from isolation and hopefully inspire others with my own story of recovery. Outside In makes my former life and experience feel valuable, as St. Mungo’s Broadway consults me, as a result of my experience, on how projects should operate and how the organisation and its clients should move forward together. I was asked to speak today about the health and wellbeing of Homeless People. I thought the best thing I could do is share my story with you. When I became homeless I was in a very dark place due to a traumatic experience that remained untreated. I was very lucky to come across St. Mungo’s Broadway when I arrived at a residential project in Haringey. With a stable home St. Mungo’s Broadway has given me the opportunity to overcome past experiences that pushed me to end up homeless. That experience was eight years ago. I was kidnapped and subjected to torture over three days. This had a very negative effect on my wellbeing. I didn’t know who could help me and I developed a dependency on substances to deal with the anxiety, loss of self-esteem, loss of confidence, loss of dignity. All this ultimately led to the loss of my home. After finding accommodation in a St. Mungo’s Broadway hostel, I eventually felt able to share my experience with staff whom I trusted. After telling Outside In staff about this experience they offered t refer me to talking therapy with a psychotherapist, which I decided to try. I have found that this has started to help and given me a new way of dealing with my emotions. They also encouraged me to value my strengths and have helped me to develop my own photography course that I lead at St. Mungo’s Broadway Recovery College in Southwark. I am also now planning to lead some peer support groups in our residential projects. It is all these different opportunities that start to add up to feeling like I have a life of purpose in which I am happier.

“St. Mungo’s Broadway, together with Outside In, is now campaigning about the health and wellbeing of homeless people with Homeless Health Matters. Poor health is a fact of life for many people who are homeless. Almost twice as many people who use homelessness services have long-term physical health problems and mental health diagnoses compared to the general public. These shocking health inequalities have no place in our society. I would like to thank St. Mungo’s Broadway for believing in me, and for empowering me to make a stepping stone to change my life. I am now a more confident person who believes you can overcome bad situations with the right support.

“Thanks to everyone who came this evening. I would not be able to finish without mentioning Andy Williams who has been my main mentor and inspiration for making my life better.”