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.
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.
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.
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.