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.
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.
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.
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.
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 primain 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?”
I first encountered Patrick when he gave a brief talk at the 2014 St. Mungo’s Broadway Christmas Carol Service. His words were brief but heartfelt, hinting at a real depth of character. I met him subsequently, just after Christmas at the enrolment sessions for the Recovery College. These sessions are invariably an eye-opener, and a great opportunity for me to meet a cross-section of the Trust’s clients, some of whom become portrait subjects. The work done by the College is really quite extraordinary, and is one of those experiments the success of which is testament to the determination of so many of the Trust’s clients to get their lives back on track. The BBC did an excellent piece on it here, including an atmospheric photo of an earlier portrat subject of mine, David Lawrence. I start work on my portrait of Patrick with a simple brush drawing in thinned burnt umber, an initial attempt to get the landmarks of his face in place on canvas. Patrick #1 is anatomically accurate, and even manages to capture something of his resolute individualism.
Meeting Patrick and talking to him was a real pleasure. Sometimes the best way of starting a portrait is to have a conversation with the subject, watching carefully as different moods and emotions change their features and the atmosphere around them. Talking to Patrick reveals a character of considerable complexity, with strong, sophisticated political opinions and a mercurial charm. At the same time he has a real creative spirit, currently manifested in his interest in photography. In that respect we are certainly kindred spirits. After talking to him for a short while I wasn’t surprised to discover that is he running a course in photography at the Recovery College. In Patrick #2 I have developed the initial drawing further, using burnt sienna and yellow ochre diluted with white spirit. The aim is to work up a warm-toned underpainting for the flesh tones, while starting to model the features in terms of the fall of the light.
Progress had been quite good on this one and I had been looking forward to moving it along. I needed to do some work on the hands, modelling them further to get a more natural look, and this was the focus for Richard #4. At this stage something unsettling occurred. Within a few days of each other, two people saw the piece and independently made the same comment – “It looks like a Pope!” This was not something that for which I was prepared, and I have to admit it rather threw me. I briefly entertained the notion that they might be reacting to a subconscious association with Velasquez’s extraordinary portrait of Pope Innocent X, perhaps responding to a connection between Richard’s wry smile and Innocent X’s knowing sneer. I soon abandoned this idea when I realized how much pressure I would be putting on myself as I completed my own portrait. Velazquez is a great role model, but such similarities are better discovered ex post than sought ex ante. Anyway, Richard’s posture is far too casual for a Pope isn’t it?
With some work done on the hands and some pale glazes to improve the flesh tones in the face, I reach another impasse. After a while I realise that I need to get the background, any background, painted in. Reaching this point where I need to get the background in is always pivotal, and it can come at any stage, almost at random. I think it is something to do with situating the figure in space, providing some sort of spatial context for what I am looking at as I work. In this case the hands and face were strangely disembodied, unrelated to each other, until the background came in. Now, with Richard #5, I feel more comfortable about the whole thing and can see where to go next with it. One thing is immediately apparent, the dark green background seems to have intensified Richard’s gaze, so that I don’t feel the need to worry about the face for a while. The overall impact of the figure has become far more important.
Further work on the clothing will help with getting the outline of the hands resolved, so that becomes the focus for Richard #6 after lightening the green background. The folds of the blue T shirt are a really important aspect of this piece. Their positioning, and the resultant story they tell through the fall of the light on them, is the only clue we can have as to the way his weight is distributed and the sense of tension or relaxation in his posture. The significance of this cannot be overstated: it conveys a message that has a subconscious knock-on effect on the way we interpret his facial expression. These considerations may seem surprising, but I am sure that they play an important part in portraiture – the question of body language is not confined to real-life situations. If the portrait artist is depicting more than just head and shoulders, then the subject’s posture becomes a factor in the way the viewer ‘reads’ his or her psychological state. Inattention to this fact can convey conflicting messages and undermine the impact of the piece.
Thinking about the painting in this way means that the natural step to take next is to complete the clothing and chair – I need to do this anyway in order to finish resolving the outer shape of the complex form of the clasped hands. The colour mix for faded denim jeans is always a tricky one to get right. I’ve tried a number of things in the past, with varied degrees of success. This time round I use Prussian blue with a little dark carmine red, and then add varying degrees of flake white to get the right tones. After some trial and error I’m comfortable with the results. For the dark jacket I use a combination of Payne’s grey, charcoal grey and flake white. The darkest shadows are achieved with a mixture of charcoal grey and a little Prussian blue. I work wet-in-wet using fan brushes to blend the dark and light areas to get a natural gradation of shade and tone. The results are gratifying: casual clothes and a relaxed pose. Attention to the face and hands next…
A few weeks back I couldn’t see where to go next with this one, and I thought it might be finished. I put it away for a while and looked at it again – always a good thing to do when undecided about a piece. Coming back to it I felt that some changes were needed, but still couldn’t identify them. After looking at it closely each day for a week or so, two thoughts emerged: I Needed to change the balance of the light, and I needed to get a little more mischief into the expression. The first step was to strengthen the highlights, putting more light into the piece overall, concentrating on the flesh tones. With this accomplished, I had to deal with some unintended consequences: somehow, I had drained some of the mischief out of the expression, not at all the effect I had been looking for. Not quite back to the drawing board, but I needed to slow down again and analyse what was happening.
Paul #7 sat on an easel in a corner of the studio while I progressed some other pieces, not quite mocking me, but definitely offering up a new challenge… OK, a confession: I wasn’t quite sure how to address this one, so I went for a series of little displacement activities, working my way around the canvas correcting a series of minor faults. I think a lot of artists do this now and then, but they don’t like to admit it. It’s a safe way of treading water while I get my bearings. Some work on the eyebrows seems to pull the expression in the right direction and improve things further by going back into the hair, beard and moustache with some stronger highlights. It’s not a big change, but the expression is moving in the right direction with Paul #8.
After another couple of days I come back to it and start to feel quite excited about the painting again. I’m closer to a resolution than I had thought. The last few changes are principally really minor adjustments around the eyes and mouth, together with some more attention to the highlights to get them more balanced. The main change is a deepening of the strongest shadows in the hair and beard – this seems necessary from the point of view of definition.
With this I really do think I’m finished. I’m happy that I’ve got a sense of Paul’s happy-go-lucky nature into the piece, and retrieved that sense of mischief in his expression.