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.
What is it about a likeness that delivers instant recognition? There can be no quick or easy answer to this question, and portrait artists frequently devote an inordinate amount of effort to making small adjustments to their work in pursuit of this fugitive ideal. Sometimes the accumulation of these adjustments has an effect directly opposite to that sought, and the image seems to move further and further away from a true likeness – as often as not because the focus has been on successive corrections carried out within an overall framework that will never stand up to scrutiny because the original structure lacks anatomical accuracy. My usual way of avoiding this cul-de-sac is to front-load effort into initial drawing so that subsequent adjustments do not have unwanted knock-on effects on the relative positioning of other features. Richard #1 looks like a casual graphite drawing, but it is the product of an obsessive process of measuring and re-measuring. I won’t even think about using paint until I am confident that face and hands have been set up accurately in a way that won’t cause me problems further on.
I have started this piece with an experiment: darkening the corners of the canvas with acrylic aerosol colours, even prior to the initial graphite drawing. It is a purely intuitive move, and I’m not entirely sure why I’ve done it – perhaps to play a little psychological trick on myself, enforcing a stronger focus on the initial drawing of the face and the stages immediately following it. Richard #2 is a straightforward continuation of the drawing process, using paint to work over the graphite, fixing and developing the image in a more definite way. The phrase ‘elusive geometry of recognition’ comes from an excellent little book ‘Painting Portraits’ by Anthony Connolly. Unusually for an artist of his quality, Connolly is a talented writer. At this stage I really am wrestling with the elusive geometry of recognition, picking out the elements of Richard’s facial features that seem to define his character, and trying to give them enough emphasis to capture his individuality. Take this process too far and the portrait lapses into caricature.
Time to start work on the flesh tones now. For Richard #3 I am using a palette of Van Dyck brown, Venetian red, Naples yellow, pale yellow ochre, rose dore, and flake white. As I make small changes it becomes apparent that the area of the mouth is most important in conveying Richard’s personality. His face settles naturally into a quizzical half-smile, as though there is a private joke that he is permanently on the verge of sharing with us. Keeping hold of this impression will be an essential aspect of establishing and retaining the likeness. I should point out here that I don’t really know how objective this assessment is. I have held the view for some time that it is possible to learn most about another person by looking at their mouth, particularly the way that the tiny muscles that control facial expression have shaped this area of the face, etching an emotional history into its lines, depressions and extrusions. Is this the way things really are, or merely my own way of weighing up other people? Whatever the truth, I am convinced that this plays a crucial role in the elusive geometry of recognition.
Every now and then an artist will see a potential subject that just demands to be painted. For me, Paul Dickson came into that category as soon as I saw him. The term ‘full of character’ is something of a cliché, but one that perfectly describes his air of dishevelled bonhomie. If Ivan Kramskoi had received a commission to paint Falstaff, then Paul, I imagined, would have provided the ideal model.
Perhaps influenced by the informality of Paul’s demeanour, I decide to move away from the careful preparatory drawing I have employed for the first three portraits, and start with a much looser approach. The canvas has been prepared with a bright burnt sienna ground, and I work quickly with thin washes of flake white and burnt umber to establish broad areas of light and dark. Next I scrub in a thin background using a mixture of raw umber and earth green. Finally I draw in some of the darkest areas with a less diluted mixture of raw umber and lamp black. At this stage it is simply a rough sketch, and it is more important to convey a sense of vitality than to think in terms of accuracy. There is enough of a likeness in Paul #1 to leave me feeling that I can work on from here.
The next session starts with attention to the flesh tones. I use a thin glaze of Naples yellow and flake white for the highlights, and various mixtures of dark alizarin crimson and burnt umber for the shadow areas. The crimson comes from a box of Ferrario Van Dyck oils that somebody gave me many years ago. Ferrario call it ‘rose madder deep’. These oils have a beautiful consistency and I recommend trying them. I use the same dark crimson and burnt umber for the t-shirt, blending with fan brushes. I dig out some Ferrario sepia for the coat lining, and add a touch of it to some flake white for the woolly outer layer. I darken the green background and take this opportunity to reshape the outline of the hair. Using pale yellow ochre thinned with Sansodor I put some highlights into the beard, and then redraw the eyes and some shadow areas with burnt umber. At this stage it is starting to look like Paul…
Paul #2 needs a couple of days before I can continue, and I spend quite a bit of time in the studio watching paint dry and pondering an issue: it’s the dishevelment question. My overall aim is to get away from conventional images in the public mind of ‘the homeless’, and to represent my subjects in a more aspirational light – one that is much closer to the actuality of what St. Mungo’s Broadway achieves in terms of rescuing its clients from the exigencies of being on the street and sleeping rough. But Paul’s aura is resolutely chaotic and I can’t imagine conveying his character in a cleaned up form. Eventually I come back to thinking about Kramskoi, and how he would have sought to elevate his subject’s humanity by providing a psychological insight, representing a depth of character independent of the superficial elements of physical appearance. With this in mind the adjustments in Paul #3 are minor, but directed towards depicting somebody whose innate sense of humour provides a strong barrier against the damage that life can do.
Starting work again I concentrate at first on the eyes and mouth. I need to make subtle changes that convey a benign sense of mischief. This isn’t something that can be done in a single step, but rather acts as a guiding principle as I proceed. There really is an element of trial and error in this, and with Paul #4 I feel that I am having more success with the eyes than with the mouth. I decide to transfer attention to the beard and moustache, bringing in some highlights, and this is helpful in lightening the mood of the piece. Intuition takes a hand here: something tells me that the flat background of Paul #3 is an obstacle of sorts. I need to focus the viewer’s attention on the minutiae of the facial features. I thin some lamp black with Liquin and then rub it gently into the upper corners with a soft cotton cloth, grading it down towards the hair leaving the illusion of a halo of light around my subject’s head. Satisfied with this effect, I decide that it is time to start thinking about what to do with the hair…
I start by sketching in the hair with burnt and raw umber, mixing in flake white and pale yellow ochre for the highlights. The immediate effect of this is to change the apparent shape of the face, giving a much stronger likeness. I am referring to a number of photographs, and this improvement, checked out rather obsessively, I must admit, increases my confidence level to a marked degree. I work some darker areas into the beard with rigger brushes and then work on the eyes, trying to get a mischievous twinkle into them. I will have to correct their asymmetry, a legacy of the original drawing at Paul #1, but I defer this because I suspect that complete removal will undermine what I have just done. Intuition kicks in again and, after allowing the surface to dry, I decide to apply a glaze of Van Dyck brown (known as ‘Cassel earth’ in the Ferrario range) to the entire painting. I thin the paint with Roberson satin glaze medium, and then rub it into the surface firmly with a soft cotton cloth. I finish this stage by taking a clean cloth and wiping this glaze out of the highlights so that it only remains in the depressions in the canvas in these areas.
I’m getting fairly excited now as the painting starts to take on the look of a 19th century Russian piece. This impression is reinforced by the slight halo effect around the head, reminiscent as it is of traditional icon painting. Somehow that seems to fit the atmosphere around Paul quite perfectly. I get a little more symmetry into the eyes and then brighten the highlights. The shadow on the nose is adjusted, and then I work more highlights into the beard and hair. At this point I start to wonder whether the piece might be finished, and decide to put it aside for a while to think about it. There may be more I can do, but until I am sure exactly what, I don’t want to touch this piece again.
The first thing I noticed about John was his excellent profile. I could easily imagine his image on a Roman coin, so I took a series of photographs, deliberately posing him in an attitude that echoed this thought. I drew a profile on the canvas in graphite, and then decided to get the background in straight away. I just wanted to be able to see that silhouette and how it might work against its background before making any other decisions. I am still working on two other pieces, and the relatively easy task of setting up John #1 gives me some valuable thinking time. I find that working on a single piece can result in a self-imposed pressure to make progress. With several pieces in progress I can allow pure intuition to guide me as to what to work on at any particular point in time.
After some further graphite drawing I get started on the head. The initial flesh tones are rather exaggerated. I am using a basic mixture of Venetian red and burnt sienna. Highlights and shadows are achieved with flake white and burnt sienna blended into this mixture in varying amounts to give the required tones. I also work a thin green glaze into the background. This brings the head forward and creates a feeling of depth, even at this early stage. This initial modelling of the features is taken fairly slowly and seems to go well, giving me a degree of confidence that I’m on-track. I can already visualise the final piece, and, importantly, the path to completion. I need to play these little psychological games with myself – there is nothing worse than standing in the studio confronted by a series of canvases and not knowing what to do next.
One of my favourite quotations is from the Italian artist Francesco Clemente: “I paint because I have to be astonished, and there aren’t things in the world that astonish me enough.” This comes close to describing the sense of surprised excitement I sometimes feel as a portrait begins to take shape and have a life of its own. I start to under-paint the hair and darken the back of the neck with raw and burnt umber, then lighten the flesh tones and the background with thin velaturas of flake white and Naples yellow. When I return to the studio the next day and look at John #3 I am surprised by the way the character of the piece has changed, and excited to find that I am seeing skin where I had previously seen only paint. This motivates me to carry straight on with the piece, driven by the sense of astonishment that Clemente described.
Working quickly and rather loosely, I darken the hair further with a mixture of lamp black and raw umber, trying to get a little more form into this area. I then switch to the t-shirt, carefully modelling the shadows and folds with thin glazes of Payne’s grey, and then, laying in flake white for the highlights. I use a small sable fan brush to blend these areas together and get the fall of the light looking as natural as possible. Taking stock of the overall effect, I decide to go back into the hair with a mixture of Payne’s grey and flake white. This unifies the painting somewhat by keeping a similar ‘temperature’ to the shadows in both the hair and the t-shirt. I think this cooling down is necessary to offset the subject’s rather florid complexion, an impression that I want to preserve.
First, I make some adjustments to the modelling of the ear. Then, for the next stage of the hair I make a thin mixture of flake white, a touch of Payne’s grey, Sansodor and a small amount of Liquin. I use sable rigger brushes to apply the paint with thin strokes in different directions, building up an impression of hair that hasn’t been too rigorously combed. The process requires a degree of discipline: I have to make sure the brush is not too heavily loaded in order to prevent the initial strokes being too thick; these strokes give a bright effect that is suitable for highlights, but because the mixture is thin, the final strokes from each loading are translucent and more suitable for the darker areas, particularly those at the back of the head. I concentrate on getting the overall tonal balance of the hair right rather than achieving a finished effect.
At this final stage I need to make a series of important adjustments. The background has to be rebalanced to fit with the direction of the principal light source to the left of the canvas. Then, using the rigger brushes again, I have to turn up the contrast of the hair: highlights in pure flake white, and shadows with pure Payne’s grey thinned with just enough Sansodor to run freely from the brush. Finally, I decide that the skin tone is too red – a judgment that only becomes clear when the other parts of the painting are complete. I make up a very thin glaze of Naples yellow and raw Sienna with stand oil and fine detail Liquin (quite runny compared with the gelatinous composition of the standard product), and float this over the skin areas with fan brushes. Clemente’s words come back to me again as I decide that the portrait is completed.