A few days after starting the portrait of Gordon Chaston I began this one so that I could toggle between the two while waiting for glazes to dry. As a personality, David represented a rather different challenge. At first I was intrigued by his resemblance to the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein: the same bone structure and shape of face, the same bushy hair creating an atmosphere of unruly charm. Then I started to notice a deeper connection. Something in the eyes, a fey quality suggesting that they each inhabit a private world that overlaps with our own only partially, and rather superficially at that. There is a boyish quality about them both, one that stands in contrast to the deeply lined faces and creates an ambiguity about their age, adding to that fey quality and leaving judgment suspended as to character traits and prevailing mood.
With the same burnt Sienna ground that I most frequently use, I start the initial drawing. I don’t refer directly to photographs of Wittgenstein, but his appearance is well-known to me, and stays at the back of my mind as a guiding impression. If I feel that my portrait of David loses its resemblance to that impression then I know it will be time to call a halt and review progress. The initial drawing with its exaggerated highlights has a ghostly quality that makes me reluctant to move on. David #1 stays on an easel untouched in a corner of the studio for over a week. There is something about it that I don’t want to change or disturb. My memories of studying Wittgenstein’s work have their effect, encouraging me to adopt a more analytical approach than I might usually do at this stage – no bad thing…
Eventually I come to a decision, but not before starting initial work on a third portrait, one with a very different feel and approach. My first step with David #2 is to push in that very pale background. This helps me to get my highlights into perspective and start to lose some of them. I start this process off by glazing some raw sienna into several areas, mainly on the left side of the face. I start building up the flesh tones with a series of thin glazes, some tending towards pink and others toward yellow. As I go along I constantly re-draw the shadow/dark areas of the face with that 50/50 mix of burnt and raw umber that I favour. These small adjustments are made to take me closer to the likeness I want to achieve, but also to build the right facial expression.
I need to move away from the dead grey tones of David #2, so the process of glazing in the flesh tones goes on as I try to breathe more life into the skin. After some detailed work in local areas I adjust the mouth slightly and then apply an overall glaze of burnt sienna, cadmium red and flake white. This is thinned liberally with stand oil and turpentine in order to offset the opacity of the flake white. Conventional advice is always to avoid the use of white in glazing, but this a rule that I regularly ignore when I need to achieve lighter tones. Finally, I start to work on the eyes because I have reached a stage where I need to have them better defined in order to judge the facial expression. The irises are a little too small at the first pass, but the steely stare feels right so I take some time out now to assess things.
After a few days reflection I start work again, emphasising the highlights. I then turn my attention to some more subtle adjustments in the mouth area. John Singer Sargent reportedly described a portrait as “a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth.” My theory is that the older the subject the more the mouth tells us about their character and personality, and that this is because, over time, the muscles around the mouth create lines and shadows that reveal prevailing moods. This makes the mouth and the area around it the most important feature in describing the sitter’s psychology. At David #4 I am starting to try to restore the slight suggestion of an enigmatic, reflective smile that I believe is important in conveying the fey quality that I spoke of earlier. This was lost somewhere between David #2 and David #3 and I know that I have to get it back.
At this stage I am fortunate to encounter David again in a social setting and I have the chance to observe him interacting with other people and then sitting quietly on his own. This is far better for me than any formal sitting, and it increases my confidence in the progress I have made thus far. I decide that there is far too much of the bright burnt sienna ground in view so my next step is to work up the jacket and shirt. Further glazing to lighten the flesh tones then feels easier to judge, and I continue the very slight adjustments to the mouth. I am proceeding cautiously now, using a variety of photographs as references, because I am comfortable with the likeness and rather afraid of compromising it by trying anything too radical. To be truthful, I feel as if I am walking on eggshells…
I darken the blue of the jacket and re-model the shirt before starting on the hair. This is accomplished in several discrete stages, gradually building up a structured complexity as I go along. Between these stages I re-work the flesh tones, highlights and shadows, finding them much easier to judge with the bushy mass of steely grey hair starting to form. For me this is an entirely intuitive process, going on in painfully small steps over a three to four week period. Every little success engenders a nervousness that the next step might be the false one that ruins everything. I reach the point where I believe the piece is finished, and yet I am dissatisfied. I am working on other pieces, but constantly returning to this one – just looking at it and trying to analyse the source of my own discontent. Eventually I decide that the problem isn’t a local one pertaining to a particular feature, but rather an overall one: the complexion is slightly too sallow, too yellow. I decide, with some trepidation, to attempt a final thin pink glaze, with a dash of crimson in it. In just a few minutes the sallowness dissolves, the flesh comes to life, and, unexpectedly, all is unified.
I am really happy with this piece now, but I cannot articulate precisely why. Notoriously, Wittgenstein said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Perhaps he should have tried painting.
The finished canvas measures 60cm x 80cm