Tag Archives: portrait

Second post, second portrait: David Lawrence

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1947

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.

David #1
David #1

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…

David #2
David #2

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.

David #3
David #3

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.

David #4
David #4

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.

David #5
David #5

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…

David Lawrence
David Lawrence

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

New project, new studio, back to working in oil… and the first portrait

In mid-2014 a number of things came together. I had built a new studio at the end of my garden and I had a new project to work on as artist-in-residence at the St. Mungo’s Broadway Trust: creating portraits of the trust’s clients, past and present, for an exhibition and charity auction. The new studio was important because I find it difficult to work systematically in oils without a dedicated space, and the project called for systematic working methods, being able to have several pieces in progress at any one time. I had been creating portraits of homeless people for several years, working in graphite, acrylic ink and watercolour. It was time for something a little more ambitious.The choice of the first portrait subject was a no-brainer: Gordon Chaston, a former client, was one of the first people I met at St. Mungo’s. A real character by any reckoning, he helped me recruit subjects and offered to write commentaries on them or do interviews for the exhibition. Thanks to Gordon I was off to a flying start.

Gordon 01
Gordon #1

I started off with a simple drawing on a burnt sienna ground, using raw and burnt umber with a thin flake white wash for the highlights. The thin wash of burnt Sienna seemed a little fierce so I pushed the pale yellow/green background in early on. I took my time getting this initial drawing right, concentrating on the relative positioning of the key features. I did this mainly in order to give myself a level of confidence around being on the right track. A friend stopped by and remarked on the fact that all the life drawing I had done in recent years seemed to be paying off. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but I suppose he was right. At this point it isn’t a painting, but rather a drawing done with oil paint. Having said that, I find the distinction between painting and drawing rather arbitrary, and one that I try to ignore as far as possible.

Gordon 02
Gordon #2

The next stage (Gordon #2) is the gradual laying in of a series of glazes and washes to build up a complexity of flesh tones. The first stage of my drawing had been done with a soft graphite pencil and I had forgotten to fix this before applying any paint to the canvas. As a result my washes picked up some of the graphite and gave a darker effect than I had intended. Not all of the consequences are negative, but I make a mental note not to repeat this error. Quite a bit of the burnt sienna ground is left in place as a mid-tone, allowing the warmth of its glow to show through subsequent layers of paint. The main concern at this stage is an overall tonal relationship, together with a gradual refinement of the features. As I go along I refine the drawing with the placing and adjustment of shadows using raw umber.

Gordon 3
Gordon #3

Now I’ve worked into the background to bring it a little closer to the shade of green that I want and made an important adjustment to the flesh tones  by glazing with caput mortuum. This isn’t an easy pigment to get hold of and I get mine in powdered form from Cornelissen, mixing it with stand oil and then a little Liquin to thin the glaze. The effect is an unusual one at this point with an almost metallic quality, but the rationale for it becomes clearer in subsequent stages as I use a further series of thin glazes that are much closer to natural skin tones. I am still refining the drawing and work on some of the shadow areas with burnt umber while the glaze is still wet. This is a delicate process and I tend to use much smaller soft sable brushes than most artists might usually choose.

Chuikov - The daughter of Soviet Kirgizia
Chuikov – The daughter of Soviet Kirgizia

Lots to think about now as it starts to become clear to me where the inspiration for this piece came from. I had taken dozens of photographs of Gordon, but I now know why I settled on this particular pose and expression. It had reminded me, subconsciously, of the work of Semyon Chuikov (1902-80), a Russian Socialist Realist painter whose work I first saw in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow in 1993. Chuikov’s most famous work, The daughter of Soviet Kirgizia, was the subject of a well-known Soviet postage stamp. In a move typical of the Socialist Realist school, the slight upward angle and the lighting create a heroic image out of an otherwise mundane subject. Gordon is a politically sophisticated individual with strongly egalitarian views. Somehow, I imagined him as a political commissar, painted by Chuikov in the 1950s…

Gordon 4
Gordon #4

With this now at the back of my mind I know what I need to do with the light to make the portrait work. I work briefly on the shirt using a mixture of cobalt blue and Prussian blue, and then concentrate on a series of thin glazes to build up the flesh tones into a more naturalistic look. I’m using burnt umber, burnt sienna, Naples yellow, cadmium red and flake white in various mixtures to achieve this. Between these glazes I redefine the darkest shadow areas with raw umber to retain the tonal balance. The application of the previous glaze of caput mortuum has acted as a warm grey underpainting for this stage. I note that as the relative strength of the highlights changes, so does the facial expression. It becomes important to stand back from the canvas periodically in order to retain control of this effect.

Gordon #5
Gordon #5

I now have a  clear direction in mind, and start to feel as though I’m on the home run. After further work on the background to make the green less chemical and more organic, I work on the hair with a simple palette of lamp black, raw umber and flake white. Then I lighten the blue of the shirt, improving the modelling of the fabric, while  changing the emphasis of the highlights so that they accord with what I have in mind  for the lighting of the face and neck. The first step here is a thin glaze of raw sienna with a touch of flake white. Before this glaze dries I work into it with touches of  flake white for the highlights (including a slight, but important, widening of the upper part of the nose) and a 50/50 mix of raw and burnt umber for the shadows.

Gordon Chaston
Gordon Chaston

All that remains is a series of final adjustments, particularly to highlights which need to be emphasised. Gordon comes to the studio for a final sitting, but there is less to do than I imagined. I am keen to ensure that I get some flavour of penetrating intelligence into his gaze – this is, after all, a man who teaches courses in astronomy and cosmology at the St. Mungo’s Recovery College (a unique and remarkable institution of which more in future posts). Finally, I decide that the piece is finished. Of course, there is more that I could do, but I now have the feeling that I’m just as likely to detract from the work as I am to improve it – a sure sign that it is time to stop.

The finished canvas measures 60cm x 80cm