Tag Archives: portraiture

Tanya Ramsey

Tanya #1
Tanya #1

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.

Tanya #2
Tanya #2

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.

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith

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.

Tanya Ramsey
Tanya Ramsey

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.

Nichola – completed

Nichola
Nichola

I have written about the importance of reflecting Nichola’s personality in this portrait, and completing the painting involved a tricky combination of accomplishing this rather ill-defined task while carrying out some more routine work. The easy part was the clothing, getting a more three dimensional effect and toning down the scarf with some more convincing shadows. I decided to change the flesh tones a little while doing the final modelling of Nichola’s facial features, working to get more of a ‘glow’ into her appearance. This contributed to the atmospheric effect I was looking for, but still something seemed wrong. It took over a week for me to identify the problem, keeping the work nearby while I worked on other canvases, returning frequently to glance at it briefly, as though trying to catch my subject unawares and reveal a hidden secret. This is typical of the sort of psychological game the portrait artist sometimes has to play in order to get at an idea or approach that remains buried beneath the surface of analytical thought. Eventually this off-beat approach bore fruit: in focusing on the subject’s direct gaze I realised that it implied that her attention would be on the viewer – this worked against my desire to convey the atmosphere around her. I wanted, needed, her to be thinking of something else, something slightly intangible. Working exclusively on the eyes, and on the positioning of the irises, I moved Nichola’s gaze into an indeterminate space that suggests, perhaps, an air of wistfulness, an inner world of her own. We can’t tell what she is thinking about, but we know it’s not us.

The completed canvas measures 30 inches by 48 inches.

Patrick Ring – In His Own Words

In my previous post I had brought my portrait of Patrick up to a level where I could see my way quite clearly through to completion. Toning down the scarf, adjusting rest of the clothing and bringing in the hair were all straightforward tasks. Similarly, adjusting the flesh tones only required a few simple glazes. Patrick is a formidable character whose strength of will has underpinned a dramatic change in his fortunes since he first came into contact with St. Mungo’s. At a recent event in support of the charity he gave a remarkable speech (although he would prefer to call it a ‘little talk’), and he kindly agreed to let me publish it here:

Patrick Ring
Patrick Ring

“I am a member of Outside In, which is St. Mungo’s Broadway’s client involvement group. I joined Outside In to get active, learn new things, move away from isolation and hopefully inspire others with my own story of recovery. Outside In makes my former life and experience feel valuable, as St. Mungo’s Broadway consults me, as a result of my experience, on how projects should operate and how the organisation and its clients should move forward together. I was asked to speak today about the health and wellbeing of Homeless People. I thought the best thing I could do is share my story with you. When I became homeless I was in a very dark place due to a traumatic experience that remained untreated. I was very lucky to come across St. Mungo’s Broadway when I arrived at a residential project in Haringey. With a stable home St. Mungo’s Broadway has given me the opportunity to overcome past experiences that pushed me to end up homeless. That experience was eight years ago. I was kidnapped and subjected to torture over three days. This had a very negative effect on my wellbeing. I didn’t know who could help me and I developed a dependency on substances to deal with the anxiety, loss of self-esteem, loss of confidence, loss of dignity. All this ultimately led to the loss of my home. After finding accommodation in a St. Mungo’s Broadway hostel, I eventually felt able to share my experience with staff whom I trusted. After telling Outside In staff about this experience they offered t refer me to talking therapy with a psychotherapist, which I decided to try. I have found that this has started to help and given me a new way of dealing with my emotions. They also encouraged me to value my strengths and have helped me to develop my own photography course that I lead at St. Mungo’s Broadway Recovery College in Southwark. I am also now planning to lead some peer support groups in our residential projects. It is all these different opportunities that start to add up to feeling like I have a life of purpose in which I am happier.

“St. Mungo’s Broadway, together with Outside In, is now campaigning about the health and wellbeing of homeless people with Homeless Health Matters. Poor health is a fact of life for many people who are homeless. Almost twice as many people who use homelessness services have long-term physical health problems and mental health diagnoses compared to the general public. These shocking health inequalities have no place in our society. I would like to thank St. Mungo’s Broadway for believing in me, and for empowering me to make a stepping stone to change my life. I am now a more confident person who believes you can overcome bad situations with the right support.

“Thanks to everyone who came this evening. I would not be able to finish without mentioning Andy Williams who has been my main mentor and inspiration for making my life better.”

Patrick Ring: continued…

Patrick #3
Patrick #3

I was pleased with the start I made on Patrick’s portrait, the likeness was apparent from the initial drawing, and I found myself working to preserve a mood rather than create one. Work on the three stages of the portrait shown in this post was carried out intermittently over an extended twelve week period, interrupted at one point by a trip to Hong Kong and Australia. I took several images with me so that I would have plenty of thinking time to plan subsequent work on the portrait. My first move was to work in a neutral background and to echo some of the background colour in shadow glazes for the flesh tones. At Patrick #2 the flesh tones were given an exaggerated redness, and at Patrick #3 you can see how I have glazed over these (using various combinations of raw Sienna, gold ochre and pale Naples yellow) to create a more natural, less florid, effect.

Patrick #4
Patrick #4

The next step was to work on Patrick’s eyes, mainly to give me further guidance on the overall effect of the portrait. I have written about the complexity of my subject’s character, and I wanted to show this in the eyes, emphasising their steely light. Once this was done, I reverted to building up the complexity of the flesh tones, working in a variety of reds and yellows. I took the unusual step of using Payne’s grey in some of the shadows, an intuitive move, perhaps influenced by a wish to harmonise with the neutral background I had chosen. There is a plethora of ‘rules’ for painting, and for painting portraits in particular. It is a good idea to internalise as much of this information as possible, but sometimes even more important to break away and just follow pure instinct.

Patrick #5
Patrick #5

With Patrick #4 I had reached a stage with the flesh tones where I needed to bring in the clothing before making any further adjustments. This is just a personal quirk of mine, finding it easier to judge pitch and key when there is more surrounding, contextual, information to go on. As soon as I had done this I felt dissatisfied with the hue of the background and  went over it with a thinnish glaze of Michael Harding Italian green umber, a beautiful earth colour to work with. These changes made it much easier to work on the flesh tones, and I went through a gradual process of lightening the surface, allowing the underpainting to continue to have its influence. Patrick #5 feels close to completion, but there are still some major issues to resolve…

David Lawrence – In His Own Words

David Lawrence
David Lawrence

“I had a very strict upbringing, always surrounded by adults, so that when I went to school I had difficulty adjusting and couldn’t stand up for myself, but I didn’t realise it was a problem, I just thought that’s the way things are. I didn’t do well educationally, and I got a lot of criticism from my parents. I think that’s when I started to lose self-esteem.

“I came to London to work in my twenties, and again I had difficulty adjusting – that’s something that has continued throughout my life. I ended up homeless because of people taking advantage of me, staying in my flat and not paying rent, things like that. I got into some temporary accommodation and Southwark Council put me on their ‘vulnerable’ list. They put me in a hostel in Peckham, but it was full of drug takers and alcoholics, making things really difficult for me – you could call it ‘socialising with the wrong people.’ Things started to change for the better when I moved into a semi-independent house and it was taken over by St. Mungo’s. In 2012 I joined Outside In, and this really helped me to understand my own problems more. I’ve learned some important life skills, how to relate to other people properly, and through psychotherapy, I’ve been able to improve my relationship judgments – how to stand up for myself, not be too trusting, and deal with people who have caused me problems. Because I was so lonely, I would accept anything, but I’ve learned how to question people and exercise judgment.

“Now, I’m involved in a lot of voluntary work: doing regular reception sessions at the Recovery College; fundraising work at Griffin House; going into hostels and talking to clients about new services; working on the Recovery Approach scheme to help hostel staff give better service to clients.

“My plan for the future is simply to create a better life for myself. I’m starting to build healthy relationships with other people, and to gain confidence. I’m hoping to go to college and study book-keeping and business administration. I need to start coming to terms with life outside St. Mungo’s, and I’ve just joined the Choir With No Name. Soon I plan to join Cardboard Citizens. It’s all about buildng a different type of life.”

Nichola: ‘the atmosphere around her’

 

Nichola #1
Nichola #1

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.

Nichola #2
Nichola #2

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.

Nichola #3
Nichola #3

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.

Nichola #4
Nichola #4

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.

Nichola #5
Nichola #5

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.

Finishing Richard Kirwan

Richard #8
Richard #8

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.

Richard Kirwan
Richard Kirwan

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.

The final piece measures 70cm x 100cm.