Painting post-mortem: A’s portrait

A full view of the finished painting. The mountain looks translucent but isn't.

A full view of the finished painting.

Earlier in the year, around June, my old university friend A. sent me a request: Could I paint her a portrait based on a photo of her and her hubby posing near a mountain lake, and could I paint it in time for their wedding anniversary in July. At this point I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve painted things faster than that before that I’m satisfied with”, and I agreed to the painting, but I didn’t really realise how difficult it would end up. The dimensions of the painting were extremely small compared with the A5 paper I often work upon. The final composition had to fit landscape on a 12×16 inch canvas, and while I had plenty of confidence I could paint the hills and lake in the scene, the actual size of the full figures within the scene was in the vicinity of 5 square centimetres. The task proved too much for me and I surpassed the deadline by roughly two months, it was all very unprofessional, and a result of my overpromising. I really did not, prior to this painting, have a firm enough grasp on my own limitations, or to factor in course commitments, but thankfully I can use this portrait as a yardstick for estimating reasonable time frames on future work.

M.'s face is fine, and bears some resemblance to him, but A.'s face was a continual challenge, verging on disaster. In the final piece, while you could say who it is supposed to be, there is no spark of recognition, and in fact the head looks swollen. This remains the one portion of the portrait that I am deeply unhappy with, and my apologies go to A - my skills were not yet up to the challenge.

M.’s face is fine, and bears some resemblance to him, but A.’s face was a continual challenge, verging on disaster. In the final piece, while you could say who it is supposed to be, there is no spark of recognition, and in fact the head looks swollen. This remains the one portion of the portrait that I am deeply unhappy with, and my apologies go to A – my skills were not yet up to the challenge.

I am happy with almost the whole painting, but the part I am not happy with – A.’s head – is an incredibly important part of the composition’s meaning. This is a painting about a couple, and to fail to depict one of their faces well is a pretty serious problem. The landscape is great. I’m very happy with it. The pose of the couple, as well, which was tricky. I don’t, as a rule, like painting based on photographs, I much prefer in person or en plein air, but I found the ability to enlarge the image and reduce facial structures into high-contrast shapes via GIMP extremely helpful in resolving the faces, to the degree that I did. I found I needed to abstract the colours of the original image a lot, so that the “red” and “blonde” of A and M’s respective hairs became much more saturated than in reality, the light on their faces almost white.

Process

I am an inexperienced painter, without a deep knowledge of materials or traditional painterly processes. Often I am building up my practice based as much on my more extensive abilities as a cartoonist – I fall back on outlines to convey shapes, and tend towards bolder, less refined representation. I don’t think these are bad habits in themselves, but they do stand in the way of my building up control. Recently a lecturer at school dismissively remarked “Anyone can be a virtuoso, it’s a mechanical thing.” What that comment neglects is that anyone who builds up that mechanical knowledge – that craftspersonship – will have a broader and more nuanced ability to paint even less refined pieces than anyone who hasn’t made the investment. I am reminded of Samuel Johnson’s remark that, “The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language”, a quote that often springs to my mind, and it seems no less true for painterly skill and the quality of representation.

Layers of dark paint with a light sky gradient.

Layers of dark paint with a light sky gradient.

I began by laying down dark colours, I’m not sure why. The earliest photo I have of this is with the terrible camera on our tablet, including a thumb blocking the view. 🙂 Sally Morgan informed me during a painting workshop that beginning with dark colours is how one would work with oils, and said she’d like to see me work with oil paints. My awesome classmate Sophia has gifted me a set of oils, so I’ll be giving this a go over the Summer period. I’m not sure there’s a wrong or right process here, in terms of working dark to light or light to dark. I need to find out why things are done certain ways.

Eventually I had, laid down, the bones of the painting. Lots of flat pieces of colour, with some black outlines, and quite a lot of artistic departures from the original photo.

Earlier in the painting it was a matter of wrestling paint into rough shapes with rough depth throughout the composition.

The weave of the canvas kept lending my “rocks” an annoying regularity, so I threw down some textured gel. I spend a lot of time flicking and dabbing paint onto these areas, trying to find the larger forms within the noise of the scene. It was extremely difficult and extremely rewarding.

Towards the end of the piece the colours became overly dark and crisp, and my inability to capture A.’s face was my major obsession. Here her face is absent, having already been painted over around four times. At this point I had to rework light into the piece, looking to establish the sense of depth and contrast I had lost.

A very dark and unblended version in the weeks before completion.

Some Details I Like:

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