The assignment brief states that the series must show a progression. I spent quite a lot of time deliberating both the subject of this series as well as the idea of progression. I looked at my most successful paintings to date and came up with a list of qualities that I would like to take forward, a summary of which is in my research book:
All my successful pieces have been quick, gestural and not overworked. In terms of subject there has not been one particular area that I excelled at, however I enjoyed doing people and portraits the most. I spent some time contemplating doing a series about tree trunks and bark as I love the patterns found on some species of tree. My tutor suggested that I explore the physicality of paint as I find the actual process of painting more engaging than the final produce. This certainly was appealing and was keen to include this, but possibly not with trees and bark as the subject. This subject idea hasn’t quite formulated in my mind enough, it is hovering just out of reach. I also feel that it is the physical process of applying the paint, ie the actual movement of my arm, that I am drawn too!
So after much mental deliberation I decided to complete a series of portraits of my eldest son. In order to make a progression, I decided to start with a realistic portrait, and then progressively make more gestural marks, reduce the number of brushstrokes and really think about what paint can do as the portrait is taken towards abstraction. The final aim of my progression would be an abstracted painting that still retained the essence of the model. In other words I wanted to be able to look at the most abstract of my paintings and still recognise the original. This would allow me to both explore the characteristics important for portrait recognition and to explore the physicality of painting with respect to representing those characteristics using very deliberate movements of the brush.
I looked at several contemporary artists completing portraits abstracted in different ways.
I was very interested in the gestural marks in all of these images (photography excepted). I have no way of knowing if these artists have captured a true likeness of the subject – with the exception perhaps with the Dumas portrait of Amy Winehouse. However what stands out amongst most of them is the high contrast of tonal areas used by the artists. Whilst I would love to get a painting abstracted to the point of the Frank Auerbach here, I decided to use the Bacon portrait as my main influence. In this portrait the features are discernible, albeit distorted. I feel that the characteristics of the model are recognisable and that if the person stood next to it I would recognise those features. This was the end point that I was after. The Auerbach seems to take this process one step further. As much as I like it, I am not sure the characteristic of the sitter is discernible. For instance, without reading the title I could not have said if the model was male or female. I also do not think I have the time available to me to create something with so thick paint, especially at the end of the series, It has to dry in time for me to send off and I am pushing the time I have left available to do a third module!
Initially I spent some time sketching my son from life. I need a composition that would allow enough scope to abstract at differing levels. Whilst he was occupied with a screen, I first sketched him from a variety of angles. I liked the low view-point that the first sketch gave although I also came to like the extreme high view-point of the bottom left sketch. I think this would be hard to take to abstraction however as much of the face is in fact hidden. I decided to go with the low view-point as it conveyed a sense of the model being occupied with something other than having his portrait drawn. He had quite an intense look about him that came across in this pose. Using some old watercolour paintings as grounds I did too charcoal and chalk sketches at a view-point that was more level with my model. The first had the overhead lights shining down on his face, the second the light was coming in from a window behind, so the head was backlit. The second was going to be too dark to work with (although I think a backlit portrait has potential) so I went with the overhead lighting. I then completed an oil pastel sketch from the lower view-point to map out the main tonal areas. Putting these sketches together I again confirmed my choice of the lower view-point. It has a more commanding view of the head and suggests great concentration by the model.
Once settled on a composition I took some reference photos as I would not be able to paint him from life unfortunately. I used these reference photographs to complete my series from this point on. In order to move from sketches to paint, I did a quick study in acrylic to get me going and to enable me to identify some of the more difficult areas. Portraits are difficult at the best of times! I found the most tricky parts to get down were the eyes and the end of the nose. It is hard to say which parts of the face make for a true likeness of a person because they all work together to form a whole. However there are some tricky shapes and highlights in both of these features and getting them right will be half the likeness battle won.
I wasn’t too concerned with using a true to life colour palette. As I was working from photographs and the lighting was just normal household lighting, colours were altered anyway. So I worked out a skin tone palette that would enable me to concentrate of the tonal variations in the portraits rather than worry about true colour representation.
I chose to work with oil paints as these allow manipulation when on the surface. As much as possible I aimed to work wet on wet, so I could work quickly and hopefully be gestural in my approach. I prepared some preparatory oil painting paper with a wash of burnt sienna to give a warm ground to work on. All portraits were completed on the same size paper: 16 in x 12 in.
Painting 1: the realistic portrait
I completed an underpainting quite quickly, mapping out the main shapes and blocking in the main tones. From there I added more detail to the features and more detail to the tonal steps.
At this point I had to stop painting and return to it after a break. By the time I returned the painting was fairly dry. I continued to put more detail down, unfortunately loosing some of the like-ness and looseness of the previous painting session (arrgh!!) I struggled to get these back. The only way I could do this was to print out a copy of the version I had ended up with and then draw on it to map out what needed to rectified.
Finishing painting 1.
To a certain extent I managed to pull the painting back. I regained much of the likeness, however a lot of the brush marks ended up quite overworked and slightly ‘hyper-real’. This isn’t quite what I intended but at least it gives a very realistic start point to the series.
For this portrait I needed to adopt a loose way of working, similar to the how the first portrait was a the end of the first session of painting. I used a painting by Lucian Freud to think about contours of the face. The problem I faced was that the right side of the face is quite brightly lit and so much of the tonal variation is lost. I still needed to get a sense of the bone structure across
I repeated the mapping out of tonal areas as before, but tried to use more distinct brushwork. Immediately it became evident that I had lost the likeness .When you start working with larger blocks of colour, there is a tendency for everything to widen to accommodate your brush! I had to work very hard to thin this portrait back down to its correct proportions.
finishing painting 2
I have managed to make this portrait much more gestural. the brushwork is starting to be evident, with elements of sculpting and construction with the paint emerging. In particular the area of the right orbit shows this. The left side of the face is less successful in this and looks quite similar to the first portrait.
Painting 3 was the most unsatisfactory of the series, and in many ways the least successful. In wanting to move to a more abstracted form, I didn’t do an underpainting. I went straight into applying paint onto the paper in broad strokes using a wider brush than previously used. However the proportions were all messed up and the whole face lacked structure. It was a bit of a mess!
Finishing painting 3
I was unable to continue to work on this version for some time. When I returned I painted over the above image with another layer of broad brush strokes, building up the tonal areas. However I was unable to pull the likeness back and this remains the least like Tom of the whole series. In addition, it is not significantly different in terms of gesturalness to painting 2. This portrait has not continued the process to abstraction. However there is evidence of forms being sculpted out of paint more (notably the chin and cheek in highlight).
Learning from the previous portrait I managed to block in the main parts of portrait 4 with a wide brush and still maintain most of the proportions correctly. The intermediate stage of this painting really shows the process of sculpting the shape of the cheek bone with paint. The eyes took some working out but I did mange to sort this painting as a wet on wet painting.
Finishing painting 4
I had high hopes for this portrait to be the first in the series that would be considered slightly abstract. However I got bogged down with detail trying to create more of the sense of the features and I lost the spontaneity of the under layer pictured above. The finished portrait is one step further along the gestural spectrum but it is no further along the abstract spectrum! I have reduced the brushstrokes I am using significantly but I don’t feel as if I am using the paint to tell the story in a way that I wanted to.I am pleased however that my forms are very much suggested by the brushwork. There is a real sense of investigation into the bone structure of the face with the marks (especially the cheek and eye in highlight). Interestingly this is Tom’s favourite portrait of himself in the series.
I realised that I needed to do something quite radical to move on from where I was in the progression. I was in danger of producing hundreds of portraits all very much in the same style as each other. I spent a little time thinking about how to move on, looking at my chosen artist portraits and consolidating some thoughts in my sketchbook. One thing I was noticing, the more abstract portraits tend to be taken out of context of a background. That is not to say that a background does not exist, rather, there is a lot of paring down of background information, often leaving it blank as in the case of the Bacon and Auerbach portraits. Another technique is that the painter crops to a very intimate view-point, so perhaps just the visage is famed, such as the Dumas painting of Amy Winehouse. In this case there really isn’t any background. This is also seen in a very gestural painting in my sketchbook by Erik Olson. Here thick brush strokes define the structure of the face. This is what I am trying to achieve and I am not quite getting there – or at least when I do it is at a very unfinished level which then gets lost when i try to finish it!
At this point I happened to come across the contemporary artist Jonathan Yeo. Whilst he is not painting abstract portraits he has a wonderfully loose style full of character. Many of his portraits are against a dark background which contain little detail (some contain evidence of geometric grids and lines, but not everyday details). This artist was new to me but I really admire this work. I am drawn to the way that not all his paintings are ‘finished’ in the sense that often the outer areas of a portrait are more shadowy and sketchy allowing the viewer to focus of the main features of the face (usually the visage).
I made the decision that I needed to take my portrait out of its environment and reduce the background. The lighting on my model was very strong on the outward facing side of the face. In reality this meant that the curtain behind the subject was also brightly lit, creating a very light background. By making the background dark this side of the face would be thrown out more. I also needed to be very brave with my mark making to remove the tendency to end up with the same style of portrait. At the start of painting 5 I did a very quick warm up sketch in acrylics, just to loosen up. I then immediately grabbed my oil paints and launched into portrait 5
I was very pleased with my initial mapping out of the portrait. I have managed to capture the character I was after without detail and without too much brushwork. The dark background definitely made it easier to envisage what the final portrait might look like and did throw the light side of the face forward, making form easier to depict. I think that the highlight on the neck in particular works well: 2 light strokes over a slightly darker area. It is rough and gestural but it works, there is a sense of both the light falling on the neck and also the tension in the neck held by its underlying structure.
finishing painting 5
It was very tempting to leave painting 5 as it was above, however as much as I had managed to progress in my abstraction and reduction of brushwork, the portrait was very much unfinished. I very much needed to darken the background more and try once again to define in a simple way the main features. To a certain extent I feel that I succeeded with this although in adding the dark tones I lost the fluidity of the brushstrokes in the neck! However compared to portraits 1 – 4 this represents a huge step in my progression. I think it is also a more engaging portrait too, the background was unnecessary to the context of the pose. Now the viewers eyes are focused on the face and the intense concentration of the model.
Having reduced the background I am starting to see the form of the face in highlight and can start to visualise how this will become abstracted. The paint is able to form a line down the nose, along the cheek bone and around the ear. This is forming a major part of the character of this face. I am also aware at this point in the process my progression has actually been about understanding how to paint a portrait! I have never painted the same subject over and over again. There maybe much frustration when I don’t think I have moved towards my goal in this assignment, however, I am learning so much about how to apply paint and how to represent the face; far more than I ever thought!
In spite of the frustrations of previous portraits I suddenly have a feel as to how this abstraction process will work. Through out all the previous portraits there have been certain lines that I have been keen to create with simple brushstrokes. One is the main curve of contours from the bridge of the nose around to the ear that I mentioned above. This is where the physicality of painting comes in. I have a need to make that movement with one gestural sweep! Others are the highlight areas on the chin and on the eyebrow ridge. In the Bacon portrait (below left) there several similar sweeps made with one continuous brush stroke: one from the temple down past the ear and along the upper jaw line; another down the bridge of the nose and one along the bottom edge of the lower jaw.
I briefly toy with the idea that the abstracted portrait should be on a white background with a lower intensity of light being represented on the near side of the face. I do a quick acrylic study, however I prefer the effect of the dark background previously setting off the highlighted areas.
I am also reminded of a gilded mummy mask (above right) that I saw a few years ago as part of the Francis Bacon and the Masters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. The mask was only a fragment, but set against a black backdrop, the effect of the partial face was stunning. The only image I can find of it is a poor quality one I took with my phone, but it gives the idea. Whether Bacon took inspiration from this actual mask in making some of his portraits is not clear, but his distorted faces with in-cutting of shadow areas are certainly very reminiscent of the effects seen with the staging of the mask. I repeat the study on a dark background, letting the dark areas of the background run into the shadow areas of the face in the way the Bacon portrait does.
I then cover my support with my dark shadow mix as the background and let it dry enough to work on without mixing. Taking my largest brush I scoop up huge amounts of my lightest tone and dip my brush gently at its edge into a mixture of aliz. crimson and burnt sienna and ‘draw’ on the features that I have been slowly learning about in this series. I try not to go over any lines, I let the paint run out and become more transparent as the brush dries a little, showing the dark ground through. I am working the bone structure around the shadow areas. They have become negative spaces. The lips are in a different perspective to the rest of the head, an accident but one that I like. I manage to maintain the long swirl of paint down the nose, across the cheek and around to form the base of the ear.
I am pleased with the concept of this as an abstract portrait. There are areas that I managed to mess up. I put a highlight area under the lips where in fact there is a deep shadow. I also haven’t got the eyes right, they look lopsided. However the biggest thing that hasn’t worked in this portrait is that I have lost the sense of who the portrait is of. I don’t feel it has the character of the others, and put next to the others, I don’t think it is recognisable as Tom. So with my deadline looming I set out to complete one more portrait in an attempt to retain that character.
I really felt the pressure with this one. I needed to have at least a week for the paintings to dry before sending off to my tutor so needed to get this one right! Given I felt I had a successful execution of the previous portrait, if not a successful outcome, I made a plan of the order that I was going to lay down my brushstrokes. This was to preserve the sweep of individual brush strokes as I could not easily make corrections. I wanted to build up the face in the same way but retain the character of Tom
I made my background much darker, using raw umber and burnt sienna. For putting in the face I again used my largest brush and loaded it with paint, but mixed in some slightly darker tones to try to add a little more streakiness to the marks. I was careful to keep the perspective of the lips different from that of the rest of the face, I like the mis-match between the two. In such a reduced portrait this mismatch acts as a bit of a focal point. I scratched the lip line in with the brush handle. The portrait sits on the page a little too far to the right and my ear curve ran off, however I let it go. that is not the important part, the side of the nose and its high contrast between light and dark is more engaging.
finishing painting 7
My initial painting included a bit of the right hand orbit, as in portrait 6. However the more I looked at it, the more I thought the effect would be better without it.
Very painstakingly, using cotton wool buds and zest-it, I managed to remove that part of the painting, and another part to introduce a shadow under the ear. I am glad I did, it makes a better image. Whilst there is a bit of reflected light on the right side of the face it isn’t in strong light and thus was a bit of a mismatch with the rest of the portrayed features.
The brushstrokes are not as well-defined in this portrait compared to No.6. I may have had too much paint on the brush, it didn’t run out and produce the drag lines I was after. However what I do feel this version has is the character of the original portrait and of the model Tom. Putting them side by side, I feel that the essence of the first is captured in the last. I am pleased with this result, but am also very aware that I could not have gone from the first portrait directly to the last. Whilst the intermediate steps didn’t always work how I wanted them too, they were important steps that I had to go through to be able to get to the end point.
The portraits altogether
Putting all the portraits together I am amazed at how one person can look so different yet remain being that same person. With the exception of portrait 6, they all look like him (although 3 less so). The assignment requires a series of 3 -5 paintings showing a progression. I need to work out which of these 7 show that progression best. I will post that and my overall evaluation as a different post.