A quick announcement before we begin – SALE!! A BIG sale of my small cards, plus two special editions: packs of large cards featuring my recent paintings Pied Beauty and Bonnie Smile. I’m sorry say it, but summer is on its way out, so maybe you know some people receiving exam results or making new starts in the autumn, who might appreciate a card of congratulations, good luck or simple good wishes.
And so from one quick diversion to another – my hen weekend! I promise this is not about sharing drunken stories of being handcuffed to railings. After all, what would an artist do on her hen? Why, art of course! So my maid of honour organised a session of life drawing. Perhaps it is unprofessional that at my first ever life drawing class I was wearing a ‘Bride to Be’ badge and wearing a comic beret, but aside from the jovial context this was a seriously useful artistic exercise and challenge:
For starters this was an exercise in quick drawing. As I’ve written previously, with my treatment allowing me only limited time for painting, I usually feel like of every brush stroke counts and my work is always directed towards a finished piece to sell or for commission. As such, my art of the past few years has been thorough and slow.
In this life drawing class, however, we were given only 5-10 minutes for each pose and provided with only charcoal as a drawing medium, which lends itself to bold and fluid mark-making. And it was actually really liberating to draw in an absorbed but carefree manner, with nothing riding on the finished product.
I also requested a more contorted, seated position (right), which I particularly enjoyed, I suppose because I find anything compact and intricate aesthetically engaging. It was also very good practice to work from life, where there is no camera lens to frame your composition or interpret the foreshortened areas.
I think we worked on six different poses, and my absorption and dedication to the artistic task narrowly saved me from becoming a model myself in some unseemly combination with our nude model, in what I now understand is normally the pièce de résistance of hen life drawing parties. In fact, the enormous concentration of moving focus and beginning a whole new chapter of observation for every new pose meant that by the end, we were all exhausted!
So, that was the first ‘quick’. The second ‘quick’ piece of art I have to share is, perhaps unexpectedly, a finished commission. For some types of commission the time devoted to preparation far outstrips the actual time of execution. In an oil painting of a flower, for example, little drawing is required, the drawing need not be forensically exact, but the centrality of colour and texture means that the application of paint takes hours and hours. By contrast, in a portrait, I find the preparation and drawing is key. If you draw an extra petal or two in a rose, or make one leaf slightly larger than your subject, no one will ever know and it may even be necessary to improve the composition and balance of the piece. In a portrait, the slightest deviation from the model can ruin a likeness.
As such, in a portrait I’m calling ‘Felicitas’ (because of the baby’s expression of unadulterated joy), I spent a long time on preparatory sketches and then equally long experimenting with materials. You may remember that I was considering using toned paper, which has the advantage of allowing the artist to actively draw in highlights, rather than only contributing shadow to the page. However, when working on the tinted paper with pastel pencils, they felt to me frustratingly blunt instruments, and rendered a very course texture which would have been inappropriate for the silk-smooth skin of a baby’s face. (I realise this is probably a reflection on the artist rather than the materials, as I have seen many beautifully smooth and detailed portraits in pastels by artists more expert in that medium). So, I turned to my trusty box of coloured pencils, which do not smudge and seemed to produce the kind of lightness and finesse I was after.
With all this preparation under my belt, I settled down for a final sketch of the right size on the right paper with the right pencils. And, quite quickly, it became clear to me that the portrait was flowing really nicely. The likeness was appearing and I decided to continue with it as the final work – therefore rendering the shading and detail with much more care, depth and precision. I still wanted the finish to be delicate and minimal: babies do not have the hard, structural facial features which can distinguish adult portraits or the intricacy of wrinkles. Instead my focus was the eyes – literally popping with excitement – and capturing the smooth and pillowy contours of the smiling cheeks. I may do one or two final adjustments in the coming week before it is dispatched, but thanks to weeks of preparation a practically completed portrait had materialised in the course of a single day!
Now, for the final step of ‘quick, quick, slow’. Worried that my pen and ink work of St Mary’s Battersea was too detailed and traditional in character for my client, I experimented with simplifying the shapes by transferring the image onto acetate, and overlaying this on a modern, cubist design:
In fact, at this stage it is impossible to say which will end up being most appropriate to the finished work; as you might remember this is part of a trilogy of pictures in watercolour, oil and pen. While the watercolour and pen are nearly finished, I have not been able to begin painting the picture in oils because of the time restraints of treatment. To start an oil painting I need two or three consecutive days to get into the rhythm and put down a coherent underlying layer of painting. Adjustments after this initial stage can be more fragmented, but the start is slow. So, a little patience is necessary until I have a finished oil painting to complete the set and work out which incarnation of the pen and ink will work best.
Quick quick slow – in art some things have to happen in a moment, some things take hours of labour and sometimes just a bit of time is needed to mull over the options and direction of the work. More to come before the wedding I hope, including some more upcoming commissions. In the meantime, be quick: SALE!!