You know those times where it feels like just one thing after another? Well, over the last few weeks if it hasn’t been newly-discovered health complications, it’s been the expected rigours of treatment, and if it hasn’t been treatment getting me down, it’s been the good old common cold. Amidst this turnstile of illness it’s been hard to squeeze in the art, but where I found a moment or two, it’s been all about portraits.
I love portraits and I never do enough of them because it’s no longer fashionable to commission a portrait. But there are few things as beautiful and engaging as a face to paint. And that face need not be human! Having grown up with dogs, there is a similar kind of connection that can be had from looking into a dog’s eyes as a human’s. Those of you who’ve never owned a dog will not doubt be rolling your own eyes, but I maintain that science backs me up! Dogs look for and perceive emotional cues in human faces which makes it much more meaningful to look at them that at any other animal.
Fortunately I have an almighty commission of five canine portraits coming up over the next year – almighty in terms of number but not, of course, in terms of scale. These are portraits will all be only 5 inches high, but I hope will capture just as much personality as a grand life-size affair. And, true to my predilections, I’ve started with the smallest of the family: a little chap called Jet:
I enjoy working in almost-monochrome, although you might be surprised at the quantities of blue, purple, ochre and sienna that went into this symphony of black and white! With such a limited palette I was able to work quickly, but this portrait will take a thorough revisiting because fine detail just gets swallowed up when dealing which such a dominant and dark colour.
Of course, the most interesting thing about canine portraits is how different the facial shapes can be. I’m well versed in the anatomy of golden retrievers and labradors, but Jet and my next subject, Emrys, are quite different! I’m very much looking forward to tackling the statuesque silhouette of this young lurcher, and it will be interest to paint a short coat with a much more refined texture.
In terms of human portraits, I haven’t been able to work up any finished paintings but instead have been working on a new concept with the aim of capturing the multi-faceted nature of the individual – not a single view but a “Portrait in Parts”. I was first inspired by reading an interview with David Hockney, where he explains how important it is to him that his portraits include the sitter’s feet, because so much can be implied by their choice of footwear. This struck a chord. When you paint a person’s face, you are largely painting something over which they have had relatively little control. Their sense of style, the objects the collect and use, their preferences and opinions – these are indicative of their chosen self, rather than simple physiognomy. Of course, I have no intention to abandon facial depiction, and indeed, other parts of the body, such as the hands, can be very individual and distinctive. Instead, my portrait in parts is an attempt to glimpse all these elements at once:
My guinea pig was my lucky husband, who got very little say in the ‘parts’ that I chose! (One would hope I know him well enough to make a decent stab at his style and preferences…) Here I enjoyed the contrast between areas of detail and the clean, simple square of blue. The main portrait element would almost always be done in oil, but for the sake of a mock up I have done a simple sketch.
The most fun I have had so far with this idea was with a close friend visiting us a few weekends ago:
Of course, in a traditional portrait, the sitter is completely at the mercy of the artist, who is in a much better place to decide how to commit their appearance to paper than their subject! However, what was so enjoyable about this form of portraiture was the collaborative nature of the process – it felt like doing a private ‘Desert Island Discs’ interview to find out what colours, objects, garments, symbols and quotations most captured their total personality. I loved the resulting mock up too because it had so much in it that could only have been contributed by the sitter herself, and for her the resonances behind the objects are so powerful – full of memories and significances which the casual observer cannot guess. As another bonus, I think I may have discovered an fruitful outlet for my recent attachment to drawing wooden spoons: why not progress onto antique coffee spoons?!
At the other end of the spectrum, both in terms of my affection for the ‘sitter’ and the extent of their participation (i.e. None!), I then turned to the notorious new president of the United States:
While the process was much less enjoyable, I still found the possibilities of this format interesting, this time in highlighting political issues rather than personal reflections (though, as the bottom-right square indicates, I doubt there would be much of a soul to portray anyway). From an artist’s point of view, the different parts still offer diverse artistic challenges, such as the golden ingots and brick wall, no matter how distasteful the person may be!
I would love to work on more of these. Usually mock-ups will be £15, (which would then be deducted from the cost of a fully worked up, painted portrait) but for the first three people to get in touch I will make up one for free! The mock-up would involve a ‘consultation’ with me, by phone or facebook messenger or email, and of course a little hand-drawn sketch for you to keep. So have a think – what would the parts of your portrait be?