An Autumn blog
on the progress of a portrait
from John Washington
For those who attended November’s visit to the BP Portrait Award at RAMM, and indeed for other members and friends, I thought it might be interesting for the Club to follow progress online of a portrait of one of our members.
I should emphasise that I’m not a professional artist and there will be all sorts of issues along the way so I can only hope that the end result does some justice to the likeness and character of the subject, Alan Emery.
Remember, there are as many techniques for painting a portrait as there are portrait painters so this is simply one of the ways that suits me, in particular for this project.
Following an initial chat to establish how and where to paint Alan, we agreed that the best place would be at home in his study, surrounded by pertinent objects as clues to his professional life and interests. Dressed casually in sweater and cords, Alan was very patient while I spent a morning sketching him in different positions and arranging the background to work as a satisfying composition.
I chose a 20”x16” canvas board to work on using a limited repertoire of Winton oil paints. Yellow ochre, vermillion, ultramarine and cerulean blue, burnt sienna, black and of course, white. For dilution and cleansing purposes I like pure turpentine and Liquin. And lots of rags.
To start with I laid down a rough, pale yellow ochre wash so that I have a colour base to work on. Frankly, I don’t much like painting directly on to a white background – a bit cold and daunting in my view (and frankly, I need all the help I can get!). Also the ochre gives an immediate warmth which I hope will come through in the finished painting.
Following this, I started drawing out the basics to ensure the composition would work with all the elements in place.
I prefer to paint initially with broad brush strokes using at least a number 8, stiff hog hair brush. It helps to get shape, light and shade down as quickly as possible as a basis from which to work. My brush size will decrease, the further into the details I get, probably going down to a number 2 which will give me a fine point for more intricate work.
You will see that I’ve started with the head albeit only very rough, just so that I’m happy I'll be able to achieve some sort of likeness. Having done this, I’m a bit more confident that I can move on and start to introduce other elements – his sweater, the chair on which he’s sitting and eventually other parts of the background.
On to some detail. Alan's work has centred around research and teaching and he's written many, many scientific papers on medical genetics. The microscope has played an essential part in all this and one of his beloved originals is a permanent feature in his study. Being a scientific instrument, I wanted to ensure that the basic details were correct so although it certainly won't be a technical illustration, the construction is essentially sound.
Also he has a small bust of Socrates reflecting his interest in ancient Greece so this forms an important ingredient of the portrait.
You'll see from the following pictures how I’m working on the background in stages to ensure it blends and becomes part of the painting. I start off by just what you might call ‘roughly knocking it in’ and then I'll add further detail at a later stage.
Eventually I'll have the entire canvas board covered with sufficient information to enable me to put in some finer detail where appropriate. Having said this, I’m not a great enthusiast for photo-realism so I want to retain a degree of painterliness (if that’s a word) in the finished portrait. In my view it encourages the viewer to use his or her imagination to complete their own interpretation and suggest the character of the subject which of course is vital if the portrait is in any way going to be successful.
At this stage I think should 'fess up and admit that for the background details like the microscope, books and finer points of his likeness I’m using photographic reference – Alan’s time and availability is of course limited so using the camera I can progress without having to impose on his time and goodwill. That is unless and until it’s vital at a later stage when we’re nearing completion.
Now the background is starting to come together and the next stage will be to put in a bit more detail work – but only where I feel it’s necessary. There’s a balance to be struck and I don’t want what’s behind Alan to detract from his portrait. For example, the books will only have an indication of a title apart from two that are featured as examples of his interests in art and poetry.
When this is done and the paint has more or less dried, I shall then use glazes to blend and unite him with the background. This simply means diluting a chosen colour with turpentine and Liquin to an almost colourless fluid consistency and floating it over the areas that require this. Sometimes it’s useful to use the technique on skin tones as it generates a sort of living glow to bring it to life. And if you mix it thinly, you can lay this on in stages until you achieve the density of tone you want.
Well, it’s finally there. I’m happy that the tonal and colour balance between the figure and the background is now ok and the glazes have helped them to blend and work together. The painting has now dried sufficiently for me to varnish the surface and this should take just a day or so to harden.
The painting and the varnish dried nice and quickly so it’s been to Talisman for some expert framing. I chose a wide, matt black frame with fine, gold, inner brush lines to reflect the warm colours in the composition. Just picked it up so this afternoon I shall deliver it to Alan and Marcia. If you thought portrait painting was difficult, waiting for that first reaction from the subject is really worrying. Just hope he likes it – otherwise it’s back to the drawing board. Only kidding – I hope it’s not that bad! So here’s the finished portrait – it’s taken a while and there have been quite a few corrections along the way but as far as I can be, I’m happy with the result.
That completes this blog and I hope you've found it interesting. If you have a painting, drawing , sketch, a favourite artist or an exhibition you've recently enjoyed, please share it with members. Anything art-related that you think would be of interest, simply e-mail me - details in the Members section - and we'll do what we can to get it posted on the blog.
Enjoy your painting