May News

Lately I’ve been working on portraits. These are always fun to do, and especially satisfying to see in a finished state, but they are also the most demanding pieces, and consequently they always take the longest to paint. When I’m painting some lillies or a fictional character, they really only need to come out looking like – well – lillies and generic people; the success of those pieces comes down to those key elements of light, colour, composition and the overall story. But with portraits there is that overriding and daunting factor of “accuracy”.

Accuracy  is of course about correctly defining the key features and their relationships, and the centre of the face is particularly unforgiving in this regard – if you get the relationship between the eyes wrong by even a millimetre, it’s enough to turn a beauty queen into a mutant hillbilly. The human eye is a fantastically accurate measurement tool in detecting errors in someone’s likeness. But accuracy is more than just measurement. The world’s great portraitists have often taken liberties with dimensions: Ingres sometimes elongated necks, legs and arms to suit his composition, and Lucian Freud accentuated some features more than others to suit his hyper-naturalistic tastes. Ultimately, accuracy is about the portrait “feeling” like the sitter, and that’s where painting portraits seems to rely more on some kind of alchemy than a measuring tape – alcohol and tantrums seem to help enormously in this regard.

At the end of the day it has to feel like the real person and you just keep on keeping on till you get there, without ever quite knowing how you arrived…


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