3.2.3 creating mood and atmosphere

I considered a few possible subjects for this exercise, and made a few sketches of my husband posing head and shoulders for me, thinking I could invent a mood or atmosphere.  I got slightly discouraged with this, as he wasn’t comfortable posing and I felt that I needed to cut the time short.

Then I embarked on a painting of a scene from the news, which as it unfolded became the telling of a story, so it was reassigned to that exercise.

Finally I met by chance an old friend who was happy to pose for me, and made this painting.

She has a gaunt, hollow-eyed appearance and I was inspired to paint a pastel portrait of her.  It all happened rather on the spur of the moment, so I didn’t give a lot of time thinking about what I was trying to achieve at the outset.  But, I had brought with me a large piece of dark blue pastel paper, and having looked for a long time at Picasso‘s blue period paintings, I set out to create an atmosphere of sadness, by means of her facial expression and my use of a limited palette of blue and ochre.  Van Gogh‘s portraits of peasants was uppermost in my mind too; they have a dark atmosphere; features are coarse, gaunt and worn looking; the dark ground and limited palette worked well to achieve this effect.

This was done in the first two hour session, on dark blue textured paper, going straight in with no preliminary sketches, underpainting or drawing.

Work in progress

The portrait aims to be true to life in the shapes and features, with the colours and the facial expression conveying mood and atmosphere.  I find I’m struggling with the challenge of creating imaginative interpretations of subjects in front of me.  I’d be more imaginative if I were painting an abstract or semi-abstract image, without looking at a model.  But with a model in front of me I can’t yet seem to get away from striving to create a realistic depiction of what I see.

The lighting was from a window close to the model’s right hand side, but there was also electric light on her right, making the depiction of solidity quite tricky – not ideal, but I wasn’t in my own studio where I could have set up ideal conditions.

I’ve achieved my objective insofar as I’ve expressed a sad, pensive, far-away look, and the colours lend a sombre atmosphere, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about my interpretation.  I’ve used the pastel in a bold, gestural way, and achieved an unfocused, ambiguous image, which is good as it may express her inner turmoil.  On the positive side, an artistically savvy friend, whose opinion is always honest, said ‘the main thing I see is a confidence in your style emerging’, which I take to mean my emerging artistic voice!  

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