For my assignment submission I wanted to continue to investigate the theme I started in Telling a Story, of the hardships experienced by displaced people on dangerous journeys searching for a safe place.
I could have found my subjects fairly close to home; but I’m not yet brave, experienced or confident enough to draw from life people who are suffering, and there is a whole debate I would have to have with myself about the ethics of doing so. Picasso’s portraits from his blue period eloquently depicted the misery and hardships of people in the streets of Barcelona, He must have made studies from life and later interpreted them in paint. In our times artists are able to draw on the abundance of images made by professional photographers on the spot and published.
So I decided to make portraits of people on the move, using what I’ve learned about drawing and painting the human figure and face, and appropriating images found on the Internet as my starting point for telling a story. I read ahead in the course manual the project on working from photographs p120). I wanted to make my own interpretations of the images, changing format and composition, simplifying backgrounds and introducing imaginary elements. Rather than paint detail, I wanted to make paintings with strong designs, concentrating on conveying a feeling, and an atmosphere. I wanted them to be simplified, but the proportions of the figures were important if they were to be convincing. Most importantly I wanted my paintings to be expressive and imaginative – for example by using light and colour expressively, exaggerating facial expression and gesture or proportions, simplifying – and not just copying the photos.
Before starting I looked at paintings that I admire and which seem relevant to my theme. Thinking about their use of colour, their brushwork, the way they have each handled paint, the arrangements they’ve chosen for their portraits, has all ultimately fed into my assignment.
Colours, handling paint, and brushwork in portraits
My approach to colour was strongly influenced by what I’ve learnt in my research on portraits conveying mood and atmosphere
Munch‘s The Scream is a kind of portrait; it expresses through exaggerated facial expression, gesture and above all colour, an atmosphere of horror and deep anxiety, and I’m going to use those techniques in my assignment pieces to achieve a similar atmosphere. I first saw a version of the painting and wrote about it here, for my Drawing 1 course. That exhibition juxtaposed Munch’s original work with Warhol’s colour interpretations in print – which if possible, heightened the sense of foreboding and dread.
Emile Nolde in his watercolour portraits seems to use colour in a similar way, using deep, intense colours chosen and juxtaposed to create very expressive atmospheres. I collected many of these paintings in a Pinterest board here while working on Assignment 3. Nolde uses the medium very fluidly. Colours blend and merge where they will, edges dissolve and disappear, intense hues morph into broken tertiaries. That’s the effect I’m going to try to achieve with acrylics for my first assignment painting, which will represent two brothers, a boy and a baby, emerging from the sea together.
I found Lucien Freud’s Evacuee Boy very arresting, partly because it chimed with my interest in portraying the travails of refugee families. The handling of paint and brushwork is an important part of this painting, helping express the grimy, rough hard life the boy appears to be leading. The colours, monochromatic tones of dun, express his poverty. Thinking how I can adapt Freud’s approach to my assignment pieces, I decided to use my medium, acrylic paint, in dilute, watery washes and glazes, dribbles and runs, using mainly cold colours.
Picasso‘s blue period portraits also have as their topic a moment in history, but his portray poverty and the atmosphere he gives them is pathos; his subjects are passive and isolated. He uses blue and a cold yellow/green colour to relate this feeling of deprivation. The subjects in my assignment paintings are in a different situation. My colours will be intense and clashing, to indicate tension, anxiety, fear. Cold hues will represent danger and loss of hope; warm colours the bond of mutual support and hope.
Arrangements in portraiture
Turning the pages of the BP500 book, I concentrated on the arrangements artists choose for their portrait paintings, the backgrounds and interiors, clothes, accessories and other attributes of the sitters.
Some of my favourites are portraits with more than one person. They include a couple; a family group (p77, p250), a group of schoolmates (p83, p99, p139), work colleagues (p47), old peoples home inmates (p90) or prison inmates. What’s so appealing about these is they can show interaction between the subjects (they could be talking or gesturing to each other); and/or they can show what the relationship is between the subjects. This is very relevant to my assignment paintings, which all portray more than one person, and their relationship and interaction.
A few of the portraits in the book are arranged in a symbolic, imaginative or fantastic way, leaving the viewer to think, wonder and interpret. This is exactly what I want to achieve in my assignment work. One of my favourites in the book is Two Figures Lying in a Shallow Steam by Philip Harris (p39). The background is immensely detailed, the figures posed in an extraordinary way, and there is a huge amount for the views to look at and interpret.
Clearly then there’s a lot more scope for me to interpret my subjects by how I arrange them in my portrait painting – so far in my portraits I haven’t made it a priority, feeling I needed to concentrate on the sitter’s proportions, lining up the features, drawing the head correctly in perspective, and capturing a reasonable likeness.