Reading back on the brief for this exercise, I think I may have gone a bit off tangent. We are supposed to paint either a full figure, head and shoulders or self portrait and it should be expressive in some way.
After much mulling over subject matter, I ended up doing a ‘head and shoulders’ portrait of my second eldest grandson (who I have only seen once since lock down started). The last time I saw him (pre-C-19 times), I was babysitting and I took a photo of him after he’d fallen asleep, he was clutching his duvet and his tablet was lying on the bed next to him; also one of his astronomy books was draped across the lower part of his body, where it had slipped out of his hands after he fell asleep. i loved that image of him and in doing the portrait, I wanted to convey an atmosphere of calm, stillness and tranquility.
I sketched the main shapes out in my mixed media sketchbook, with charcoal pencil. Then I indicated shadow areas also with charcoal, blending with a stump.
I thought a lot about the medium I would use to do this portrait. I didn’t want to use acrylics, as there are a lot of soft transitions and shadows and this can be difficult to achieve with acrylics as they dry so fast. I seem to have developed an eye infection, which I think has come from using oils the other day to work on something else (not related to this course), so wanted to give them a break. I knew that water colour would also be difficult to use for this subject, as it’s unpredictable. I decided on soft pastels, as I felt they would be best suited to attain the soft edges.
I use water and a brush with soft pastels when I first lay down colour. I tend to blend the colour pigment onto / into the paper with the brush, sometimes my fingers. I continually assess the tone and palette, which I decided to limit for this piece. I used cadmium red, yellow ochre, blue-grey, ultramarine blue, royal blue, burnt sienna and white.
His facial features are very lightly indicated with just a dab of blue-grey and light charcoal-grey. I did not use any black again – but this time blended burnt sienna and dark blue to create the tablet screen and the top that the child is wearing, which is actually black in real life. The reference photo was taken when it was still wintry, so the light falling on his face was pale and I didn’t want to fiddle with it. My subject has a naturally translucent skin tone anyway, so it would not look like him if I put in false colour. I remembered what my tutor had said about ambiquity and leaving the white of the paper to work for me in a painting – not to overwork it. I set it with fixative at this stage and won’t do anymore work on it. I have tried to keep the colours soft and muted but still make sure there is sufficient tone.
I think I have achieved what I set out to do – this is a gentle soft picture of a sleeping child and the mood is tranquil. It contains elements – such as the tablet and open book – that are fundamental possessions of the subject and are not just put there for artifice, they have an authentic purpose being there.
I could have worked a bit more on the tablet shadows, as it does appear to be floating on the surface of the bed. But this is an exercise in my sketchbook, and as such I think it’s fine. It would serve well to use as a preparation piece for a larger work in oils at some point maybe?
His parents think it’s stunning and a perfect likeness. They want it once I’ve finished this course.