We are asked to consolidate what we’ve learned by working in a more planned and considered way on a portrait or self-portrait in either acrylic or oil paint – this assignment is to show how our skills in handling paint and interpreting a subject are developing.
I have been looking at the work of many other artists with regards to portraiture over the course of this section. From Renoir to Luc Tuymans, the style and composition of a finished portrait is very much determined by the personality of the artist. I found the work of Helene Schjerfbeck particularly nuanced and delicate and wanted to convey this softness and intimacy within my portraits.
For this assignment, I chose to do a study of my grandson studying at the table. I had previously attempted this in an earlier exercise but wanted to develop it a little further. I was quite nervous of doing this in oils (even acrylics) and wondered if I could use gouache but on the advice of my tutor, I stuck to the brief and made use of the Cobra water-soluble oils. I was prepared for a massive challenge and decided to first look at some tutorials on YouTube to see if I could get some insight into how to best portray the angles and planes of the face realistically with paint. I found Ben Lustenhouwer’s channel (credited below in bibliography) most helpful and tried to follow some of his principles. ‘Our job is to create a powerful portrait, not an uncritical copy of a photograph’ is one of his mantra’s.
I did several drawings to see what type of composition would work the best and also did a small colour sample.
I really like this little portrait, although it’s not readily apparent that it is my grandson.
I decided to go for broke and do the assignment portrait in A2 size, using Clairefontaine Paint On paper and my easel. I have not used the easel in this course yet, preferring to paint flat (due to lack of space), however, I found my aluminium easel and this proved very sturdy to use for the painting. I taped the paper using blue low-tack painter’s tape (brilliant purchase that!) onto an existing A1 canvas board that I have not used yet. This provided a sturdy support.
When it came to scaling up the image, I printed out a reference photo in A4 and then used a rough block system to help me draw a loose sketch in charcoal pencil onto the paper.
On the advice of Mr. Lustenhouwer, I first did a tonal under-painted sketch using burnt sienna (I don’t have raw umber at the moment), indicating where the main shadows were on the shirt, face and hair, as well as the smile lines under the cheeks, around the eyes and on the side of the paper my subject is writing on.
For my palette, I use pyrrole red, yellow ochre, green, burnt sienna and white. I used a mixture of red and green to create the darkest tones for the hair and shadows. I did not use any black in this portrait. I put in the red shirt using a mixture of pyrrole red and burnt sienna and then started working on the skin tones. Mr. Lustenhouwer mentioned that it is easier to lighten than it is to darken skin tones, so don’t be worried if the initial colours are too dark – this was the case with my first attempt.
I continued to lighten and soften the skin tones, as well as tint the teeth, so they were a more natural shade. I worked on the eyes and ear and hand/pencil – moving around, trying not to fixate on any one spot. I tried a mix of mauve for the hair tones (this was suggested by Mr. Lustenhouwer), however I didn’t like it, so eventually got most of it out by layering over the hair with darker tones.
I did some work on the eyebrows, eyes and around the mouth with pencil and then decided to leave it alone to completely dry. My grandson went to peek when I was out of the room and he came rushing to me later, saying how much it looks like him and that I captured his beloved Pug mug! Overall I’m pleased with it.
Cobra Water-mixable oils on A2 Clairefontaine Paint On paper
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
I was very nervous of working with oils on a portrait of this size. The choice of subject smiling (showing teeth) is tricky to paint without it looking like he is grimacing. I think I captured his personality and features well and am beginning to get to grips with a basic understanding of how to convey the planes of the face in oils. I tried not to overwork it and left the background ambiguous.
Quality of outcome
I am reasonably pleased with the quality of the finished painting. It resembles the model and he was very pleased with it.
Demonstration of creativity
I made several preparatory drawings and a colour study to find the best composition for this piece. By working large, I think I have pushed myself and stretched my abilities. I wanted to include the Pug mug in this portrait as it is very special to my grandson, and something he keeps by him a lot. It reminds him of a dog we tried to adopt that was blind – unfortunately, we had to re-home him as we could not provide the right environment for the dog to grow up in. This portrait is a small tribute both to my grandson and to the puppy that we had to give up.
Context, reflecting thinking, critical thinking, analysis
I will always be critical of any oil portrait that I attempt as I am still trying to understand this medium insofar as painting a face is concerned. In my ‘figure in an interior’ exercise, I was very conscious of my tutor’s remarks about aiming for more ambiguity in my work – I think I achieved it with that piece and for me, it is the most successful of all the exercises I did for this section of the course. I relied also on the paper and allowed it to shine through in that portrait, as well as in the assignment piece, where I have purposefully not painted the papers/books in the foreground. I am also very aware of my tendency to sometimes veer towards illustration and am working hard not to do that in my work.
I am continuously looking for contemporary artists who I enjoy and follow – hopefully once lockdown has dissipated, I will be able to venture further afield and actually go and see some of the work upfront in a gallery setting.
Ben Lustenhouwer’s YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/c/BenLustenhouwer