My friend Mat defies definition; though he can be summed up in a (long) series of contrasts and quirks. One night, after not being in touch for pretty much forever, we fell straight back into conversation like it was just yesterday that we made that instructional video about a coffee machine (true story)…
We spoke life and art, and it almost became a little Jungian, so I proffered to him the ultimate in personal reflection: a painted portrait. A weird series of emailed selfies later and I could kick off my own experiment…
I allowed the colours to choose themselves (there’s a lot to be said for the collective unconscious and the shadow self), but with the rule that I wouldn’t allow the painting to devolve into a plain old realist portrait in the same colours of the reference photo. This has happened before and it doesn’t really leave me feeling as accomplished as I’d like to.
What resulted was this:
While there are so many things about this painting that irk my sense of perfectionism, it did untether me from my unrelenting responsibility towards The Rules and I was set free and allowed to play. After the tedium of the pencil drawing and mapping out the composition (my least favourite part), here’s what happened:
1: The Dreaded Underlayer
I’m not a fan of base coats, but to be fair, they do allow me to test whether my drawing/line art will translate well into a painting… and if I need to change anything, then at least the underlayer gives me something to work with. Originally, the big contrasts on this canvas were going to be Red vs Blue, but there was just something about the transparency of the terracotta (on the left) and the heaviness of the blue that didn’t gel.
2: Establishing Motive
After just the second round of background paint, the feel was established – breaking the painting straight down the middle to juxtapose left and right; private and public; shadow and light. The blue disappeared, though remnants of it can be spotted from beneath the burnt umber in a Rothko-esque-like defiance of subjugation. While the blue definitely wasn’t right for the final painting, you know it’s still there, lurking underneath, and there’s nothing you can do about it…
Before the line art disappeared completely beneath my colour experiments on the face, I decided to map out the shadows, making the painting look really amateurish and weird. I can hear all the “masters” telling me I’m not allowed to use black on a painting. Well, fooey.
3: Setting Precedent
There’s always a risk when I don’t consciously choose the colours, that the painting can become gaudy, flat, jarring, and just plain wrong – without me needing to rescue it by calling it “expressionism”. That’s not what happened in this instance – after playing with the light and shadow on the neck and chest, I decided that no matter how rubbish the piece was looking right now, it would work. It definitely would.
4: How Dark is Too Dark?
I consistently find that the hardest part about making a painting really pop is forcefully imposing a giant contrast between light and dark. And no matter how solidly I know this, it is a challenge every time. Putting Deep Purple next to Bone White, or even Mars Red against Coral Pink – it’s a scary thing, but then so too is bungee jumping. And I’d rather play with colour than go bungee jumping.
It was around this point that I understood what needed to happen on the face to get it where I wanted it to be; and it was around this point that the self-doubt and sense of exasperation began to creep in and settle on my shoulder.
5. Committed Colour Blocking
The really cool thing about focusing a lot on portraits recently is that my perfectionist hand has relaxed and I’ve become quite accustomed to blocking sections of colour and then layering the overlapping bits (I know there are technical terms for these things, but let’s focus on the lay-speak, shall we?).
While it sure as hell beats the fine shading and careful colour-matching required for realism, this method does need lots of brush cleaning and it means sitting, waiting for paint to dry.
6. Finish-line ish
Generally it’s only at this point that my self-doubt subsides and the process becomes about tying up the loose ends and letting that subconscious take over again when it comes to completing a painting. I look less and less at the reference photo and go with my gut when it comes to colour and highlights on the final piece.
It was at this point that I began to imagine what Mat’s reaction might be to seeing himself assembled on a canvas in the strangest hues, and to be honest, it could go either way: he was either going to love it or hate it…
So, I guess it was pretty cool* when he used words like “I love it” and “I knew you’d get me”.
Acrylic paint on A2 stretched canvas
Title: “A Muse Yourself”
*“Pretty cool”… areyoufreakingkiddingme… it was amazeballs!