I’m still mining many nuggets from my week at Stephen Quiller’s studio last August. One thing he said many, many times a day is to listen to the painting which means to be focused on the painting and what’s happening on the paper and responding to that. Kind of like being in the zone. I mention this because this portrait of my wife, Susan is actually the third version. For the first two I couldn’t get out of my mind my recent success with my own portrait (see the last post). In spite of my best efforts I kept thinking about how I had done my portrait and I was much too caught up in that effort so that I wasn’t ‘listening’ to this painting and not surprisingly both efforts were a bit lack lustre. I decided then to try to get that previous experience right out of my mind. So I took some paper and soaked it and lay in some bright acrylic washes of red, thalo blue and cad scarlet. I let this run at will and as it dried I added more and brighter colour. I also splattered. So I was left with a very colourful, random background wash. On top of this I sketched Susan’s portrait and then working in a negative way I painted the lights with gouache. The darks and most of the hair are that original acrylic wash. I also collaged on construction paper for the entire left hand background.
I really like this painting done in about 1 1/2 hours during class yesterday. I haven’t done portraits for a number of years and something is clicking now that I didn’t understand back then. It’s very liberating to just slosh the paint on. It’s a real compromise because about 50% of it is my control of the medium and 50% is the paint and water doing their own thing and this balance makes it an exciting process. I used a limited palette of Cad Scarlet, Quinacridone Rose, Naples Yellow, Ultramarine Violet and a little Viridian. I began by soaking the paper except for the white on the cheek, nose and the beard. Then I just washed in gobs of the yellow and cad scarlet and took it from there adding darks as things began to dry. The ultra violet and viridian are colours I’ve adopted only in the last year primarily because of the Stephen Quiller workshop I went to last summer. I find them both very useful colours. For some chemical reason that I don’t understand they are both what I would call ‘weak’ colours by which I mean that you have to use lots of the paint to get any kind of darker value. It’s easy to go through tubes of these 2 colours quite quickly. As opposed to the way I’ve traditionally done self portraits (using a mirror) this one was from a photo that I took to try to get a more interesting pose. Anyway the hour and a half to do this painting just flew by. Finally, when things are working well in watercolour it seems like you can’t do anything wrong. In this painting I just felt like adding a little splatter. After taking a deep breath I just flicked the brush at the paper a few times and it seemed to add a nice touch especially in the beard.
Interestingly, my class with Sharon Williams is presently doing some portrait drawing very similar to my own drawing class. As a result I am doing quite a bit of portrait drawing lately. It’s an activity that I really enjoy. Of the many things I learn from doing this is that the more I do it the better I get meaning that the portraits start looking more like the person as well as having some sense of their personality. The other thing I’m very focused on now is to spent as much time as possible intensely looking at the subject that I’m drawing and to spend less time looking at the actual drawing. I believe that so much of our drawing is controlled by past experience and the symbols we have developed to represent facial features. It takes effort and practice to break through that system and to really see what is in front of us. Activities like pure contour drawing and blind portrait drawing allow us to see things with a total freshness and immediacy. This portrait of Sharon was done mostly by looking at her and checking the drawing occasionally except for adding the shading at the end. It’s a fairly good likeness but that’s not what’s important about it. What’s important is that it is a visual record of intensely studying the subject. Drawings like this shouldn’t be judged as a finished product but as a record of the process of learning to draw.