Sarum Studio Painting. Weeks 3 & 4

Oil painted portrait

‘Eden’. Oil on linen, life size. 2013

Figure painting

‘Figure V’. Oil on linen, 70cm x 50cm. 2013

Time is racing by at Sarum Summer School, which is tiring and enjoyable in equal measure. I haven’t posted anything here for a couple of weeks, because I wanted to finish both of the latest figure and portrait projects first… and here they are.

I’m really pleased with my portrait of Eden, which is a very good likeness, and marks another small step in the evolution of my paint handling and aesthetic choices. I consciously worked with more body to my paint, achieving a certain blockiness to some of my mark-marking, and I kept colours pretty desaturated, letting a small amount of more intense colour in the ear add some vibrancy. I think that such a low-key approach suits me, and is testament to a ‘less is more’ principle where the right notes can work really hard and become much more than the sum of their parts.

There’s always something that doesn’t quite satisfy, and for me it is the mouth. I love the following John Singer Sargent quote, which sums it up perfectly.

A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth.

The figure only started to come together for me in the second week. For a start, I don’t seem to be very good at placing myself in the room to get a different perspective, and have now got quite a collection of seated poses with very similar profiles. From my viewpoint, there was something a bit lumpen about the posture of this setup, and I found it deceptively difficult to lock down.

Once I got going, I aimed to work with thicker paint and simplified shadow shapes for more elegance and impact. I thought a lot about areas of focus and how to handle edges and turn shadows to light with cool half tones. If nothing else, I think this study worked as a really good warm up to the afternoon portrait sessions.

Some technical notes that apply to both paintings: I used lead white that I had ground a pretty big batch of from pigment a while ago, and tubed for later use. This worked really well. The consistency was good – neither too thin nor too thick, but with body and elasticity. The fact that I had so much of it made me much more generous with the amount of paint I mixed too. This is really important. I hate waste and resent scraping unused paint off the palette to throw away. I now realise that it is absolutely necessary to be economical everywhere else you can, but simply accept that it is better to have plenty of paint at hand, and if it means more gets wasted than you’d like, so be it. If you have to be stingy with your paint application because you mixed too small an amount, it stands to reason that you’ve basically reduced a lot of options for yourself.