Still life painting of a pig's head. Oil on linen, 24" x 20"

‘Pig!’. Oil on linen, 24″ x 20″

I’d been thinking of a still life painting incorporating something as brutally corporeal as this pig’s head for some time. My local butcher kindly put this aside for me and I painted it largely Alla Prima in one session, with a little refining the following day on borrowed time as it was starting to turn. There were so many trains of thought running through my head as I studied this, but for this post I will concentrate on the practicalities of painting alone.

On the first day the head was so like human flesh in colour and texture it was disturbingly fascinating to me, and a great exercise in tone and colour. Rather than going grey or green over time, it kind of air dried and went a darker orangey shade which was more uniform and had a flattening affect on the form. I’m glad that I managed to get the flesh mostly complete on the first day and didn’t chase that particular change too much. The nuances in the colouring here are a little lost in the photograph.

I wanted a fairly simple composition, but decided to use a couple of painted boards in the background to divide the space vertically and add interest and depth against the horizontal picture plane. The plastic bag (I never actually took the head entirely out of the bag I collected it in) was an opportunity to experiment further with creating texture using rapid and pared down brushwork.

Possibly the one thing that I’m not fully resolved with is the inelegance of the shape of the head itself. It was sliced most of the way through the centre line down through the snout. Although I pushed the two halves together and placed it at an angle that disguises this somewhat, it still affected the overall shape of the skull and relationship from one side to the other.

Detail from a still life painting of a pig's head. Oil on linen, 24" x 20"


At the end of the first day’s painting, I was struck by how differently I had to paint in order to get paint down with definition and opacity. My preferred brush is hog bristle, but unless you go in thick and leave the strokes as they fall, thinner paint lifts off. Over several sessions with layers drying inbetween, the effects I get with hog brushes suit me quite well. I found working out the underlying structure and building up the paint more difficult to do in one go though, and so I swapped to mongoose brushes instead. I don’t use these very often, but am really starting to enjoy what you can do with them. They are somewhere between hog and sable and make it possible to achieve a little of the effects of both. Some marks needed a hog to achieve however, so here and there I switched back and forth, sometimes dragging a dry brush loaded with paint across the canvas for slashes of definition.

At the end of the session I was struck by how much more abstract the brushwork looked up close than it usually does in my work. I liked it, but also had to stop myself from refining it. The next day I visited the excellent Sargent exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery. Seeing such a varied mix of his work and being able to get up close to study his paint handling and surface textures, I was reminded once again of his brilliance and the wonder of spare markmaking and the abstraction inherent in his work. I’m not comparing my work to Sargent’s at all, but it really helped me to feel comfortable with how I was proceeding with this painting. I got home and spent a couple of hours that night finishing off – reinforcing the outer contour and shadow, adding a few accents here and there. Now I just need a better title for it. Pig! is pretty to the point, but maybe not truly represtantional of what I had in mind. Something to mull over.