Monthly Archives: September 2009

Painting people, learning portraiture 4

What is art?

Over the years I have read, talked about and had insisted to me many different ways of defining what ART is.  Up to now I have not found any of them satisfying.  Thank you to John Dean (Sculpture teacher at Heatherley’s) because I now have one that I can accept, at least until a better one comes along.

…..” Art is something that engages you/ in a profound and prolonged way”……..

This definition does two things for me.  First, it is broad enough to encompass many things, painting, installations, performance, music, photography etc etc.  Second, it gives me some criteria that I find useful, ie that it must engage at a meaningful level, not just superficially, and that its interest lasts, like the taste of a good wine.  It allows for that engagement to be far more than beauty, it could be shock and horror, a sense of energy, a visual enlightenment, the abstract structure of mark making, spiritual meaning or many other things.


Accepting this gives me a path to assessing my own work and what I am doing with each particular work.  Look at the difference between Madam Tussauds and Rodin.  The MT wax works have a brief excitement of recognition and likeness but hardly insist that you keep going back to look at each work, whereas a Rodin will draw you back to look at it again and again.

Incidentally, Rodin did this by making sure that every profile in the work had a continuous and engaging set of curves, irrespective of whether this was what the model looked like.  I have tried to borrow this idea from Rodin, in my life drawings here.  There is more to do on this but to me they have more energy and sense of form than a more measured/straight line drawing.

Posted in Heatherly | Comments Off on Painting people, learning portraiture 4

Painting people, learning portraiture 3

Self drawing – focus on tones

I have completed my pre-course assignment by going back to a more tonal approach for this self portrait drawing.  In a sense it feels more like a painting, made with a 2B pencil, rather than a drawing, because of the coverage of the paper and the sculptural quality of the head.

I like the strength and even drama of the image along with the intensity of gaze that comes over loud and clear.  What I have not got right is the balance between the strength of the image and the sensitivity of drawing.  Whilst that balance feels reasonable across the picture as a whole, it seems slightly less balanced in some places, giving a slightly uneven finish.

I realise, after the fact, that the line work on the left and right sides of the face is not always consistent, giving the impression of more distortion than might have been.  This is an interesting to take on board because of the choices it offers; mirroring the marking will increase the impression of harmony while breaking that similarity of treatment that can create more tension.

I really enjoy this type of drawing because of the energy that goes into the mark making,  I suppose putting oneself in the image, in a much more direct way than in the line drawings.  Having said that I do like the spacious and open quality that comes with the purely linear drawings and the implication of little or no difference between object and surroundings.

Posted in Heatherly | Comments Off on Painting people, learning portraiture 3

Painting people, learning portraiture 2

A weekend with June Mendoza

I was fortunate enough to spend last weekend on a portraiture course led by June Mendoza, one of the world’s foremost portrait painters.  In addition to her own work (which speaks for itself) and the prodigious list of previous subjects, she was also a council member of the Royal Society of Portrait painters.  You can see more at She has a determined personality and works fast, cramming as much as possible into the time, and her life.

Over 2 days, I did 3 basic paintings/sketches and took away several things.  I usually paint in layers where the main part of the brush work goes on to a dry layer.  This allows for more dramatic interlocking marks, without picking up colour or spread form the layers below.  Working fat over lean on wet paint was not so clear, I want to work on, being more economical in brush stroke and thicker with the paint.  It was helpful to start with the main colour shapes and big tonal shifts, focusing on the abstract construction of the picture and facilitating adjustment at an early stage. I want to try her approach of not just representing the form that you see, but work with the form that you know is there.  Small tonal representation can add to the sense of presence in the picture.

Posted in Heatherly | Comments Off on Painting people, learning portraiture 2

Painting people, learning portraiture 1

Self portrait drawing – focus on lines

I wanted an intense experience so am happy about having home work before the course starts.  The course is the Portraiture Diploma at The Heatherley School of Fine Art, established in 1845, Heatherley’s is one of the few place around that still focuses on portraiture and life painting.

Nothing like jumping in at the deep end, the assignment was to produce a series of self portrait drawings, a challenging task as we often do not see ourselves very objectively.  I usually prefer to draw in a very tonal way, exploring the shape and structure of the image in blocks of tone that both assess the measurements and create an abstract sense of the person.

In the spirit of exploration I have stuck to line drawing.  This seemed fairly natural for the figure, clothes and surroundings but less easy to express the head.  For me the head is a complex physical structure as well as an expressive one, the harshness of relying on lines is a challenge.  The results a bit robotic.

But I like the abstract quality of lines creating spaces that fit together across the image, where face, t-shirt, mirror edge and easel become one, made of the same stuff, part of the same whole.  There is a spiritual quality to that idea which appeals to me.

Posted in Heatherly | Comments Off on Painting people, learning portraiture 1