A few landscapes painted last summer near Lake Geneva.
Painted over the last ten months whenever my daughter had a Saturday morning free for me.
Many jokes have a grain of truth in them. Here the artist, whose works have so far failed to impress his patron, looks on patiently as the connoisseur peers into a mirror seemingly unaware that he is looking at himself, albeit with grim discernment, and not a portrait.
When I sell a painting, buyers occasionally explain to me the reason for their purchase. Often in the painting they find some sort of resonance in their lives connected to a happy memory, a holiday, a party, a honeymoon, an exciting incident. So, as you can imagine, pictures of sailing boats and beach scenes sell well but still lifes of herrings less so. Most people do not mind an accurate portrait of themselves or their loved ones which conveys their more attractive characteristics. So far I have had no model as delightfully disgruntled as Searle’s patron.
In E H Shepard‘s cartoon, three models stand in front of their portraits supposedly to brighten up the exhibition. Shepard pokes fun at them – the rather flushed businessman appears to have acquired a few extra pounds and lost much of his self assurance since his portrait was painted. The Society Lady’s looks and demeanour fall short of the magnificent glamour of her painting and the retired general sags a mournful moustache like an ageing vicar – a far cry from the fine soldierly figure behind him.
Portraits are rarely warts-and-all likenesses. They are usually crafted to place the sitter in a favourable light. People like to appear at their best: handsome, beautiful, youthful, elegant, successful, charming, attractive, decisive, sensitive, lively, perhaps even modest…the list of adjectives is endless. To capture the sitter’s appearance is the primary aim of the artist but to capture character is what the artist should really strive for. It appears to me that artists manage this best when they discern one overriding aspect of a person’s character and are able to show this. For example, an engaging person can look charming in his portrait, yet his quiet gentleness may not be quite so apparent. Thus an artist can be quite truthful, but as Shepard suggests, on occasion only partially so.
The hybrid picture above is a well known optical illusion. It is both a picture of Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe depending on how far away the viewer stands from the picture. You can try it yourself: if you get back from your screen for a moment, you will see Marilyn Monroe slowly emerging.
When looking at a person from about fifteen feet, the face is still recognisable but details like eyebrow hairs, wrinkles and small moles are much less visible. This is why the photograph looks like a youngish Marilyn Monroe at a distance – we see no wrinkles or blemishes. Close up, we see various lines denoting Einstein’s eyebrows, nose and moustache and wrinkles, especially about the eyes.
It illustrates pretty well what we were taught at art school: stand back and capture the tout ensemble and do not paint piecemeal. We see things differently depending on our distance from them. To work well a portrait must be a recognisable likeness when the viewer observes it at a distance e.g. when he walks into a room and sees it on the wall opposite.
Most of my sitters do want to look their age but do not need a likeness as accurate as topographical survey. Older sitters appreciate the fact that at about fifteen feet (which is the distance I normally paint them from) I can not see very clearly the ravages that time has wrought. Unfortunately, when I do take a few step back, my models rarely turn into Hollywood stars, but then again they hardly ever come in looking like eminent physicists.
I have a number of landscapes on show at the Friendly Society in Berlin to 17 September.
Every year in June, artists across south east England open their doors to the public. It is a great opportunity to meet, talk to and see them at work. From 9th to 25th of June as part of the South East Open Studios project, my studio will be open at weekends and on Mondays from 10am to 5pm. For more information please visit the website: www.seos.org.
A few weeks ago, a student of mine brought in her violin to paint as a still life. As the instrument was a splendid Degani, I joined her and painted it myself. I remember some artist telling me that in the early days of oil painting it was considered a mark of a master if an artist could paint a lute realistically (violins were yet to be invented). Well, the drawing of the violin was difficult enough and I needed quite a bit of adjusting and readjusting of the various parts (fingerboard, scroll, upper bout, lower bout, waist and tailpiece) in my painting to make the instrument look symmetrical and thus playable. To produce a believable effect of polished wood I used a number of reddish glazes to give a sheen to the main body of the violin. My student, who is a very talented violinist was satisfied with my rendering of her violin but I have yet to see if the painting would pass muster with a luthier.
“Go for the tout ensemble!” At art school, my teacher, Charles Cecil was keen to drum into his students certain aspects of our training and this phrase was often repeated like a mantra. He would exhort us in our painting and composition never to become the “past master of the piecemeal” and aim for the “tout ensemble” or the unity of effect. I have written about this concept a little in an earlier post but I think it is worth elaborating.
Unity of effect. It sounds esoteric but the idea is simple. Painting piecemeal is painting a picture that does not quite hang together but is more a gathering of vignettes. It is often tempting for the beginner to try to finish one part of a painting before going onto another e.g. on a portrait, the nose, and then the left eye and after that, the mouth. The painter ends up with a set of body parts that look fine on their own but together do not produce a credible likeness. Similarly, a still life of beautifully painted disparate items of various colours equally spaced apart will look awkward – it will be piecemeal and lack a unity of effect.
For unity of effect, the painter must stand back to get a full view of the picture and have a coherent idea of how it should look in its entirety. The artist should work the painting up as a whole so that it comes together, almost emerging from the canvas, gradually becoming clearer. If he sticks to a limited palette i.e. a handful of colours that too will help unify the image. Furthermore, he needs to keep his tonal passages together i.e. not have a dozen spots of darkness or lights dotted around the picture pulling the viewer’s eye in all directions.
Above and below are a few paintings which I feel have particularly strong unity of effect.
Gassed by Sargent above has unity particularly in colour (very limited palette) and tone.
The picture above by Seago has unity particularly in its composition – the boats seem to hang together and the artist lets us know very clearly what his painting is about.
In his portrait of the Wyndham Sisters above, Sargent at first painted the dress of the central (and prettiest) figure, Pamela, a light blue. He then painted it over in a tone and colour similar to the dresses worn by her sisters as he felt that the eye would be overly drawn to Pamela ‘s dress and the picture would thus lose its unifying theme. Some of the blue is just visible underneath. I believe the correction shows Sargent’s understanding of well balanced composition and the effect a picture should produce as a whole.
In the portrait above, Zorn has provided unity of effect in the tone (the light falls on Isabella Stewart Gardner almost exclusively) and in the brushwork (there is a sense of brisk movement conveyed in the handling of the dress and arms).
Some of you may have worked in film, photography or product design and some of you may have been architects or fashion designers: in these fields of work, just as in art, what a thing looks like matters. The concept of unity of effect is neither new nor limited to art: it is the Parthenon, a Kurosawa film shot, a Chanel suit or the VW beetle just as it is also Gassed by Sargent.