Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Are you looking' at me?!

Painting pictures is a tricky business at the best of times.

Dabbing coloured goo onto fabric with a hairy stick in an attempt to create a recognizable image, such as a bowl of fruit or a particularly handsome cat, is an activity that invites frustration and failure.

Compared to portraiture, though, it has one redeeming aspect: it’s virtually unheard of for a bunch of bananas, or Tiddles from next door, to offer an opinion on your efforts.

The thing is, everyone has a very private view of their own appearance.

No matter how long you stare at your reflection, it’s always back to front, and that’s before we get to the issues of which expressions we’re comfortable with.
Add to that the layers of  complexity that form the encyclopedia of our self awareness and the whole thing becomes a bit of a challenge.

So, do you paint somebody as they see themselves, or as you see them?

Phil is a man who rarely troubles his mirrors for an opinion.
He and I travelled across Scotland together, and during that time I saw him a little more clearly in the grey, Celtic light.
His story is both commonplace and extraordinary, a mix of great good fortune and teeth-clenching adversity that would have driven a lesser man to his knees.

Every man has a mountain to climb, and for Phil it was Ben Nevis.
We gave it our best shot, but as a metaphor for life it proved less than cooperative, and we conceded defeat, backed off and went to the pub.

Several months later I got a call.
Against the advice of the medical profession, his horoscope and his own common sense, he had gone back, and was now standing on top of the biggest bump in Britain.

I painted him as I saw him then.

He’s too modest to recognize himself, but in looking at his own image he may see himself as others do.

I sincerely hope so.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Meanwhile, back at square one...

I've never been one for following the herd.

I'd much rather find things out for myself than sit quietly amongst a crowd of supplicants listening to some windbag demonstrating their superiority in the naive expectation that you will somehow be inspired to emulate, but never exceed, their abilities.
You will have gathered from this that I was not a huge success at school.
I'd rather blaze a trail than trail my blazer.

All of this gives me a warm feeling of maverick integrity and daring independence, but the passage of the years has revealed that it is also an extremely long winded way of going about things.
If I'm going to make it as a portrait artist before they measure me up for some Grampy Pampers, I'm going to have to get a wiggle on.
Against all my instincts, and through gritted teeth, I'm going to have to ask for help.

Andy James is Vice President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, but let's not hold that against him.
He occasionally runs courses designed to help aspiring artists so I coughed up, locked the delicate ego in the cupboard under the stairs and joined in.

Mercifully he turned out to be a genuinely nice bloke, a top rate painter and a good teacher to boot.

Now it's not easy making the transition from illustrator to painter, and old habits die hard.
The temptation to employ all the clever tricks and effects that have got me through the last thirty years is strong, but whilst they might impress some observers, they're a dead giveaway to any artist with 'Vice President' on his notepaper.

Suffice to say the experience was a tad humbling, highly informative and ultimately inspiring.

So, armed with  a more 'muscular' style, a new set of techniques and the confidence to paint direct from the live model without cheating, it's off into the big wide world to put it into practice.

Here's a peek at some of the exercises he put us through, against the clock and with no safety net:

So what next?
The BP awards are on again, as is the Royal Society open exhibition with a deadline for admissions in Feb.
I'm going to have to have a go, but it feels a bit like being back at school sitting for an exam.
Except this time I can't forge a note from my mum.