A couple of weeks ago I spent several hours indoors while the winter sun shone on Scotland.
Those of you who know me will be wondering why I wasn’t out there tramping through the Perthshire countryside with the dog taking photographs and enjoying the clear air. Well there was, as indeed there must have been, a very good reason.
It was the last weekend of the BP Portrait Exhibition at the Deans Gallery in Edinburgh and I ws determined not to miss it so, despite the perfect weather at home, and the railstrike that meant I had to take the car rather than the train, I headed south to the city.
The portraits were, without exception, stunning. The styles varied from primitive to photoreal; in fact there were as many styles as there were portraits. The photorealistic portraits were the most remarkable. No matter how close I stood I couldn’t see any signs of brushstrokes. Every pore, every hair, every wrinke, every fibre of clothing was rendered with absolute precision. From distance and from close up the portraits could not be distinguished from a photograph. The technical skill required to produce this effect is absolutely amazing.
The absence of brushstrokes, however, meant that there was no sign of the artist. There was no real clue to what the artist was thinking. The photoreal portrait was a perfect rendition of the sitter. So perfect that it could have been a photograph. There was expression in the faces depicted, as an accomplished portrait photographer can reveal the character of the subject. In some ways this is fine. The portrait should allow us to see the person, allow us to connect with the person in a way that reveals their life, thoughts and emotions.
For me the real skill of the portrait painter is on two levels; yes we get to see what the sitter actually looks like but we should also get to see the artist, to see what the artist thinks about the sitter. The paint itself, the texture, the way it is applied, can reveal what the artist thinks and feels. The technique reveals an intimacy that cannot be captured in a photograph or by photorealism. Paint quickly and roughly applied may represent a chaotic aspect in the life of the sitter. Bringing more detail to the eyes than to the rest of the face invites us to look into the mind of the sitter. Making the hands stand out from the rest of the portrait may hint at a manual occupation. Blue tones applied to the skin in a portrait of a cancer patient hints at death in a way that a photograph couldn’t.
As a child I drew – it was more of an obsession than a hobby. Burying myself in art saw me through most of the traumas of my teenage years. And I mainly drew portraits, children of friends, footballers copied from cards and magazines and images copied from the works of famous artists.
I also spent a lot of time in galleries. This can affect people in two ways. Either they are inspired to go on and paint and it becomes a life absorbing passion or they are intimidated by the greatness of others and the impossible task of reaching those standards.
I confess to being the latter and while I have continued to draw and paint throughout my life, even paying my way through college by selling my artwork, drawing ceased to be an obsession. Even when I took time out from my career to concentrate on artwork I turned to sculpture and not fine art.
So I intend to use my visit to the portrait exhibition in a way that I should have done years ago. I am going to choose to be inspired by greatness and not intimidated by it.
And I’m going to draw and rediscover my passion for portraits and you can follow my progess on FLICKR