I'd been putting off booking my ticket for the Courtauld's Van Gogh Self-Portraits exhibition for ages, to the point that when I tried to book a couple of weeks ago it was already sold out. I was pretty annoyed at myself, as it was rare opportunity to see this collection of 16 portraits together, by an artist whom I greatly admire, and who's process you can learn so much about by seeing it up close in the flesh.
I checked back on the booking website everyday and eventually, late on Friday evening, as single ticket had reappeared for Saturday lunchtime. I immediately snapped it up and booked myself onto the Royal Academy's Francis Bacon show for the same day, promising to the art gods that I'd never be so foolish again.
I took a lot away from the Man and Beast Bacon exhibition: scale, composition, brushwork, abstraction, the importance of removing the glaring white of a new canvas, and also about building an archive of photos (as Bacon did) to draw from when required. I hadn't painted since February so these little kicks and thoughts were exactly what I was after.
Similarly, I instinctively knew that seeing the Van Goghs would inspire me to get painting again. The brushwork of them means that it's clear to see how they're constructed, how the contours of the face are suggested, what colours were used etc. Two particularly stood out for me: the one above from March-June 1887 (the background was once purple, but the pigment has since faded away) and Self-Portrait, spring 1887. I've not posted a picture because it's difficult to do it justice as a 2D image. In reality, the paint is so thickly applied in certain areas that the nose rises from the support, and the forehead protrudes.
So the next day, I photoed myself in Van Gogh's typical three-quarter view and began to work, intending to mimic his style of applying paint by merging one of his portraits with my own face. What happened instead, after months of not painting, was my own process and technique flowing and so I decided to go along with it instead of trying to force the individual marks of Van Gogh, particularly since it was such a positive feeling.
It quickly turned into my favourite painting of mine so far, meaning that I reached a point after around 4 hours where I dared not overwork it and potentially ruin it. So there it is, finished but unfinished, and the jumpstart I needed to get painting again.
You close your eyes and eight months pass by. I last posted in August 2021...
Since mid-November 2021, I’ve been going to life drawing sessions. Over the year prior, I’d been drawing and painting from a flat image on a screen and was becoming frustrated about how much of getting a likeness was down to measuring. Shifting an eye one millimetre to the left or right would make a difference to whether the drawing or painting bore a similarity to the image on the screen. But I found creating literal reproductions of an image in this way missed something vital.
I remember my first life drawing session, and it was strange when I was trying to measure the model against my pencil, but the model was breathing! Her ribcage moving up and down significantly as I was measuring, her arms shifting slightly over the course of the 5/10/20/30-minute poses. But gradually you begin to work in a way that sees the model not as an instant in time, but more of an overarching presence, and I've been really grateful to get feedback and guidance from artist Guy Portelli to help me improve quickly.
This week, as usual now, I have a life drawing session and the model is an ex-wrestler who has posed for our group of artists before. I'm particularly looking forward to it because I was was really happy with my pictures last time. Fingers crossed the new ones will measure up...