Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Portrait Studies in Oil

I thought I would post these portrait studies I did  few months ago. I am having a tidy up of my studio drawers and I realised I had not even photographed these. They are all just studies done in about 2 hours each, all done alla prima from the model. There is nothing particularly special about any of them but looking back at them now, I think they are better than I thought they were. Certainly worthy of a blog post.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Art Book Discoveries at the Lifeline Book Fair

Here is a photo of my latest acquisitions for my Art Book library. The piece de resistance is the 4cm thick volume of Leonardo's anatomical drawings, many of which were borrowed from Queen Elizabeth's collection. The book was published in 1952 and I can honestly say I have never seen anything like it before. Only a few of the images were familiar. The same ones that are always shown but there is is a wealth of riches in this book.

 I will probably do some drawing copies from it. I am really getting more into anatomy and going to life drawing a couple of times a week. In fact, I am devoting this year to such studies.

Another amazing find is a book of etchings and engravings called "The School of Fontainebleau" by Henri Zerner. It contains graphic work by Fantuzzi and Jean Mignon in a Mannerist style. They were working for François 1 in France from about 1530. These works are both ultra sophisticated and yet naive.

Here are a couple of pages.

I also scored a copy of "The Spirit of Britain - A Narrative History of the Arts"  by Roy Strong who has been a Director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert in London.

Another more obscure discovery was a book about an Estonian artist called Malle Leis. A Google search didn't reveal much but there is some synchronicity with my own work so I will keep looking for more of her.

Plenty of looking and reading fun ahead. And lots of tea drinking on my studio couch...

Friday, January 18, 2013

"Portrait of Madame X"

There are many painters for whom John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X" is the ultimate in sophisticated society portraiture. Shown at the 1884 Paris Salon it created a sensation in its day and notoriety for its subject.

The story is well known.
I have just finished a book however, a novel called

"I am Madame X" by Gioia Diliberto published by Scribner in 2003 which presents a fictionalised account of the story from the point of view of the painting's subject -  American beauty Virginie Gautreau. The amazing and very clever thing about the book is that you truly forget you are reading a novel. It seems rather that  this is Virginie's own true account of events. and you are lulled into believing you are reading facts.

For artists and art lovers the book can be devoured for its descriptions of the Paris of the Belle epoque and the details of fashionable salons and artists' ateliers. There are characterisations of several real people, Sargent of course and Carolus Duran his teacher and Dr Pozzi who was also immortalised by Sargent in paint. Also a couple of female artists are included. Filomena Seguette is loosely based on the artist Rosa Bonheur, although she reminded me of an painter version of novelist George Sand with her male attire.

Diliberto has apparently used the sketchy facts of Gautreau's life as a blueprint but the whole thing is just so believable.

I enjoyed the sections about the Salon itself about works "on the line" or being "skied" with work hung so high it was barely visible. These anecdotes provide authenticity and I simply soak up anything about the daily lives of artists from that period.

Just for interest I have taken these photos from my other Sargent book by Carter Ratcliffe which shows some of the preliminary drawings Sargent did of Virginie.

This one juxtaposes the two finished paintings. The one on the right with the wine glass is a bravura piece of painting and the novel weaves the circumstances of its creation cleverly into the story.

I highly recommend  the book for fellow artists.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Portrait of Tom finished

My portrait of Tom finished. There are progress shots in an earlier blog post. It was painted Alla Prima in about 5 sittings of about an hour each. It is a good likeness and he is very happy with it. It is just a practice piece really. I wanted to have a go at the Rembrandt triangle of light on the left cheek. It is just on a loose piece of canvas, unstretched  so it will be cropped a bit when it is stretched or framed. 

The other challenge I set myself was to paint a dark head against a light background which is the opposite of the tried and tested old master look of a light head and collar against a very dark background. I have two other portraits I am working on and the results will be posted soon.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Storm in a Teacup" finally finished

Several weeks ago in my  blog post called "Work in progress - Studio tea set" I posted progressive images of this painting which is now finished.

I have decided to call it "Storm in a Teacup". It has taken a while to finish. I wanted the looseness of the background to indicate wind or a storm, hence the floating petals. The tea set is the studio one I use every day. I am going to frame it in an elaborate gold traditional frame. The most ornate one I can afford.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Drawbridge is Up / George Lambert

I am working in the studio and the drawbridge is up. No visitors to the gallery as it is closed for January. Space and time to myself to work and contemplate work is truly bliss. My only outings are to get art materials, visit the library and walk the dog.

Today however I did a flying visit to the Queensland Art Gallery (still in my painting clothes) to have a closer look at Australian artist George Lambert's large canvas of "The Mother".

I had been reading two books about him lately. One is 
Art and Artifice  George Lambert 1873-1930    by Anne Gray and the other I found in the library is actually an exhibition catalogue also by Gray called George.W.Lambert -Retrospective- Heroes and Icons  from the National Gallery of Australia.
What I have always appreciated about Lambert is that he was an outstanding draughtsman and a magnificent technician. A kind of Australian Sargent.

I am very interested in learning more about the working methods of artists who are trying to reconcile old master painting and contemporary life. I see the history of painting as a continuing tradition and there are a number of artists such Lambert whose work was informed and influenced by Velásquez and Van Dyke but existed in a more modern era. He certainly got his mastery of tonal qualities from them.

Lambert was very cosmopolitan and apparently had a flamboyant personality and a personal magnetism which are of course valuable assets for a society portrait painter. He also knew about modern movements and was very supportive to younger artists working in those styles but he stuck to his guns and painted in a more traditional manner.

Lambert assimilated the works from the past. He often asked his sitters to adopt poses from the archive of art. He arranged some of his compositions also based on a knowledge of old masters. Some of them are very clever and witty if you know the originals. A Lambert looks like a Lambert though and I think this is because of the strong sculptural quality he achieves. He was also brave and took risks.

This quote from Ron Radford sums this up.
"...there is something immediate and theatrical about many of his bravado portraits. Yet his art also has quirkiness and tough edges that save it from being predictably slick like so many grand Edwardian portraits,whose appeal was short lived."

There is always an element of exuberant display in Lambert which is very seductive. There is nothing tentative, and that kind of confidence is appealing to the viewer.

There is a self portrait by Lambert in the National Portrait Gallery in London and he was also commissioned to paint King Edward VII. 

Two other things I want to mention about Lambert are his authoritative brushwork (like Sargent) and his formalist aesthetic.

I took this close up in front of The Mother" this morning. Thick light areas, quite loosely applied, very sculptural folds.

The painting depicts Lambert's wife Amy, artist Thea Proctor and his two sons Constant and Maurice. (As a spooky aside, ABC classic FM was playing a piece by composer Constant Lambert yesterday morning.) Maurice became a sculptor, talented family...

I just love this delicate baby head, so sensitive, closely observed and painted with tenderness, but not sentimental  Which brings me to the point about formal elements. In his day Lambert was criticised for a lack of emotion in his work. BUT this was his aim. He advised young landscape painters that there was always perfect design in nature and that they should reduce it to definite FORMS. He denounced the sentimental.

I wish there were more such works I could see in the flesh here in Brisbane.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Portrait of Tom in Progress

I have been working on this portrait of Tom for the past week (only one short sitting per day as he is very busy) and I have taken a few progress shots. It is quite illuminating for me to look back at where I have been. I am also much more aware of some of my working habits, both good and bad. The technique is totally "alla prima" painted from life. Each sitting was about 30-40 minutes. Oil on canvas.

I toned the canvas with Raw Umber a few days before and let it dry as I hate working on a wet surface. I never start on a white canvas as I like to have control of my lightest tones early on.

When I compare these first two images it is quite obvious that I tend to work "all over" . I am not sure if this is a good thing or not. I know there are so many differing ways of working. I can't fathom the method some artists have of totally completing an area before moving on to the next. I know Lucien Freud did this. Maybe I should try it sometime just as an exercise.

Getting a bit more 3D modelling into the face now. Going into the dark areas to identify colour, which is a bit exaggerated at this stage. Correcting the ear. Cool lights.

Indicating the shirt. Getting the modelling of the mouth angle a bit more accurate.

Warming up my shadows. As the spotlight is a cool light I am following the basic principle of cool lights and warm shadows but it is almost an unconscious thing now. Observation is the real guide.

Put more of a focus on the hint of "Rembrandt triangle" on the cheek on the left. Made the nostrils more accurate and firmed up the ear. More highlights on the hair. Also I have hinted at a small smile as I had made Tom look a bit grim. He did have trouble staying awake so I made a pot of tea.

Still not quite finished. Now that I can see it here on the screen there are several things screaming at me to be fixed. Amazing how seeing the image at a different scale smartens up your eye. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Glasgow Boys

Browsing the Brisbane Municipal Library art shelves a few days ago I discovered a beautiful book about a group of artists I knew nothing about.

The book is "The Glasgow Boys" by Roger Billcliffe,  first published in 1985. It presents the work of several young Scottish painters from the end of the 19th century. They were not really a formal group but were united in their taste for naturalism and plein-air painting. Of course it is the portraits that held most appeal for me and the figures set in the landscape.

The main figures in the group were James Guthrie, EA Walton, James Paterson, WY Macgregor, Joseph Crawhall, George Henry, John Lavery, Arthur Melville, and William Kennedy.

Many years ago when I was studying Art History at university theirs was the kind of work that was frowned upon compared to the freshness and innovation of the Impressionists. I guess it was seen as sentimental and anecdotal and yet I find nowadays it has such an appeal for me. In my own work I am actually striving to be more "academic" and "realist" and no longer have any interest in all the isms and shisms of the modern art period.


This is one by James Guthrie called "Schoolmates". It is very reminiscent of Jules Bastien-Lepage.
The Glasgow boys do not appear to have been politically motivated and their type of realism cannot be linked directly to that of Gustave Courbet in France although several of them studied and painted over there. Courbet's work challenged social attitudes as well as artistic conventions. To our eyes today his work does appear a little maudlin and nostalgic and it is difficult to believe that he was criticised in his own day for a lack of sentiment compared to Millet.
This particular blend of naturalism and realism appealed to many painters in the late 19th century even here in Australia, as it retained the traditional emphasis on tonal vales and technical proficiency yet combined it with a new approach to composition and subject matter.
This is by Arthur Melville entitled simply "A Peasant Girl". It is more than a genre or landscape work yet not really a portrait either. She is a figure in the landscape yet placed so centrally she dominates her setting although she is also a product of it.

This amazing portrait is again by James Guthrie and is called "Old Willie". A masterful portrait by any standards. Front on, centrally placed, no nonsence pose and direct gaze with eye contact, simple white background with a hint of shadow behind the head and the lettering gives it a monumental quality. It looks like posing was a serious business. I wish I could find models so amenable and businesslike.

My favourite however would have to be this below -


This is called "French Grandmother" by William Kennedy. I love how he has resisted the temptation to focus on any of the facial features. The shadow around the eye socket says enough because the profile line says it all. In colour it is quite subtle also and the touch of pattern in the headscarf ties it all together. It also looks quite impasto which suits the "salt of the earth" type of character of the subject. The foreshortening of the arms and hands doesn't look quite right but it does indicate that it was done from life and maybe she moved. The hunched over feeling is there though, hands probably on a cane.
I wonder what she thought of it?