Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Paddington Portrait Project 1

Throughout history, the subjects in painted portraits have traditionally been the wealthy, the famous, and the powerful. It has always been elitist and remains so with the subjects painted for the Archibald Prize generally celebrities these days. People who are larger than life in more ways than one. I find each year I am enjoying the Archibald less and less.
To quote Robert Henri

"Salon pictures are a special and very overgrown and mongrel breed". 

 Or closer to home John McDonald speaks of  a good Archibald year as one in which he is not "gasping in disbelief'. (2012)

The portraits that move me the most are more intimate and dare I say more authentic. What Christopher Allen describes as  "a mutual connection between artist and sitter that makes a good portrait the crystallisation of a relationship" . 

Even when you consider the greatest of the Old Master portraitists, some of their most moving works are the more personal ones eg. Velasquez's portrait of his manservant, Hogarth's portraits of his servants.


I believe the Archibald has become more about who is painted than how well they are painted.

I have started a project of my own which is decidedly anti-Archibald. I want to paint ordinary people, men, women and children in a much more egalitarian way. I knew I would have to build up to this, get plenty of practice, not having done portraiture consistently for a couple of years.

I was also influenced by the conceptual work of Marina Abramovic with her piece "The Artist is Present", in which she sat in an art gallery and people sat and faced her for hours on end.

Marina Abramovic

I find this work and this idea intensely moving, so I decided early on that eye contact and a front on viewpoint was essential to achieve what I was after.

I like art that looks back. I imagine a whole wall of ordinary people looking back.

Robyn Bauer Studio

So this is it. I have launched the project. This is my studio wall with my progress so far.

I have set myself guidelines which may change or develop as time goes on. I am not sure where the project will lead. For now my guidelines are

* Everything is done from life in two or three sittings of about two hours each. Not exactly alla prima as I like the paint to fully dry so I can make adjustments boldly.
* Eye contact, front on
* Canvas size 40 x 40 cm prepared with a swish of raw umber. Heads generally about life sized. maybe a little larger.
* I will paint anyone who wants to be part of the project
* Ideally I would like a balance of different ages, personalities, ethnicities, gender but I don't have full control over this
* No photography

I have had to warn all my sitters that the very entertaining show "Anh's Brush with Fame" is exactly that "Entertainment" and that I would not be psychoanalyzing them, nor were they expected to keep on chatting. We saved the chat for the breaks. I also explained that while it appears that I am really staring at them I am actually making continual decisions about colour mixing, shapes, tone etc. It is they that have the opportunity to really look at me without interruption. I am too busy working to worry about what they may be thinking about me, although I've been told that I pull a lot of faces and I stand with my left hand on my hip!

Robyn Bauer with Viewfinder

And I use a viewfinder to make early decisions.

Here are some of the portraits in more or less chronological order.

 After I had exhausted the family members I had access to, I put a sign in the studio window asking for volunteers. I have had lots of generous strangers willing to give up fours hours or so.

After I had done a few I had the courage to post a few of them on Social Media and I got a few more volunteers. Initially I wanted some link to Paddington, however tenuous but then I figured coming to my Paddington studio was link enough.

Husbands have modelled and then wives. I have made some good new friends. I know John Singer Sargent said that every time he painted a portrait he lost a friend. I guess his patrons were trying to call the shots considering the prices he was charging.

I am also very interested in how the experience of sitting feels for my models. Martin Gayford when sitting for Lucian Freud's "Man with a Blue Scarf" said his motive for sitting was "an assertion of my own existence". He said "The experience of posing seems somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barbers". 
"There is a rather pleasant feeling of concentrating and being alert but no need to do anything at all. 

The conversations had during the breaks have been lovely. One on one conversation always works best for me. I have learned about all sorts of things, including the geography of the surrounding landscape seen from my back deck. And several of my drawing boards have been expertly cut down for me by a master carpenter, seen above.

Keeping the backgrounds simple but accurate as far as my studio lighting goes, has also been an important factor. I have a black sheet up as a backdrop and it is magic for the contrast of beautiful white hair.

Basically my models are coming from pretty much everywhere. Friends, family, acquaintances, strangers, friends of friends, different aspects of my life, including fellow choir members.

Some of them could do with another sitting but the sketchy finish suits others.

I want to have a balance of male and female but at this stage I am just painting whoever comes along.

Getting plenty of practice painting beards. They are all so amazingly different and I have added lead white to my palette for the first time.

And finally, if no-one comes along I have to resort to the family canines.

More to come.


  1. I can't thank Robyn enough for allowing me the honour of participation. I felt special during the sittings. For someone who is not comfortable with limelight, the intimate focus on me was well rewarded by the time for quiet reflection - and the pleasure of participation in the evolution to end result of a focussed, passionate artist. Life's memorable experiences!

    1. That's so great to hear! I love the opportunity for one on one conversation. You were an excellent model, quite comfortable with yourself!