Friday, August 12, 2011

Facing Facts: assorted not-quite-portraits

After reading my blog entry on "Travelling Hopefully" back in March, a friend emailed me the following question:
Do you deliberately avoid faces? It seems to be quite noticeable and has me wondering what the faces are like, and perhaps I don't want to know anyway. It is intriguing.

It was an intriguing question for me too. Certainly I had no intention of being coy and deliberately hiding the faces of my subjects . . . but neither had I ever attempted to paint a real portrait. What exactly is a portrait, anyway? To me it goes beyond the definition in my Collins dictionary--"a painting, drawing, sculpture, photograph or other likeness of an individual, esp.of the face." A truly achieved portrait says something about the essence, or soul, of the person, which the artist has perceived and communicated. It's more than skin deep. Oddly, and for no reason I can explain, I feel no particular desire to paint portraits in this sense, and portraits by other artists, even great ones such as Rembrandt, are to me not the most interesting kind of paintings. Since earliest childhood I have been fascinated by faces, and can remember filling notebooks with drawings of them; but I don't think I ever thought of them as real people, even though I had a fanciful belief that if I coloured them they would come alive at night when I was asleep.

Twelve - acrylic (date and dimensions not recorded)
I have, however, produced a number of paintings featuring people, especially members of my immediate and extended family, and have been surprised on several occasions to find that the resulting image, even if the back was turned or the face partially concealed, was instantly recognizable, and not just by me! An early attempt was "Twelve", which was based on a postage-stamp sized segment of a not-very-good snapshot. The girl had long since grown up, and may very well prefer to disown this version of herself, but even her mother acknowledged the likeness! I was not, however, trying to capture an exact likeness of her face, let alone her soul, but rather to express, as indicated by the title I chose, the truculent negativity that I remember as part and parcel of puberty and early adolescence.

Next Move - acrylic - 14" x 18" - 2005
Two Cakes - acrylic - 24" x 18"

In some paintings of people, it was the direction and intensity of the gaze that interested me. Children are good subjects for this, because of the whole-hearted, whole-body concentration that they bring to tasks. "Next Move" and "Two Cakes" are examples, both based on family photos.

The Bike Lesson - acrylic - 30" x 14"
In the case of "Bike Lesson" it was the body language that appealed to me. The little boy, both proud and precarious, is on the brink of taking off on his wheels. He is well protected, with his helmet and knee pads, but still needs the caring touch of his father, soon to be left behind as the older generation always is.

"On the Ferry" (see above) combines the intent gaze with the directional body language, so that the four men seem to be racing ahead of the ship towards their destination.

Shore Line - acrylic - 16" x 14" - 2008
"Shore Line" is another painting of back views. This time, the gaze is implied in the huddled body language of the old ladies, who seem to be shifting and fidgeting  as they share confidences about what they see. I imagined them as poised on the brink of their end-of-life voyage that is not far off; but the purchaser of the painting put a more cheerful spin on it: she saw it as a depiction of herself and her friends a decade or two in the future, enjoying companionship and a day on the beach.

Snooze - acrylic - 30" x 24" - 2010
Finally, two recent paintings of family members show quite a lot of face, and are certainly recognizable, but again my intention was not really to paint their portraits. I have always enjoyed watching babies and small children sleep, because they work at it with the concentration that it deserves, given its extreme importance. (Adults, in contrast, tend to regard it as a necessary waste of time, a sort of void between periods of real life.) The little boy asleep in the car is patently recharging his batteries ready for another bout of three-year-old boisterousness. His cap and work shirt amused me, too: he might have just come off shift on a building site!

Seaside Pub - acrylic - 16" x 24" - 2011
"Seaside Pub" shows an elderly, long-married couple sharing a special moment. Again, the gaze and body-language are the important items. I painted the picture for an exhibition on the subject of love--in this case the love of two people who have grown closer over the years and can still enjoy a private joke or intimate confidence.The exhibition jury declined my painting, but I'm still glad I did it. It's a statement of optimism about what a relationship can be.

Next instalment mid-September