After reviewing my limited options, which are much the same as everyone else’s limited options at the moment, I decided on a self portrait. I had taken some photos the same day wearing a carnival mask and posted it to Facebook captioned ‘Who do I speak to about this PPE?’, this being the topic of the moment. It seemed ideal.
These are some of the first sketches, using black conte, to get a feel of all the shapes in my face and the mask. The ones at the top of the page on the left are of an angle that made sense photographically but actually the semi profile appealed more because of the look of disdain I’d managed from behind the mask.
I graduated this to a sheet of black A3 cartridge to scale up and to figure out shapes at this larger size. I used transparent gesso as prep then drew on that with white, then black conte, going over both with a wet paint brush to soften and spread the pigment. Once dry, I used a layer of white gesso in areas where I plan to apply pigment that would benefit from being under-lit, as it were. The mask is bronze and I have some bronze acrylic I’d like to use. As to the rest, while I would like to draw on Bisa Butler’s palette, which is similar to that of both Firelei Baez and Nick Cave (this one, not that one!), I’m not sure at the moment what will suit.
A few more layers now, gold, bronze, mars black, and titanium white. I’ve been doing a lot of fiddling with the eye areas – the apertures and the eyes themselves – and it’s useful to see this onscreen because for some reason it becomes easier to spot where I need to make adjustments of perspective, tone, and shade. An interesting recent realisation is that I’m less likely to think something is lost because it isn’t ‘right’. As a consequence of the course to date, I feel more confident in my capacity to ‘edit’ a piece of work; to leave it and come back with a fresh eye. Progress!
Today I’ve really built on yesterday’s base with skin tones, more layers to the mask, some definitions, and what was the signature blue hair till I turned it brown again this morning. A couple of thins strike me immediately – pare some chin off the left hand side because it isn’t the straight vertical I’ve made it, drop the eyebrow arch a tad, of the mask on the right of the picture, and narrow that eye a little more. Then I can begin detailing the mask itself.
Adjustments done and I think I should be too. It’s a sketch and perhaps I’ll do another because I have time and I also have increasing confidence that the next version will be better.
Meanwhile, I’m hitting ‘send’.
Oh dear, that chin! The basics: large piece of duck cotton around A1 sized and prepped with transparent gesso. Washed with cadmium green then blocked in the mask area and part of the face with white gesso. The other colours include Mars black, Naples yellow, Alizarin crimson, rich gold, metallic bronze, and metallic anthracite. All of them bar the blue and the crimson, from the cheaper end of the scale. This was a first stab at the scale and the shapes and colours on a lighter background.
First task today was to fix the chin, then I could get going on layering and detailing. I used some of the ideas from the first version – a blue wash over the black base for the hair for instance – but needed to develop some different techniques to accommodate this particular support which is absorbent even after a layer of gesso and also quite resistant. It makes scratchy marks more possible than very smooth ones, but it’s also quite resilient to blending with a finger or thumb, unlike paper which eventually disintegrates.
So this is where I’ve arrived somewhere between Dot Cotton and Wonder Woman but much closer to the former than the latter which, if I’m honest, is also closer to the photo! My thought now is to make a light wash of a transparent red and to make a few passes over the darker (viridian) green. I’ve used red for a background before though and I’m really resisting the temptation to do it again. Understated is the aim.
Done. I keep forgetting to say that one of my key tools is a piece of old flannel (a whole towel cut into lots of pieces) that I use to dab or scrub at paint to remove excess or pull back to the layer underneath. Sometimes the paint is wet when I do this, in which case it removes a certain amount, and sometimes it’s dry. In that case I may dampen the fabric a little to scrub and reveal any textured paint underneath. I made a very dilute wash of the Alizarin crimson and scrubbed that into the top and bottom left, dabbed it to remove it from the dark green but not the lighter area underneath. Then I did the same with some undiluted paint to emphasise the edge of the hair very slightly.
All of yesterday and most of today, this was singularly unpromising and I really thought I would be submitting the first version. But for me, this has come together in the last hour. The likeness is better, the angles and edges more in perspective, and the tone – mood in this instance – more consistent with the face I was pulling to reflect my feelings about the tragically inadequate PPE past colleagues and current neighbours are having to work with.
Today the nation held a minute’s silence at 11 am to honour all the NHS front line workers who have died of COVID-19 in the course of their work. Fierce as this is, I’m dedicating it to them.
There are some areas to address as part of this studied look at the work. The importance of the background, the colours and brush work in reference to any influences underpinning the work, and my view of how I have achieved any aims I may have had when I set out to make this work.
I usually struggle with influences but on this occasion I go straight to Bisa Butler, Firelei Baez, and Nick Cave whose colours just go straight to my core. Their styles are somewhat but not entirely different; all of them bright and making full-on pigmented statements about their subject matter, much of it projecting themes of assertion and rights in the Black population but via the different media of quilts (Butler), paintings (Baez), and performance art (Cave). I find both the palettes and the message impactful.
None of them, though, employs what I’ve been referring to as a ‘blocky’ painting style which seems to be one I’m most at home with despite having surprised myself with a couple of Hockney-ish pieces. Precision is quite difficult at scale so perhaps that is why. On the other hand, ‘blocky’ seems to lend itself to a more impressionistic, gestural methodology which feels more me. I should probably work on the precision – if Hockney can do it at his age, it should be possible for me to up my game a little.
When I set out on this work, I wanted to achieve a painting that was a relatively close approximation to my actual appearance but with vibrant colour and a driving meaningfulness. I didn’t really know how I was going to do it, and in these tricky times, I’m using what comes to hand and that I have plenty of – largely because, in the case of paints, they’re quite cheap and a bit gimmicky. I also tend to work things out by serially up-scaling from sketch book to A3 or A2, then finishing in A1. And as with a previous assignment, I made a second version using a slightly different palette after producing an initial version I would have been happy with in the past. To me, that represents a growing confidence in my ability to ‘do it again only better’ which is a new development. I’ve been able to fix things that were not right, and to use various methods to edit in layers. I’ve seen how underpainting can be an important way to make a final transparent wash bright and significant; and I’ve used different supports to explore the different ways paint behaves on those surfaces.
My problems as always are perspectives and I’d chosen a partial profile which exacerbated that problem with a receding mask frame, and an eye, nose, and mouth needing foreshortening with lines and shades. There are also shapes in the mask, and reflections that were tricky and I feel that where they do work, that was more luck than judgment.
Is the background important? Yes, but only in its emptiness and colour contrasts. The first green was too weak and I had to resist red, but the second green gave me the depth I wanted. I did drop in a dab of red wash at the end to lift an edge near the hair and a small patch of canvas not fully covered by the second green. For where I am, I’m happy with this, and happy that I can feel a potential for progression – the wind under my wings maybe – that will take me forward.
Custodio, I., 2018. Studio visit: Firelei Baez. MoMA. [online] Available at https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/16?high_contrast=false. Accessed 26 April 2020.
O’Grady, M., 2019. Nick Cave. T The Greats. New York Times. [online] Available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/15/t-magazine/nick-cave-artist.html. Accessed 26 April 2020.
Nick Cave (musician). Wikipedia. [online] Available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/15/t-magazine/nick-cave-artist.html. Accessed 26 April 2020.
Bisa Butler, detail from Africa The Land Of Hope and Promise For Negro People’s of the World. Claire Oliver Gallery. [online] Available at https://www.claireoliver.com/artists/bisa-butler/. Accessed 29 April 2020.
Time taken: 14 hours.