In the summer of 2010 I was asked to contribute to an exhibition about portraiture. Some artist friends of mine were going to do a show in Galerie wzw de BOOT, in Ostend, called “Mona Lisa Revisited”. Apparently, they had been surprised to discover that, independently and unknown to each other, some abstract painters had made a return to portraiture, they wanted this work to be shown alongside that of artists who they knew were making portraits. It is a genre in painting which has long since been superseded by photography – I mean, if we want an idea of what someone might be like, and we have a choice between a photograph and a painting or drawing of him or her, which is the one we turn to? For ourselves, for most of us, a cheap, quick photograph does sufficient justice to our exteriors. Of course, there’s the question, what we see in the picture, what we are looking for, and the type of look we pay it; whether a glance or careful study, associations and all kinds of factors, high and low, come in to play.
The person portrayed wants to look good, to project some image they wish to have of themselves – there is the famous contact-sheet of 35mm photos of Marilyn Munroe where she has violently crossed-out the ones she disliked. Come to that, who of us doesn’t have the same urge with the photographs we get for our ID? Is anybody happy with their passport photograph? Nonetheless, photography is the medium of choice for portraiture, whoever it is for and whatever purpose the portrait is supposed to serve.
Still, the tradition survives, the hand-made, non-mechanical portrait continues to be commisioned, whether from Lucien Freud by billionaires or from an anonymous artist by tourists in Leicester Square, or Montmartre…, people will sit for as long as it takes to have their portraits “done”. Aside from the integrity of the artist, what the depth and extent of their motive and belief in portaiture is for the likes of Lord Mayors and University Chancellors and whoever else continues to think of their appearance as important enough to make a claim on the artist’s time, i cannot say. As Fred Licht says, “The portrait in modern times has shrunk to the closest circle of the artist’s friends and family. The same model painted again and again exposed to the artist’s way of working, revealed by their way of seeing.”
My first thoughts on being asked to take part in the exhibition, were of some recently completed, larger than life-size, portrait drawings. Attention grabbing, with an imposing presence, I considered putting them into the exhibition only to decide to do something quite the opposite. Before I say what, perhaps I can describe them and say why. Striking, only partly due to their scale, their authority (any they may possess) is commandeered from earlier portraits. Arising from a chance remark by the artist, Freddie Morris, I decided to imagine the person I was drawing to be a character derived from historical antecedents. For example, Alan, a mild mannered, gentle giant I pictured in my mind, while I rendered his features, as a proud and ruthless Flemish warrior baron, reversing and undermining the cherished notion of the artist “looking into the soul” to reveal the sitter’s true character. Perhaps, because of the “Flemish” connection (the exhibition was to be in Belgium, in Flanders – where the renaissance portrait began) was also why the big, “acting” portraits were the first to spring to mind.
However, what I decided to do, as my contribution to the exhibition, was to go to Ostend and fill a sketch book with drawings of people I’d see there, and instead of one, or two, over-life-size, metre high portraits on the wall there would be a little book with dozens.
Going to to buy a sketchbook, I came across two music manuscript notebooks on the shelf, the like of which I’d never seen before. It wasn’t at all what I’d had in mind when I went into the store but it was just right for what I wanted. I only needed one, but bought both. I’d never confined myself to a single subject in a sketchbook before. The change intrigued me. I did the same in the second book and half-way through found myself saying, “Let’s see what it would be like to do one of these a week…, for how long? A year!”
That was in September 2010, and so far we’re still going (the books & m’self).
They’re laid out, with their pages open, over on the other channel (www.portraitpages.com). And what started as something to do on the side while I was busy with teaching and working on a film about drawing – stuff that would keep me busy and away from my painting for six months – has turned into the activity everything else revolves around – to get the book completed – to draw at least a hundred different people’s portraits. To try and “get” them, each one as quickly as I can, as I come across them. Each, a random individual who happens to be in the same place I am, keeping in more or less the same position, for long enough to draw.
Sometimes it’s a push to fill the book by the end of the week, sometimes it seems to just happen, all done, before time’s up, other times it spills over.
I carry two books for drawing in, one, the little music manuscript notebook exclusively for portraits, and the other for anything else I want to draw. The drawings above come from the second sketchbook, they are extra to the portrait pages because I’ve got a rule that says, a maximum of one double page spread for one person…, I’m not allowing myself to turn the page and try again if the drawing isn’t right, doesn’t go well, or the person assumes a more striking pose; but I can turn to the other drawing book, where no such strictures apply, and go through as many pages of studies as I want. These are portraits of people I came across in Cologne, who I met while I was there for the opening of the annual Kunstgruppe exhibition which happens at the time of Art Cologne.
Another point about the portraitpages is that there’s no narrative, no sense of it being like a diary – you get a sense of people in different social situations, but that’s all. The people are largely anonymous but since these portraits were drawn in another sketchbook those strictures no longer apply and so I can tell you who they are. I can also say it was my birthday and by chance, although I kept it a secret on the day, and in between drawing who I could, there happened to be dancing and revelry, between Monday and the Saturday, when I found myself in Ostend in Belgium, which I might report on later…
One hundred portraits every week for one year. Why?
I’m still trying to work out the answer to that question.
Nothing gets settled immediately, there is a time of flux before concepts become fixed (if they ever are) and, if ever this happens to count for anything, then it would be interesting to learn what its significance is.