Three self-portraits exploring tone, using soft pastel on paper
I have found the OCA drawing course challenging and interesting on a number of levels. Importantly for me, it helped to pinpoint weaknesses in my approach to drawing and painting – in particular lack of concentration while drawing, lack of attention in looking at the subject I’m drawing.
This came to a head with section 4 and the self-portrait. From this frustration I decided to take a different approach to the drawing process and wanted to execute a self-portrait I felt more happy with.
This energy led me to research contemporary portrait artists. In this search I came across two in particular who inspired me: Chuck Close and Jonathan Yeo. They both use grids drawn onto the support as a means of drawing or painting their subject and both work from photographs.
Something else I learned about myself on the course is that I really, really dislike working in public spaces where I can be watched or where people may be uncomfortable with me watching them. So working from a photograph seemed like an excellent way to get round this.
So I decided to produce several self-portraits from photographs and using a grid as a guide.
I liked the large scale of Close’s work, though for this exercise the huge scale of several meters across would be impractical, so I kept to A1 for two portraits and used A3 for a third to bring some contrast.
The National Portrait Gallery provided further inspiration to explore my own style as there is such a wide range of styles, techniques and subjects to see there.
The grid provides a practical tool to help record visual information onto the paper; but I found myself thinking about the grid in other, more philosophical ways as well: I’m aware that the human brain actually flips visual information from the eye 180 degrees in order to understand it ‘correctly’, so what we think we see is not actually how visual information reaches the brain; I’m aware that how we understand what we look at is learned through experience; our sense of time moving ‘forwards’ in a linear fashion is a metaphor, a human construct to make sense of experience. Our world-view and physical view of the world is perceived through a matrix of experiences, language, learning and interpretation.
Furthermore, now, more than ever in our history, we view the world through rectangular screens, often made up of tiny dots or squares.
It seems to me that we live our lives through a grid or matrix (not to be confused with the dystopian film of that name), and so using a matrix to record life and retaining elements of it on the page are quite appropriate.
In my research I explored different grids, artists who used grids in different ways or broke images down into smaller parts such as the pointellists, the impressionists, Kandinsky, contemporary artists like Ken Knowlton, Chuck Close and and Jonathan Yeo.
I explored colour and monochrome, I looked at several drawing media and chose soft pastel as the most effective for what I wanted to achieve.
The final pieces that result are three self portraits using grids to transfer a photograph of the artist onto paper using soft pastel. Two are on A1 white paper in a range of blue hues, the third is A3 on black paper in white pastel in a surreal style.
So here I am, at the end of the OCA Drawing module. Finally happy with some work I've produced. Inspired to pursue portrait painting, with a methodology that works for me and that I'd like to develop further. I've found a drawing medium I can work with - soft pastels. And want to take this further as well as moving into painting using the same grid method. I'm interested in grids as metaphor for how we understand and see the world around us, how we interpret what we see, a matrix for making sense of our lives and experiences.
Development and research
I was both disappointed and deeply frustrated with the work I had produced for section 4 for the OCA: it was uninteresting, dull and frankly amateur. The composition for the self-portrait was uninspired and the execution, woeful: it lacked realism, detail, accuracy. I used graphite pencil on paper which I don't really enjoy and it was done one afternoon looking in the mirror. I was uninspired.
So, as I approached Section 5, a personal project, I worked with the energy of this frustration and dissatisfaction. It drove me to attempt self-portraits again but with an intense emotion of almost anger with myself for such shoddy work.
I looked at some contemporary portraitists for inspiration. I visited the National Portrait Gallery and fell in love with some of the recent works: previously my recollection of portraits stemmed mainly from such artists as Gainsborough, Titian, Van Dyck: amazing artists, but I just don't find them interesting. The works seem to me to be very posed, stiff, alien; the brushwork is usually incredibly fine, detailed, invisible; which mattered more before the camera was in use.
I found the contemporary work in the Portrait Gallery exciting: more relaxed than the 17th Century artists, many were posed of course but seemed more relaxed and conveyed the emotion and feeling of the subjects. Here are a few that caught my eye, in very different styles:
'Ed Sheeran' by Colin Davidson. Oil on linen, 2016.
'Leon Kossof' Self-portrait, oil on board, 1981.
'Sir Stelios Haji-Iannou' by Jane Ansell. Oil on aluminium panel, 2015.
Extract from 'Elspeth Gray and Brian Rix'. By John Bradbury, oil on canvas, 1967.
'Chris Ofili' Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1991.
I began my internet search and quickly turned to the large scale works of Chuck Close. Several YouTube videos and Google searches later, I'd fallen both for Chuck's work and his methodology, using grids as a means and process. He describes his work as being about the process more than the outcome - and the process begins with a photograph, he uses a grid to break the image down and explore it; he recreates an enlarged grid onto the support, as a means to draw or paint from the photo, yet retaining elements of the grid, cubes or diamonds on the canvas. I'd never warmed to photorealism before but found these fascinating.
Chuck's early works were monochrome which I liked, as it allowed artist and viewer to focus on tonal values and subject without the distraction of colour.
Chuck Close working on Keith in his studio at 27 Greene Street, 1970
'Kate Moss' by Chuck Close
Then again, his later works seem all about colour and reminded me of Kandinsky's 'Concentric Circles' painted in 1913.
Self portrait, Chuck Close, 2012.
'Concentric circles', Wassily Kandinsky, 1913.
I began to experiment in my sketchbook with different grids:
Drew my hand on a grid, looking through a grid drawn on perspex:
I decided to experiment with media as I copied Kandinsky and made my own version inspired by him, using soft pastels on black paper:
My search turned up this piece with a close up of 'James' 2002, oil on canvas, by Chuck Close. I attempted a copy in my sketchbook, to gain some sense of how Close created the work.
Water colour pencil on white card.
I also tried oil pastel on card, but the scale was too small for the blunt pastels:
My research into portrait artists using grids took me to Jonathan Yoe, contemporary British portraitist. Again, I fell in love with his work and methodology. And again he leaves clear evidence of the grid in his finished works which for me was very freeing and creates layers of visual meaning.
Self portrait II, Jonathan Yeo, oil on canvas, 2012.
'Nicole Kidman' oil on canvas, 2011.
So, inspired by these artists, I set to work on my own self-portraits.
I took dozens of 'selfies' on my mobile phone in the studio:
I tried different positions, angles, locations in the studio and decided this position worked the best: light from a small window behind me light up the edge of my hair, the large window (left of me in the photos) provided good light and strong enough shadow to work with.
I took the photos into Photoshop to play with colour and tone and added a grid over the top:
I drew a grid onto an A1 sheet of white paper and sketched an outline in pencil:
I decided soft pastels would work well on this scale, which I think they did. I found the grid helped me not only to draw with greater accuracy, but showed me how my mind tends to rush ahead and jump around while I'm working. The grid helped me to stay focused on one area at a time, and was more than just a simple drawing aid, but also a psychological one in maintaining focus and attention.
As I played with the photo on the computer, I found it more interesting in a single colour rather than black and white and liked the tonal range that blue offered. However I used up all the very dark blue which I could only find available in a set of 24, so ended up buying around 6 sets by the end.
I was pleased with the finished piece - although it remained slightly unfinished as I'd run out of the dark blue and was waiting for a delivery.
Self portrait 1.
Although my focus was on practicing tone, I wanted a second portrait that contrasted with the first. Browsing my library at home I was looking through a favourite book of photos by the late fashion photographer, Norman Parkinson and was really struck by some early surreal photos:
Inspired by these I took a selfie light from below and pushed up the contrast on the computer. I loved the creepy result below:
I then drew this up on A3 black paper in just white pastel:
Self portrait II
How bizarre this looks, but such a fun approach to a self-portrait.
For the third work I wanted something to balance the first and decided to create a similar work. I followed the same process as the first on A1 white paper and blue soft pastels.
I was armed with several more of the dark blue, but still ran out at the end. I also used a wider range of blues which I feel worked even better than the first, in creating almost luminous and subtle shadows: