Portraiture: Facing a different challenge

Mariano at Little Chef (detail)  2017 acrylic on board

Mariano at Little Chef (detail) 2017 acrylic on board

Landscape painting has been my primary mode of creating pictures but, like any other artist, I have tried my hand at portraiture over the years. Developing a painterly style that is fresh and consistent in feel is a challenge as I believe that it is more important to capture a sense of the sitter’s personality, attitude and surroundings rather than simply copy a ‘photographic’ likeness.

I feel that no two portraits that I have made look exactly the same in style. This could be considered obvious given that the sitter is an individual person but each painting seems to require a different texture and approach. I often end up switching between more realistically rendered paintings and looser impressions. It is easy to overwork a portrait and lose the immediacy, especially if the sitter is situated in a more formal 'school photo' arrangement, leaving paintings appearing laboured and less interesting, even if a likeness is captured.

Joe (detail)  2014 acrylic on board

Joe (detail) 2014 acrylic on board

In a similar fashion to my landscape painting I prefer to create portraiture directly from life, in situational settings, which makes for a more relaxed environment and truer sense of the sitter. Two examples of direct situational portraits I have made are 'Mariano in Little Chef' and 'Joe', where I placed each sitter in an everyday scene. For the former I used fluorescent colours to help bring out the rather mundane environment of a motorway refreshment service; For the latter I attempted the portrait by using a large flat-edged brush to render the sitter’s facial expressions and simple domestic surroundings.

I am very much inspired by other artists’ portrait paintings, such as Martin Maloney's portrait 'Sony Levi', which I saw back in 1998, during my college days, when visiting the Saatchi Young British Artist exhibition ‘Sensation’ at the Royal Academy in London. I admired how Maloney used a cartoonish but informative approach with simplified forms and colours to create a realistic domestic scene. In much of his work, Maloney’s portraits appear somewhat garish and crude but also vividly convey the personalities and expressions of the people he chose to represent. I produced a handful of pictures in spirit of this approach, including another domestic-themed portrait 'Cindy & Alec', where I used brighter colours (as compared to my then-standard palette) and flattened and stripped away areas of detail in the composition. Unlike Maloney, I chose to use more conventional observational skills to gain a true likeness of the sitters.

Cindy & Alec  1999 acrylic on paper

Cindy & Alec 1999 acrylic on paper

A portrait reflects the uniqueness of the sitter, as seen through the eyes of the artist. I have always enjoyed the process involved in creating one, from setting up the scene to the subsequent  three-way interaction between sitter, artist and painting medium. Self-portraits, on the other hand, are quite a different challenge in that an objective likeness can be difficult to reproduce, as the process is often a highly introspective one, resulting in a more emotive and autobiographical study. There is something liberating, however, in conveying feelings through paint, which is why portraiture often presents something more revealing than landscapes do.