Painting from Nature
“…to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of time his own form and presence.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet Act III scene 2)
20th July 2020.
During the Covid crisis lockdown in 2020, I had an idea for a work to combine plein-air painting and portraiture: an out-door portrait. Under the circumstances, the only model available and keen to pose whenever and however long I require, is myself.
Part of a garden’s charm is its different time-world. It’s unusual for me to include people or creatures, unless they are the main subject, but the presence of the painter is a given, so why should I not be ‘the figure in the landscape’?
Apart from this, there is no particular reason to paint myself, but if I do so I won’t be able to avoid some obvious issues of self-portraiture: One usually looks in the mirror ‘to see oneself’. The image I see is only ever seen by me. It proclaims the fact of my existence, but how can a representation based on it be any more reliable than any other idea, or delusion, I may already have?
A self portrait is an exploration of the unknown par excellence, and indeed ‘the proper study of mankind is man’. But a self-portrait finds the painter at a comparative disadvantage. Others may know us better than we do ourselves, or think they do, and the artist’s unconscious and preposterous ego could be painfully on show.
Julian Bell (‘500 Self Portraits’ 2000) describes self-portraiture as “a singular, in-turned art”. Laura Cumming (A face to the World’ 2009) opines that it’s more often “an opportunity to put across one’s side of the story”. That’s exactly what I’m doing, alongside a humbling thumbing-through ‘500 Self Portraits’ and ‘A face to the World’.
I prepared the surface of a board, sanding it down to give it ‘tooth’, and began drawing in charcoal. For some unaccountable reason I felt I was really on to something!
The peculiar nature of a self portrait compounds the complexities. Just the fact that the mirror image is bilaterally symmetrical to the truth could be misleading. Horizontally ”flipped’ self portrait images can reveal another side; a different feeling quality, as with my 1970s self-portrait. But perhaps others don’t see it as I do:
At this point I must shoehorn in Albrecht Dürer – or maybe drag him in by his ringlets, because I find he epitomises the contrasting, interrelated introspective, private, and public self-consciousnesses from which ‘looking glasses’ or other reflective surfaces through the ages are inseparable. Of Dürer’s 1492 pen & ink self portrait Julian Bell writes “In his mirror lay a pathway to the soul” (Mirror of the World – a New History of Art’ 2007). By contrast Dürer’s 1500 Christ-like yet meticulously groomed self-image is a full-face, full-on, many-faceted public statement.
Dürer’s signature AD logo (even reflected in the fingers of his 1500 self-image) was already well-known from his wood engravings, and he is at no pains to represent himself as a mere painter or engraver. Had he wished he could certainly have done so. Attempting to paint oneself painting, particularly if one is doing so from direct observation is, nevertheless, a technical challenge. One’s model obviously doesn’t hold the pose. In particular, the hand that wields the brush cannot be kept still for long, particularly during critical moments of scrutiny. As in quantum physics, the activity of the observation makes the truth elusive.
Not all self portraits show the artist painting. I looked through Laura Cumming’s and Julian Bell’s books on self portraiture to see how many painted themselves holding palette and brushes. Most women painters seem to have done so, doubtless to make it clear this isn’t just another pretty woman painted by a male genius.
Until the 20th C, most painters who depict themselves in action appear either to be left-handed, or to have deliberately reversed a mirror image so that the brush appears in their right hand and palette in the left, as is the case with Gentileschi and Vigée Lebrun. But a picture isn’t always from direct observation, and such brilliant painters were more than capable of invention. Their public works were nearly always imaginative and fulfilled illustrational purposes. Verisimilitude was an aid to suspension of disbelief as much as dedication to truth.
Self portraits can be allegorical or have a narrative or witty subtext, and even include other people. Van der Weyden certainly isn’t looking in a mirror for his Self Portrait as St Luke (1435-40) and I don’t suppose Gump got his cat and dog to pose for his triple self portrait (1646). He does show a state-of-the-art mirror – probably an expensive status-symbol at that time. Sofonisba Anguissola both acknowledges and demonstrably surpasses her male teacher; Adélaide Labille-Guiard’s self portrait makes a political point about women’s status in art and art-education in pre-revolutionary France. Hilary Robinson (31 October 2006 Reading Art, Reading Irigary: The Politics of Art by Women) speculates that, in this picture, the artist and one of the pupils are looking at a mirror and that Labille-Guiard is actually painting the very painting the observer sees. (If so, you have to admire her overalls!)
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Jacques-Louis David was a history painter who also painted history as it happened, and as part of history. He was a political activist, and ‘the unrivalled image-maker of the French Revolution’ (Cumming 2009). When the revolutionary Marat was slaughtered by Charlotte Corday, David was one of the first on the spot, where he made sketches of the still warm body for his masterpiece The Death of Marat (1793).
When his friend Robespierre was guillotined, David himself was imprisoned at the Hôtel des fermes – evidently with access to a mirror. David is one of the first painters to show the brush in the reflected right hand.
Rembrandt’s final self portrait (in Kenwood House, London) seems to show the palette in his left hand, but X-rays have shown that it was originally on the left of the picture as it would have appeared in the mirror. The picture has been thought unfinished, but its power and sense of presence is undeniable. An early example of a self portrait which appears true to a mirror image is by Edouard Manet, and it too seems to be work in progress. This is, after all, appropriate to the subject, and in neither painting are the hands clearly defined.
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In the early stages of my painting, I repainted the small window, and the tree on the right many times, in search of a convincing relationship with the figure. It often looked wrong, but I discovered that some of this was due to unnoticed changes in the mirror’s position. I’d set it up on a sturdy easel, but brought it indoors every night, and the angular effects of even minute changes made big differences to the composition.
I employed a plumb-line and spirit level, but was my own position ever consistent? My nuisancy opposite number in the mirror constantly moves around and gets in the way of other bits I’m trying to paint, quite apart from the problem of the hand.
“Couldn’t you hold your brush in the left hand and paint its reflection with your right?” This solution, from my old friend Clement Griffith, hadn’t occurred to me. It could also be exactly how most, if not all, self-portrait painters in history had contrived to make themselves appear right-handed. Maybe this is what Orestio Borgianni did. If so, it wasn’t quite as ‘scrupulously accurate’, as Laura Cumming describes his self portrait (Ibid), but I agree with her that it looks rather awkward.
For me, the honest solution is to look intently at my right hand as it appears in the mirror, memorise, and, after making each mark, return it as nearly as possible to its former pose, thus catching the moment of attention between brushstrokes. It’s not easy.
Painting in the open air is subject to weather and seasonal changes. Usually I find it’s best to face south (contra jour) as the scene is then consistently back-lit. However, to escape observation from my neighbours – nice as they are – I ended up in an east-west orientation. This means the light changes too much on sunny days, so rainy, cloudy days are the best. Progress is unusually slow!
Early morning light
Working outside on a nice, cloudy day; with the mirror on a studio easel, a plumb-line (stone with a hole on a string) spirit-level, and foot markers.
29th July 2020
I had emailed an image of the picture to Gerry Keon on 13th July. In his reply he wrote “…the tree has taken on a fearful presence which makes demands on your overalls to reach a similar state of heightened consciousness…” Actually I’d spent far less time on the overalls, or the face, and had hoped getting the tree and ivy right would help me paint the figure. But maybe the problem is that the tree is naturally immobile and I in my overall am not. Perhaps I should call it ‘The Overall Effect”?
On the 29th I decided I had to reposition the brush-hand. It had looked OK when the whole painting was more loosely stated, like on 7th June. (notice also the beard trim.)
Quite tough with myself on 29th, and able to paint through the day. I couldn’t continue on the 30th, due to the light. This morning I was able to paint just a little.
Gerry’s email continued, mentioning Cézanne “…whose ocular democracy would engage with the wallpaper at the expense the model’s features…” This reminded me of one of Cézanne’s “Card Players” paintings, in which one of the figures sports a voluminous blue smock – which, like my overalls, didn’t seem quite to work in the composition.
Because, like Proust’s fictional painter Elstir, Cézanne had “an exceptionally cultivated intelligence”, but, “in the presence of reality, made himself ignorant, & forgot everything out of probity (because what one knows is not one’s own)”* he may, or may not, have foreseen that a strongly outlined, closed shape could present a compositional problem. Cézanne, in my opinion, was no less a genius than Caravaggio, but, in their very different ways, both of these stunning paintings of card players seem to me to have spatial awkwardnesses. With Caravaggio it’s part of the deception. With Cézanne it’s part of the subject.
*Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time vol. 2, Trans.
2nd August – Up at 6am and painting before 7. I had felt that it only needed some work on the ground, but found everything was wrong. I blamed my self, but actually the mirror had moved! After adjusting the mirror, the previous ‘mistakes’ disappeared – but other things now seem out of alignment. I continue work, unsure of what is going on.
4th August – The window cleaner says it is a ‘beautiful painting’. I say it’s awful, but has some good bits…a curate’s egg? (I definitely decided against wearing the hat!)
"It was on the fifth of August, the weather was so fair Unto Brigg Fair I did repair, To love I was inclined..."
5th August – Today started cloudy. I redrew parts of the figure. By 11am the day is burning bright. There was a little more ‘ground-work’, and more hopeful daubing on the overall in the warm, overcast afternoon.
(N.B. These photos have rather flattered the colour!)
9th August 2020. (This is just a preliminary draft, which I shall probably change…) It’s fairly cloudy so I’ve begun work again, with deep reluctance.
Yesterday I was perusing David Hockney’s well researched and, to me, rather persuasive investigation of the significance of optical devices in art history (Hockney Secret Knowledge – rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters,2001). Apart from my flirtation with a ‘peering aid’ in the 1980s, I have never wanted to use a photo-realist technique involving tracing an image, although I can accept that for some types of art it is a valid approach. I also have to admit that the history of ‘western’ art has been as influenced by optical devices, such as the camera obscura, as it has by the ideal of painting as the mirror of nature.
I want to paint the sleeves and other features of my overalls from direct observation – what David Hockney calls ‘eyeballing’ – an explorational drawing which ‘gropes’ for the structure. Recourse to some optical device – such as a camera – is not the object of the exercise.
It’s clear from the ‘drapery’ studies found in notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Dürer, Grünewald and many others, that the rendering of fabric and clothing was important to the Old Masters. In the middle ages there were doubtless formulaic approaches to this, but Renaissance painters wanted to understand the folds, in order to be able to paint fabric convincingly, even without a model.
Not all Renaissance painters wanted to use lenses or concave mirrors. The remarkable expressive distortions, as well as fantasy, in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece would seem to rule out a projected image, and there’s little evidence of it in Michelangelo. However, the use of light and shadow, and a ‘modernity’ in the faces, suggests that a naturalism derived from optical devices, doubtless felt to be as divine as scientific, was becoming a characteristic of western art.
Hockney points out that the realistic depiction of fabrics, particularly the absolutely convincing way that pattern is made to follow the folds of garments in some works by Van Eyck, or the astonishingly accurate depiction of globes, astrolabes, open books of music etc. in Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’ (1533), would be impossible without a technological extension of one’s normal perceptive powers, just as Galileo needed to use a telescope to study the stars.
I often feel a portrait’s sitter is upstaged rather than enhanced by his or her fabrics and jewellery. I’m not sure if that’s the case with this painting by Ingres, or to what degree optical devices are implicated. As is sometimes the case with Ingres, the figure’s anatomy is perplexing. Was it cobbled together from more than one photo? Nobody seems to mind, least of all Ingres.
Rather than defer to the authority of an optical device, I prefer to follow the example of Leonardo and study at first-hand how the fabric puckers when an arm is bent within the sleeve, so that my drawing is at least a plausible hypothesis.
“I know what I saw!” The naive belief in the evidence of one’s eyes has never been more questionable than now, particularly through the influence of digital imagery. And for that matter, how often do supposedly enlightened New Age ‘Masters’ speak of ‘higher consciousness’, a ‘higher art’ or ‘360 degree awareness’, even when fake news abounds and ‘The Father of Lies’ is having a field day? But I’m not here to settle old scores or to gripe. Today I’ve been not so much griping, or ‘groping’ as floundering!
15th August 2020. Self portrayals in which the hands holding the palette and brushes are true to their mirror images:
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Apart from Freud, who I know to have been left-handed, I assume these 20th C artists are all right-handed, and that none of them has seen fit to ‘correct’ the reflection as if it were either a painting by someone else, or based on a photograph. They all demonstrate admirable style and virtuosity in working from direct observation in a mirror.
24th August 2020: There may seem to be barely perceptible changes, but the Sisyphean task of observation, erasure and repainting continues, and I feel that the composition is gradually cohering. I want the comparatively uneventful, slightly oblique surface between the pockets of the overall (the area from sternum to the diaphragm) to feel as ‘tangible’ as, for instance, the tree & the ivy.
25th August 2020: It’s not only a question of ‘léger de main‘. I do not have a similar feeling for the figure and face to that I have for the foliage.
Feeling is essential to drawing. A portrait can be dexterous and technically accurate, but without feeling, there is no likeness. Whatever I draw, I must tune in to that feeling, and it’s also the motivating force. The problem with the self portrait is that I don’t have much sense of the feeling of the face and figure, apart from that it is different and less accessible to me. There’s a difference in ‘level of consciousness’, to use Keon’s phrase, not just between the tree and the overall, but between the figure and the foliage.
In checking the plumb-line, I discover that the mirror is very slightly tipped forward from the vertical. This matches the composition, but may explain my unease about the figure, even when measurement confirms it as correct. The head seems a little too big and the palette hand too slight. I labour to set the hand to rights, but the head remains swollen.
I sent an image to another artist friend, Beryl-Ann Williams, who disagreed about the head: “I looked really hard, squinted my eyes and I can’t agree. I do identify with that feeling though that something irks you. Did you ever read The Hidden Order of Art by Anton Ehrenzweig? The painting talks to you and won’t let you rest until you obey.” Certainly true.
28th August 2020: The artist John Richter, to whom I have sent images, writes: “…it may be the photo, but there is a suggestion that the tree is the easel, and the dark hedge on the right is the painting…” I see what he means – it could be so…
30th August 2020:
2nd September 2020:
I felt there were some very small adjustments I wanted to make. After tinkering for a while I gave up.
I never end with a feeling of success or satisfaction, just of release and disengagement, when I neither want nor need to look any more. I think this one is finished. I’ll look again in 3 weeks!! I want to let it dry so any small addition can be easily erased. I might give it a bit of a manicure. Apart from that, not much.
4th – 5th September 2020: Nevertheless I work a little on Friday, to sharpen the transition between step and the edge of the overall. Gerry Keon then writes: The base of the tree…needs stating more distinctly, that area is crucial to how the space between the hero’s leg and the ground operates and the angle of the concrete worries the eye…because that angle is in opposition to the structures on which the pots stand on the other side of our hero.
4th September 2020 – the edge between trouser and step: the base of the tree; a sixth stone.
That Gerry should come up with yet another problem, now that I’ve clarified the edge of the overall, highlights that motivating sense of unease, and I misinterpret him to mean moving the base of the tree, when all he said was that that it needed stating more distinctly.
I’m unsure what Gerry means about ‘the angle of the concrete’. Does he mean the feeling of the ground sloping away, or the ill-defined edge next to the tree, or is it the marks on the ground? Late at night I look again at the latest photo of the work, and suddenly become aware of a structural disjunction of the foreground to left and right of the figure.
In the morning I carefully study the ground, and find the base of the tree just two inches beyond the plane of the concrete steps. The picture makes it seem too close, even though the base of the step is hidden behind the figure. The drain is also too close. It’s also hidden, but is linked to marks on the concrete.
‘More definition‘ is one thing – moving the base of the tree might be opening Pandoras box, not just a can of worms. So I have a choice – can I get away with more definition, or should I risk something which could entail a lot of restructuring? Whichever it is, I’m not doing it – at least not yet. If I leave it alone, it won’t be the first picture with anomalies.
8th September 2020: This is all I’m doing – for now at least. After some Keon-inspired alterations, there is an additional stone in the foreground. The previous five nicely rounded stones were suggestive of my head or my five fingers. The six, rather impressionist stones could signify the six days of creation – i.e. the seventh is the Day of Rest.
You may say it looks unfinished, but then if it was finished would the artist still be painting it?
10th September: But I wake up with the conviction that I’ve killed it stone dead!
11th September: John Richter writes to me: “I hope you don’t eliminate all the irregularities…….because they keep the eye on the picture surface rather than crystallising it into a frozen structure. You habitually avoid this by giving equal value to the whole image…” He has a point, and a ‘frozen’ quality is definitely a possibility, but by this time I’ve changed things.
13th Sept 2020, Gerry Keon writes: “The stones and the base of the tree seem, to me, to be completely successful and the overalls have taken on an otherworldly reality that amounts to an epiphany of some sort. I think they may find themselves becoming cult objects and their whereabouts a site of pilgrimage.”
This endorsement would be splendidly encouraging, especially to anyone as vainglorious as myself, but it’s too late – even were I inclined to agree. Us geniuses are already out on the deep before we get our orders. (See Kierkegaard Journals, May 14th 1845)
This painting has almost spanned the equinoxes; the leaves are falling.
23rd September 2020: I’ve laid my brush aside; my painting’s in a coma and it’s a question when to switch off the life support. Maybe a last squeeze of the hand and a whispered goodbye. Artists’ hopes always die; at the last minute Eurydice falls back into the shadows. It’s just a painting, and if there’s still a touch of medieval cubism about the perspective I don’t care.
24th September 2020: I finally focus attention on my face: do I bring it a special sensitivity, or theatricality? How I want to be seen publicly is itself an expression of who I am – one that has been learned or calculated. But this painting is primarily about painting; I haven’t seen it as any more ‘about me’ than any other of my works. The slippery notion of objectivity in a self-portrait is all part of the performance.
Those furrows between the eyes – do they rhyme with the tree’s branches…? I soften them so as not to look too reproachful, though it’s how I feel about humanity’s treatment of the natural world.
Friday 25th September 2020: Many portraits and self-portraits emphasise the face and figure against a dark or understated background, since everything in a picture carries meaning. My concept was to present myself in the kind of setting in which I usually paint – half-wild, half-cultivated nature – but in which my presence as painter is usually unseen.
©John N. Pearce 1st October 2020
5th May 2021, At The Mall Galleries, London Royal – Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition.