A LA RECHERCHE……….........by Russell Lumb
Even the past month constitutes lost time; stretching back into the period when artistic endeavour and forward momentum were taken for granted, at least by me. Alec Salmond was yet to have the smirk wiped from his self-important features, and life drawing opportunities came so frequently that correction, adjustment and refinement of the direction of travel was almost effortless. Without knowing exactly where I was headed, the steady satisfaction of one step after another made the notion of progress quantifiable, and reduced the odd slip to no more than confirmation of the established trajectory. However, my self-imposed, but essential absence from Thursday sessions has removed the certainty from my stride, like a man confined to his bed for a period of time; in the seconds required to consciously take the next step, all other necessary aspects of the journey are overlooked, and relapse is likely.
The accomplished performer makes his specialism look easy, through skill and aptitude, but also through long hours of practice which diminish the need to compartmentalise individual motor functions and allow automatic, sweetly coordinated subsidiary activity in support of the main event. If we list the component parts of painting, from colour selection through surface preparation to application method, there will be too many to permit concentration on the prime objective, and so we develop sequential rituals to make preparation, and we employ sub-conscious delegation of tasks whilst working. All of this is necessary before we even consider the design content of composition, massing, tone, and structure. It must therefore be advantageous to practice more frequently, and the “occasional” artist will struggle to secure permanent progress. This theory is demonstrated in my portrait of Helen, although blurred somewhat by the availability of time and expert advice.
I have been painting regularly at home, concentrating intentionally on figurative work, and so I cannot claim to be completely out of touch with the materials and equipment, but I am less attuned to the special needs of life or portraiture, and some of the key requirements have escaped my attention. There were early signs of a frustrating day, with a long and tortuous diversion around an A64 road closure, and the unsettling discovery that I was not to paint Kay, who was fixed in my mind, but the equally characterful Helen. Not to worry, the chief elements of my plan for the day were put into motion; a larger than life, full-face portrait against a plain background to make me work hard, expressing form, skin tones and personality in paint. I am content, for the present, to continue the development of these skills in a conventional likeness mode, although I am fascinated by Tom’s transformation of life portraits into haunting images. Much as I would like to go straight to that place, I recognise the prerequisite of a sound base and must put in the hours first.
A promising beginning, restricted for the first session to large brushes, basic tones and a three colour palette, was intended to ensure that I had the composition and proportions under control before pinning-down any detail. But I clearly failed correctly to locate Helen’s right eye or to establish its’ form as it slips into the strong shadow. This seems so obvious to me now, but was not a concern at the time, although it may have been the unspecific source of a nagging dissatisfaction. The problem with this sort of conventional likeness is that any error is fatal; there is no opportunity to fudge or disguise uncertainty, or to claim that likeness was not a priority. It will also be true that, whilst I am unlikely to make this mistake again next month, it will be replaced by another, and so on until I make the same mistake at some future date. I could always learn from Stephen and employ mirror, plumb line and scale to nail proportion, but I am both lazy and impetuous; I like to trust my eye, but not, apparently, Helen’s. Although this error greatly affects my opinion of the painting, there are a number of positive points; the simple background is effective, the attitude of the head is good and the softening of graphic lines, particularly around the nose, at Tom’s advice, is very beneficial. His recommendation for the introduction of a little yellow to liven the palette was also successful, although my selection of means was less so. I could “correct” these errors, and will do so before embarking on any transformative process.
Saturday’s small group still managed an interesting variety of work, from Tony’s meticulous observation ( you can feel Helen is about to nod-off ) to Tom’s powerful, semi-abstract oils, via David’s visible search for certainty in his tumultuous sea of paint. Sue persisted with a single charcoal drawing and achieved remarkable clarity from this most dangerous material, whilst Jean quickly settled-in, after a late start, to produce a vigorous, mixed media piece, reminiscent of the missing Sandra. My favourite work, however, is Sue’s solid, painted figure, which took a long time coming, but arrived eventually, showing the benefit of her long term practice in the Thursday Studio; great head attitude and wonderful hands and knees. I know that Sue will not mind me suggesting that her error for this week was to pay insufficient regard to the background. Easily “corrected” and definitely not lost time.