Saturday, October 3, 2009
Something Wrong with the Mouth
John Singer Sargent is reported to have said that, "a portrait is a painting in which there is something wrong with the mouth."
I recently finished a portrait of my son and found myself agreeing with John in a big way. One stroke of paint was enough to make my handsome son look smug or chubby or simple minded. I was worried about the state that he'd find it in when he got home from school. I didn't want to scar him for life.
This was my third attempt at the picture. I'd taken some photos of him which had nice colours but very flat, direct light so there were no shadows on his fair skin. He looked like a creamy oval with eyes, nostrils and mouth. Not much to work with there! I had to exaggerate the tiny value changes that I observed and play up the warm and cool parts of his face to create variety and modelling. Around his cheeks and up toward his eyes, his complexion is warm and rosy but around his mouth, chin and forehead, his skin is cooler and paler. The tricky part was to keep the overall delicacy of his face and convey the low contrast which attracted me to the image in the first place. I also wanted to keep the strokes from tightening up into a realistic portrait, preferring instead to keep it loose and impressionistic with visible individual brushstrokes.
I find it really tricky to stay loose while also capturing a likeness. I wonder if that's why Sargent's commissioned portraits show relatively tight work in the faces and loose, bravura marks on the bodies and backgrounds. I prefer his non-commissioned portraits -those done of hired models or just for fun - as they have a consistent, low degree of finish to all aspects of the portrait. They are less about the individual person and more about the light that fell on them, their expressions, or the mood that they convey. And, as always with Sargent, these portraits are about the marks. He was a master of the kind of broad, flamboyant brushwork that I aspire to.
I pulled it together in the end and it's a good likeness that didn't get too tight. The final version is colour corrected and fairly true to the painting. My son wasn't insulted so I'm calling it a success.