Part 1 – What paint can doPart 2 – Close to homePart 3 – Portrait and figuresPart 4 – Looking outPart 5 – Personal developmentASSIGNMENTSResearch & Reflection
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We are asked to look at five or six self portraits that appeal, with a broad time span and a range of techniques, and to compare these with portraits of the same sitter by other artists.

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Sir Anthony Van Dyck 1599-1641 Final Self Portrait. I went to see this self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery. I chose him because he was the first in Britain to bring a sense of movement and naturalness into portraiture generally, which up until then had been absent – figures were shown rigid and full-frontal, as I saw in the rooms relating to earlier times. His paintings had a sense of perspective and space, graceful fluid poses In this self portrait there is broad, confident, sweeping brushwork – standing close you’re conscious of the brushwork. The expressiveness in the face makes him instantly recognisable as a person who could be of our own days – before Van Dyck the face had been painted as an expressionless mask, the trappings of wealth and power more important than the character. The face and hair are very finely painted – you can’t see the brush-strokes here. The right arm is held at an angle that indicates the artist at work. The costume is painted quickly and broadly with a dry brush, vigorous and informal way, and is striking with the pattern of white slashes on black. He’s looking out of be picture at the viewer very strongly it gives a sense of an individual who really existed and is communicating with us today

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Matisse’s(1869-1954) self portrait in a striped shirt (1906) is one of only a few that he did. He stares directly at us in a challenging way. Maybe he’s daring us to question the rapid, rough brushstrokes and his choice of high intensity green and turquoise for the face. We can deduce the light is from the right, highlighting the neck, ear and the side of the head with a pink tint. The shadow areas of the eye sockets modulate through raw umber to a deeper brown. I wonder why the left side of the face is not painted darker – is there a second, weaker source of light from the left? What then does the green face signify? Perhaps the reflected light from his surroundings, describing the overall ambience, but also by using green to contrast the face with its complementary hue, the red of the hair and beard, that part of the face becomes a strong focal point, and is brought forward in the picture plane.

The background, which appears to be roughly painted on to a muted midtone background, is composed of the colours in the face, separated into their constituent hues. The stripes of the shirt pick up all the same colours, with the addition of a bright red stripe bringing the right shoulder forward into the foreground. He’s used another device to emphasise this, which is to make the strongest tonal contrast along the line of the light coloured right shoulder, by darkening the background immediately adjacent to it.

So this self portrait is a tour de force displaying Matisse’s skill with colour, showing how it can be used unconventionally to create pictoral harmony, as well as a sense of form and depth.

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Now I looked at a 1905 portrait of Matisse by Derain.

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It’s clearly the same person, but painted in a warmer light, showing Matisse as more relaxed and confident. A strong under painting in line is evident, especially around the neckline of the shirt, and the pipe. The flat grey support can also be seen here, and between the short dabs of paint making up the beard, and in the ‘white’ of the right eye. The background by contrast to the head is painted using long, vertical, blended brushstrokes, while the technique used for the shirt is somewhere in between the two approaches. In this way I think Derain has created more detail, texture and therefore focus on the head.

Colours are used tonally ; yellow, pink and red to contrast light against blue, brow and black depicting shade. By selecting colours carefully according to how they relate to each other, the volume of the head appears realistic.

I’ve assimilated my research into these two portraits into my own painting for the self portrait exercise. I found it enjoyable and expressive to paint as broadly as this, but it’s not as easy to produce a convincing portrait as Matisse and Derain make it look!

Alberto Giacometti, 1901-66. Self portrait around 1923 – oil on canvas on wood. I visited the current exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery, and saw three self portraits, drawings and a painting. This is an early work by Giacometti, made before he turned to his later abstract-figurative style. It’s quite traditionally representative, but already you can see the search for line and mark, revealing the process by which he made the work. The jacket for example is black, or grey, but on closer inspection is made up of a rainbow of coloured marks; while the face is composed of ochre, turquoise and pink brush marks, unblended, revealing the planes of the face and the way light falls on the head. The head comprises a small part of the whole painting; I like how the artist has left no corner of the canvas untouched in making his composition – there is a huge amount of interest to engage the eye – but theirs does distract from the sitter, who disappears somewhat into his surroundings. I like the appearance of the arm, the brushes and the easel framing the composition at the bottom. He portrays himself as a serious young man, intent on improving his art.

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His later portraits are often drawings and the painting below has the feeling of drawing, with prolific mark-making, and an emphasis on line. In this portrait of Giacometti by contemporary artist Pierluigi Romami, the colours are incidental, the painting being readable purely in tone. The style is very appealing to me – I love to draw by scribbling, exploring outlines, placing marks until the form I recognise as being ‘right’ emerges by itself. This is how I feel Giacometti produces his drawings, with extraneous marks and lines giving his images movement, life and presence. I love the use of black and white, with a little bit of tonal colour added – like adding faint watercolour washes to a sketch. I haven’t been able to find out what media was used here; it could be an under painting in acrylics (blue and yellowish green in the background; the face in flesh tints using the blue, yellow-green and also red) with charcoal and white pastel marks added. The hair has an amazing tough, wiry texture. He has achieved a very appealing expression – kind, benign.

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Kathe Kollwitz 1867-1945 – this self portrait is painted with a white medium (chalk, pastel?) of varying opacity, leaving the mid tone ground to describe the majority of the form. There is most detail and contrast in the face and hands, drawing our eye to these parts. Charcoal is used to give simple definition to the folds of her clothes. She has achieved an incredible amount of expression with very simple, economical means.

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Jenny Savile‘s paintings are monumental – or at least, she portrays her subjects as vast, using unusual viewpoints and perspective to exaggerate their size. This self portrait (Reverse, 2003) shows a zoomed in image of her own face, lying down on a reflective surface. It’s a strange pose; she’s not resting; the lips are slack and they sag with the flesh of her cheek with more than the gentle force of gravity. At first I thought she was lying on her front, then studying the line of the neck and shoulder I realised she’s lying on her back. With her skin sweaty and suffused with blood, eyes blank, head twisted, lips apart and wet, this can only be an image of a woman having sex. I’m left to ponder the circumstances and her feelings, but it’s a disturbing, powerful, raw image.

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Jenny Savile has been described as the inheritor of Lucian Freud‘s banner. Here is his portrait of Frank Auerbach. I can certainly see similarities between these two. In both, the subject is absent from and unaware of the viewer – compared to the Van Dyck self portrait, which is speaks to us, these two are firmly preoccupied with their own concerns. Both are highly painterly, by which I mean that there is a broad, unblended use of the paint, resulting in an unrealistic but highly descriptive portrayal of the flesh. Both portraits have a compelling sense of the volume and weight of the head, the roundness of form. Savile’s self portrait speaks to me more of a real live flesh and blood, sweat and saliva person! The texture of the Freud portrait is hard, dry, as though made of some inorganic material. I’ve lately been sketching the head from different angles, trying to grasp its structure and proportions, and this, more than any of the foregoing, except perhaps the Van Dyke, seems to me the most solid, realistic, three-dimensional, convincingly drawn and proportioned head.

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Finally, Auerbach’s self-portrait.

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Auerbach is said to paint portraits not to convey a likeness but an experience, an emotional response to his subject. I had no concept of what this meant, or experience of drawing in this way, until I attended Jim Unsworth’s Big Draw event at his studio a couple of weeks ago. There we were encouraged to draw (big, fast and messy, with buckets of water and paint, and clumps of charcoal on the end of a four foot stick)) our experience, feelings, thoughts, emotions, about the subject – whether it was a beautiful greyhound, a rose briar, a clump of hanging creepers, or the experience of the whole day from memory. The process was freeing and fun; the results were a revelation to all of us, some of them quite appealing as expressive drawings. On the other hand I recently read a stream of public responses on Facebook to both an Auerbach portrait and to my drawings made at the Big Draw; they were similarly bewildered and, in the case of the Auerbach, overwhelmingly unappreciative; in my case the comments were unusually sparse – by which I understand my usual ‘like’ club were simply mystified at best or were too polite to say what they thought!

To me all art is about communication – who writes poetry, makes music, makes art purely for themselves and a narrow group of like-minded colleagues? I aspire to convey my thoughts and feelings to a wider group, and so at this early stage in my art education I still cling to forms of painting and drawing that are more accessible and appealing – which means representational, and with evidence of skill discernible by the lay-person. No doubt I’ll ‘get over it’ later in my OCA career!

References

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-Portrait_in_a_Striped_T-shirt

http://www.tate.org

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/van-dyck/home.php

http://www.atkinsongrimshaw.org/painting-kathe%20kollwitz-sjalvportratt-70113.htm Accessed 16 Oct 2015.

See more: S&Amp;W Model 28-2 - Urban Dictionary: /S

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/jun/10/jenny-saville-paintings-oxford-solo-show#img-11 Accessed 16 Oct 2015.

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/picture/2012/oct/04/lucian-freud-portrait-frank-auerbach