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Once, a film director shot a movie in the desert. He brought nothing but his actors, and people were puzzled. “Why did you choose such a place to shoot the film?” asked his colleagues. “There’s nothing there!” “On the contrary,” said the director, “there is the most interesting thing in the world: the human face.” I feel the same as that director: there is nothing I’d rather draw than a portrait, so when the inspirational Margaret Flannery of the Galway Arts Trust asked me to get involved in a great project she was undertaking in University Hospital Galway, I was delighted to accept.
When someone enters the hospital, either as a patient or as a visitor, it can be a daunting experience. Who are all those people running about? That guy in a blue-green outfit – is he going to do the surgery…or is he the tea guy? Have I missed my chance to ask about my mother’s operation…or – worse – her chance for a cup of tea? Margaret had seen posters in UK hospitals with photos of staff on them, designed to help you know who you’re dealing with by their uniform. In a world where we’re all bombarded with photos of each other, Margaret had the excellent idea of painting portraits of the staff in uniform to make their images more arresting. That’s where I came in.
These are the people I painted. I had them for an hour each, give or take ten minutes; all of them were needed at their stations, and some came in to give their time after hours, most generously. Before I began, I was determined to make only impressions of their faces, as the important thing was their uniforms, after all. But once I began to sketch my natural inclination to draw things as they are took control, and I drew them as accurately as I could. After all, their faces were beautiful, and it was my privilege to draw them as I saw them.
People will often look at a portrait I have done and say “You’ve caught their spirit! Incredible!” No I have not – I have merely managed to draw them as they are. There is no magical spirit that can be drawn in pen and ink, or indeed oil or pastel: no special aura that can only be captured by an artistic genius. An artist can only paint what’s there, whatever their medium. The public sees artists as special and different: I try to dispel this notion by explaining exactly what I do.
So, what did I do to make my task easier? Let’s have a quick look at what I did to address each issue as it came up.
Problem: I had to paint them all the same size, whether the sitter was tall or short. I didn’t have time for false starts.
Solution: To ensure that all the portraits would fit on an A3 page, I did a very rough outline in pencil of the entire figure.
Problem: I can be very easily tempted to fall into conversation with a sitter. You can’t help but want to chat and get to know each other. This is a time thief, with just an hour to finish the portrait. It also means the sitter’s mouth and expression will change, which makes drawing their portrait harder.
Solution: I wore headphones and listened to an audiobook. This helped me get into the zone quickly, and made a natural barrier to communication – I really would blab on if I was let.
Problem: The colours had to be accurate, as uniforms had to be reflected as they were. The logos on the tops had to be painted accurately, but they were fiddly and small.
Solution: I took photos of the logos and worked them up afterwards. If a colour was very deep (eg. black) I added extra layers later.
Problem: With such time pressure, I needed to keep my line fresh and fluid without error.
Solution: I drew very fast and used a free-flowing fountain pen.
Problem: Delicate features had to be represented as faithfully as possible.
Solution: I was extremely careful with my pen, using grey ink, with a scratchy nib that allowed me to be tentative until I was confident of my line.
Problem: A range of skin tones was to be portrayed.
Solution. Rather than look at the faces as “skin” I looked at them as pools of colour. This was made easier in strong sunlight, as the contrasts were more pronounced…as long as the light didn’t change.
Problem: My sitters sat on the same chair, for reasons of continuity. I did not want to waste their time by fiddling around painting the chair.
Solution: I sketched the chair briefly while the subject was on it, and painted it carefully in the few minutes I had between sitters.
These are a few elements common to creating many portraits: I do hope some of these tips will be useful. The most important thing you can do to make painting a portrait easier – or anything challenging, for that matter – is, I’m afraid, the obvious one…practice!