Painting Portraits

I was going to say I’ve never personally painted a portrait before, but realise that’s not quite true.

One of our projects in art class at school forty-something years ago was to sit in front of a mirror and draw ourselves in pencil. I didn’t really do all that well with that task, I looked serious and uncomfortable and my face turned out a bit wonky, especially my eyes. And once later on as an adult I tried to draw myself from a photograph, and admittedly that one turned out a little better, but it was still not a great likeness.

Recently I’ve been dipping in and out of re-runs of an hour-long TV programme on Sky Arts called ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’ that seems to cover random episodes of the competition over several different years, and I’ve found it really fascinating to watch.

The basic premise of each show seems to be that nine individual artists produce a self-portrait beforehand in their own time, and then all together in real time each produce a portrait drawn from a previously unidentified life model in only four hours. There are three celebrity sitters for each show, so three of the nine artists each create a portrait of one of the three sitters.

At the end of the four hours, each sitter views the three portraits of themselves and chooses their favourite to take home with them. Most of the portraits are very different in composition and style, some are more realisitic and others more abstract, some are rather standard in their view and some are spectacular in their unusual approach to colour and technique.

To my surprise, oftentimes the sitter chooses not the most obviously realistic photographic representation of self, but instead they prefer those portraits that seem to spark an alternative vision of the sitter, or manage to capture something more than the general public view hidden within their personality.

Afterwards, and independently of the sitters’ preferences, the judges shortlist three out of the nine artists, and by the end of the programme finally whittle it down to only one artists to go forward in the competition. The judges look at both the artist’s self-portrait and also the newly-completed portrait of the celebrity life sitter before deciding on who should be the winner on the day.

There are eight heats each series, the winners of which go forward to the semi-final where it seems they all paint the same sitter at the same time. From the semi-final three artists go forward to the final, where each are given a commissioned painting to produce. The overall winner for that year then receives a paid commission to paint a well-known figure for a well-known public space.

Anyway, the point of explaining all of this is that I’ve become really intrigued over the last few weeks by watching the many different ways all the different artists approach completing their portraits – they all use different sized paper, board or canvas, all prefer different mediums, and have different ways of working, and all produce very different results.

Some I liked very much, and some I thought were pretty disappointing on the day – but it’s got me thinking, if I were to try to do a self portrait now, how would that experience be for me? Where would I start? What medium would I use? How would I choose to portray myself, and how could I go about capturing that feeling on paper?

I’ve actually had my portrait painted before, in oils a good fifty years ago – by my mum, who used to be an art teacher before she got married. I still have it here in the house, a head and shoulders portrait showing a serious-looking seven-year old in a scratchy yellow dress. I remember sitting for the painting, perched on a high stool in the kitchen, trying hard not to fidget too much and failing miserably…

I recently, tentatively, took up painting again (only in August this year) so am still on a very steep learning-curve and am still struggling with it all, but I’m wondering if I might try a proper self-portrait now just to see how I get on?

Start with a drawing or two at different angles, then maybe experiment with a colour study or two in different styles – I mean, if I’m painting myself and mess it up, at least there’s nobody else to offend or upset. And I’ll always be around to try again, no matter how many times I fail – a constant and familiar muse, I suppose?

But the thing is, watching these multiple artists as they decide how to make their mark on portraiture has really inspired me to give it a go myself. It’s really helping me to understand in a way I haven’t really seen before that painting is not at all like representational photography, it really is a completely different kind of artistic creative story-telling that can be as fantastical and magical as you choose it to be…

What can I say… Watch this space, and sooner or later I might just surprise us all! 🙂

Ragtag Daily Prompt: Spectacular


Weekly Smile: 16 May 2022

Yesterday was my youngest grandson’s 7th birthday, so I took a bus trip 10 miles out of town to join him for his birthday party. My Weekly Smile is me sharing some of my day with you:-

  • The first pic is me with a big smile sitting on the bus on my way out
  • We passed a sprayer spraying come unidentified crop in a field
  • We also passed the ‘Cloud Factory’ – it’s actually a wood-chip processing plant making pressed fibre-board, and the billowing steam funnel gives it its fun nick-name locally
  • Once we’ve passed through the airport, the bus empties out for the last bit of the journey
  • We drive along the coast to the village where my grandson lives – the water is looking nice and blue today!

I’m not sharing any pics of the party itself, but we all had great fun and ate plenty of yummy party food. The drawing I’ve shared here is my grandson’s version of the Mona Lisa with her enigmatic smile, which his mum has put up on the wall, and the final image is my grandson wearing his new velociraptor mask – he’s a huge dinosaur fan so his big brother bought him the mask which has a chin strap (like a bicycle helmet) internally so that when you open your mouth wide the dinosaur mouth opens too, and it actually roars – what fun, and of course it looks as though the velociraptor is smiling too!

So there you have it, three smiles for the price of one today! 🙂

Simply Me

A candid selfie taken yesterday… bare face au naturel without any make-up, complete with wrinkles and double chin and noticeably crepe skin around my decollete … but it’s simply me, the real me at 58 years old, happy to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine, weeding in my back garden…

Ragtag Daily Prompt: Faces

Passport to the Past

I need to renew my passport, so needed a new photograph with which to apply.

Our local supermarket has one of those photo booths that does digital images for passports and other formal documentation, so I went along this morning and did the deed exactly as instructed. I came home and duly completed my online application, and now it’s all done and dusted I’ve been sitting looking at my strange new photograph staring back at me from the little print-out provided.

There are of course so may rules and regulations around passport photography – no smile, no fancy accessories, no hair covering your face, no careful posing to get your best angle. No camouflage or intrigue allowed, no tactful hints nor graceful subterfuge. In fact no visible individuality or personality required to be shown at all – just a straightforward full-face-on mug-shot that bares your soul in a most disconcerting fashion. Raw reality packing its punches with no holds barred.

In my photograph I look… How best to describe how I look?

Blank, I suppose. Empty of emotion. Just a set of unremarkable features set into a gently ageing female face. Wrinkles showing quite clearly on my forehead, decidedly drooping eyelids and unsightly fleshy pouches gathering under my deepening eye sockets. The high cheekbones of my youth have lost a little of their shapely definition. Thinning mouth beneath a small neat nose, soft rounded chin, wrinkled neck. Greying dark blonde hair sitting with an easy, devil-may-care attitude on my shoulders. I look exactly like the middle-aged woman I am.

I am fifty-seven years old, and in this starkly unapologetic image I see myself as most of the real world probably sees me. Not carefully posed with my standard fake-prepared photo-smile or my preferred pouting-in-the-mirror-face, but instead I see a real reflection of me captured in the raw with resigned, been-round-the-block-a-few-times eyes and a defiant look of focused concentration. A little haggard, maybe, slightly careworn, but nevertheless appearing to carry my almost three-score years with the pride of a battle-scarred badge of honour saying – yes, the life I have lived shows in my face, and what of it?

I am surprised to find I quite like this blank-expressioned image.

She is growing on me, this mature in-my-face me with nowhere to hide. I am reminded of a portrait my mum painted of me fifty years ago. In the painting I am looking directly out of the canvas, straight on. Mum has painted me with my resting face on after hours of sitting still, not with the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t fleeting flash of a smile, and I realise in this new passport photograph I look just the same, but so much older. The association pleases me… the feeling of continuity across the decades, of shared common ground between me then and me now… a kind of visual deja-vu with a difference… 🙂

My Lockdown Locks, and Other Confessions

Confession time – To be perfectly honest I haven’t dyed my hair for years, and often cut it myself anyway, so the truth is this two-month lockdown has had minimal impact on my (also minimal) personal grooming to date.

I’ve never been a neatly-coiffured kind of girl, and although when I was younger I used to highlight my mousy-blonde hair regularly I gave that up when the condition of my ageing hair went absolutely haywire during menopause – so nowadays I’m just letting it grey naturally, and letting it do its own thing much of the time.

And I’ve got really blonde, almost invisible eyebrows and have never been particularly rigourous at plucking out errant strays at the best of times, so nothing has changed there. And make-up? Well, I usually wear the barest minimum for work, just to make the effort, but never wear it at home so haven’t worn make-up for the last couple of months as I’ve been furloughed at work – but again, that’s entirely normal for me.

Oh, actually there is one big thing I notice that is different with me during lockdown – I’ve become really lazy at shaving my legs, but thankfully they don’t show in this pic of me in the garden last week, face and hair au naturel… Confession over! 🙂

Weekly Prompt: Personal Grooming

Head Shot

A head shot of me taken with the selfie feature on my phone, sitting in our back garden the other day after a busy morning weeding. I’ve got my reading glasses on because I can’t see the phone properly without them and inevitably my hair’s a bit wind-swept but my smile is genuine – I felt grateful and happy to be enjoying the fresh air outdoors, so took a quick pic to send on to my kids just to share my day with them. I’m not usually keen on pics of me, but right now it’s the only way we can ‘see’ each other so needs must! 🙂

Fandango’s One Word Challenge: Head

Me in Profile

A few years ago my husband captured this candid shot of me in profile, silhoutted against the living room window, so I’ve applied an online creative filter to it then greyscaled the resulting image to jazz it up a little and make it a bit more artistic and interesting to look at – I guess you could say it’s a genuine ‘profile pic’ of me! 🙂

Fandango’s One Word Challenge: Profile

Girl in a Yellow Dress

Anyone recognise me from this portrait? My mum painted me in oils when I was about seven or so, which makes this painting around 48 years old… Mum was an art teacher before she got married, so being drawn or painted wasn’t a particularly unusual occurrence in our house!

I distinctly remember the pale yellow cotton party dress – sleeveless fitted pin-tucked bodice and a full gathered skirt with a net underskirt that itched – and I remember sitting for the portrait (on the kitchen stool, in the kitchen of our farm cottage, while mum painted). People have often assumed I was sulking, or in a bad mood, but even now this is my natural resting face.

I’ve always been surprisingly fond of this painting, although one thing I’ve never understood is why mum chose such a god-awful background colour to frame me with? It’s certainly not representative of our chaotic kitchen, and is not particuarly flattering to my pale hair and skin colouring, or the colour of my dress! 🙂

Fandango’s One Word Challenge: Anyone

Stream of Consciousness Saturday: For/ Fore/ Four

For the longest time I’ve wanted to be able to take particular pictures of specific people, not just general photographs that happen to have people in them. It’s just something I tend to feel really uncomfortable about, the whole idea of taking pictures of members of the public, and it’s a topic I’ve posted about before, here and here

Today I was walking past a row of Victorian terraced houses not far from home and saw a workman inside tidying up around the edges of an empty window frame in a front bay window. I had my camera in my hand so was brave enough to take a shot, and then another…

And then he saw me, so I smiled at him and asked him to give me a smile for the camera, which he did… ta-da!

So this is my second deliberate environmental portrait of someone at work – the first was this young lad cooking paella at Borough Market a few weeks ago…

Although I did once accidentally manage to catch someone in their everyday work environment smiling for my camera – he just happened to look up and smile and wave as I clicked to take the shot of the whole scene, so that doesn’t really count as a proactive one-to-one encounter for me, as I didn’t actually have to interact with him to capture the shot. Here’s the aforementioned wave from a friendly shoe repair guy anyway…

OK, so maybe I’ll be nice to myself and allow it to count as three in total, as I did actually take the shot instead of mumbling an apology of sorts and running away in embarrasment… now to work up to finding a suitable subject for environmental portrait number four! 🙂

Stream of consciousness Saturday

Self Portraits in Summer

I am seriously not keen on staged or posed portrait photos of me – especially just me alone – even the thought of it leaves me feeling truly uncomfortable somewhere deep down inside, all squirmy and suddenly clammy all over. The thing is, there are plenty of photos of me as a young child, sometimes caught candidly, sometime posed, and I seemed to have been fine with it then, so I wonder when did my discomfort begin?

With realisation of the not-good-enough self, perhaps, an awareness of apparently not meeting the required standards in life? Or of not liking what I see, of being a disappointment? I’m not terribly keen on being in pics with other people, either, but at least I feel a bit more at ease with that – candid snapshots with me and my grandkids, for example, make wonderful memories to be treasured however fat/old/wrinkly I look. But just me on my own… no!

I’m quite clearly not one of the millennial generation, who all seem to think nothing of taking about a million selfies every day in a hundred different public places but always with the same moue mouth, and then posting the best shots online. I always feel far too self-conscious to appear so self-absorbed in public, and all too often it shows in the end result. My husband takes some good selfies of us together, but he knows he needs to catch us quickly or I start to look either stony-faced or forced-stare-y.

But today I was on my own in our local park, lying on my back on the short grass and just looking up at the vast hugeness of the sky, like I used to love to do as a kid. There were a few clouds floating about, but overall the sky was beautifully blue and I found myself thinking (amongst other things) about what the sky might start to look like if the ozone layer depletes too much more, or worse, disappears altogether… would we still have a sky at all?

Anyway, at that point in my random reverie I sat up and spontaneously decided to take a selfie or two, just for the sheer hell of it, and of course for posterity. Phone camera on, selfie mode on, and click, click, click, squinting a bit at the screen in the sunlight. A quick look… hmmm… then click, click, click again… enough. The mood passed as suddenly as it had arrived, and the sun chose that moment to hide behind the only huge grey cloud in the sky…

When I got home and looked more closely at what I’d taken, I was, as usual, disappointed. Six pics of me, two of which were OK-ish. There I was in glorious technicolour, double chin, no make-up, hair dishevelled in the soft warm breeze and eyes all wrinked up in the sunshine. God, these phone cameras pick up every flaw in your face. But then I thought – even young people sometimes use filters to make themselves look better, don’t they? So I searched online for something suitable to soften the rather harsh look and…

Ta-da! I still look like me, with my natural dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards look and fake photo smile. The rectangular image simply has a ‘sweet caramel’ haze on it and the square image a ‘soft lilac’ haze, both quite flattering, I find. Two passable al fresco self-portraits in summer, me at 55, in a blue dress against a blue background, on the day I wondered randomly about what colour the sky might be if the ozone layer evaporates… Let’s hope I never have to find out 🙂

Stream of Conscousness Saturday: Leaves