An Indelicate Practice: Artist’s Statement
(This statement refers to works in the exhibition, An Indelicate Practice, on view at Gallery Stratford January 15 - April 15, 2012; reviewed in The Globe and Mail Saturday, February 4, 2012)
“Publick practice of any art,” according to Samuel Johnson, “and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female.”
I heard this while listening to an audio book in my studio one day in December, 2011. At first it seemed merely amusing: dated, sexist, and just a bit weird. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Johnson was right. Portrait painting is an indelicate practice. Where he was wrong, I would argue, was in suggesting that it is only indelicate in a female. And the mere fact that staring is indelicate doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, for how else can a worthwhile portrait be made?
There is a moment, in beginning to paint a face, when I feel a distinct sense of discomfort. I have selected one photograph from a few that I have taken of my subject (a process that lasted only a moment or two) and I have the image on my computer screen, an image that may be increased in size until it is possible to count eyebrow hairs, even pores. Then, as I begin to apply the first layers of colour onto a gessoed panel, I get an uneasy feeling that I shouldn’t be looking so closely for such a long time. “Don’t stare!” is what we are told when we are young. It is, after all, socially inappropriate – at least in Western culture – to peer at people at close range.
The beauty of working from digital photographs is that subjects are spared not only the agony of sitting still for the dozens of hours required, but also the knowledge of how long and how keenly they have been examined. Painting a portrait means striking a balance between rationally analyzing the planes and colours of a face and creating a convincing sense of the personality behind it. Fortunately, once the rational, analytical part of the process takes over, the personality of the subject seems to make itself known all on its own, and that uneasy feeling is soon forgotten.
Egg tempera is a painstaking, time-consuming medium. Dry pigments are mixed with egg yolk and water in a palette and applied with increasingly fine brushes to a smooth, absorbent gesso made from rabbitskin glue (a natural gelatin), white pigment, and talc. It is the oldest painting technique known. The protein of the egg yolk is the binder that holds the colour to the support. Over time, it becomes only more durable. Unlike oil paint, it will not crack as it ages. In the British Museum, colours on twelfth-century egg tempera paintings remain brilliant. It is a delightful medium. With the addition of iridescent pigments (made from titanium-coated mica crystals) it takes on the lustre of pearls. Once dry, it can be buffed with a soft cloth to a beautiful sheen. Although it must be painted in many layers, colours beneath the surface shine through, so nothing is better for suggesting the translucency of skin. Its very delicacy makes it supremely suitable for the indelicate practice of portraiture.
I have incorporated texture into some of the portraits by fixing embroidered muslin onto the panels. Once gessoed and gilded, the machine embroidery is intended to emulate the carving on panels used by the egg tempera icon painters of the past.
In contrast to egg tempera, acrylic can produce relatively swift results, even when applied in glazes. I begin by roughing in the colours without too much concern for precision. It is more important to work out basic shapes and light and shadow to start with. The process becomes one of defining, and then refining, until the sense of space works and the illusion of depth has been established. The beauty of acrylic is that it can’t be ruined. Errors can be painted over; there is virtually no limit to the number of layers of paint that can be applied, provided that the support can bear the weight.
Regarding the interiors, my goal was to create a sense of space and to show the beauty of light, even in spaces with little intrinsic beauty. Rust, chipped plaster, and spill stains do not simply add texture to a setting; they are signs that people were once present, and they paint their own kind of portrait.
Samuel Johnson might not have liked it, but in the end the job of a portraitist -- even a female one -- must be to stare and stare in order that viewers may look at the finished work and come to know a person they would not otherwise know.
January 10, 2012