|Harry Kent, Growing Old, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 cm|
this self-portrait was painted last November upon enrolling in a part-time MCA titled
“Exploration of expressive mark-making in portraiture”
the purpose of painting this work at such an early stage was equip myself with a physical talisman, a touchstone with which to assay what follows, a point of reference to move out and away from as the studio experiments lead into ever murkier swamps
ah, those swamps ...
old prophets may come from the desert
but new creatures emerge from the swamps
and talk about The Creature From The Black Lagoon !
In his essay, 'Ogni pittore dipinge se, Leonardo da Vinci and automimesis', Frank Zöllner explains that in art historical writing the proverb ‘Every painter paints himself’ refers to an artist who creates himself involuntarily in his work. At the same time, Ted Jacobs in Drawing with an Open Mind conceptualises drawing as the relic of movement, proposing that “linearity does not originate with the sense of sight, but in fact arises out of the sense of touch”.
Combining the concepts of these two theorists, I wish to explore the notion that ‘every painter’, most particularly myself, ‘paints himself’ because a painter’s marks are a trace or relic of idiosyncratic movement. Such movement with its rhythms, speed, pressure, dexterity with tools and with media handling is hypothetically particular to each artist’s combined physiology and acquired skill. Some artists deliberately seek to insert their presence into their work in rhetorical flourishes. But arguably all artists incidentally, even unconsciously, disclose something of themselves and their emotional state during the process of painting.
It is this second understanding I seek to explore through the painterly processes involved in portraiture via a variety of gestural mark-making. I wish to build an expressive visual language in portraiture that offers a set of signifiers and marks, readable as referencing a sitter while simultaneously tacitly revealing my emotional response to the subject and, more broadly, my existential state as an artist and human being. The focus will not be on producing representational likenesses (‘portraits’) as such, but be squarely on the process of expressive painting itself.
And behind this methodology of practice-led research lie deeper issues of human perceptual processes and philosophical issues about the nature of truth, illusion, mental and cultural constructs, and reality itself. Gombrich (Art and Illusion), after establishing that knowledge of paintings, not nature, enable artists to paint picturesque landscape, then cites Constable's belief that only experimentation can lead an artist out of the confines of learned ways of seeing and mark-making, "can show the artist a way out of the prison of style toward greater truth". Constable treated his practice-led mark-making research as a natural science, not an art form, because he saw it as an investigation into reality.
The imperative for experimental mark-making is all the more urgent ever since Vincent showed us that the nature of marks can be used for expressive purposes, not only to represent appearances in nature, but to map and flag emotional states of the artist. This break with naturalistic representation of landscape in painting, (which Gomrich showed was as illusionary anyway as any trompe l'oeil), freed painting to move into expressionism with all the colour riot of Fauvism.
As an aside, i observe so many people gravitate towards naturalistic representational portraits that are not content with capturing a likeness but which insistent on near photo realism, despite so many decades of the modern art movement having established that a portrait is a painting, not a person. What mental, emotional and aesthetic satisfaction do we find in a literal trans-migration of a photo image into a painted image other than an impressive demonstration of the craft of paint and tools handling? With our lives festooned with cameras, even in phones, and idealised digital images of the human form where ever we turn, why would we wish to see even more of them in paint?
which is why i look for other qualities in a painting, qualities a photograph cannot provide. ... and so, looks like a year of exploratory and experimental self-portraits coming up
first stop – mirrors, since mirrors were the first stop of portrait artists in years gone by
I mean, think about it, the self-portrait can never be a life-drawing. Photo or mirror, a self-portrait is always a copy from some 2D surface.
Errr, except if I feel my face with my hand (palpate) and paint an impression from that. Or paint what I remember myself as once having looked like in years gone by. Or paint what it feels like on the ‘inside’ to be me rather than naturalistically what I look like on the outside. Or ... Or ...
See – already – swamps, swamps, swamps.
Update: two months later this quest had led me here, here, and here.