Tuesday, April 6, 2010

expressive mark-making in portraiture

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.


  1. I find the notion that "every painter...paints himself" of great interest. The obvious distinction being that between the artist who paints self-consciously and the one who paints himself incidentally or unwittingly. I wonder... is not the artist inclined to paint self-consciously regarding himself as an object (i.e. other than self) and thereby no longer paints himself?

  2. I take your point. Though I think most of the contention is not around the subject of painting as in the process of painting. That is, not what is signified by the marks but how the marks are actually made. The very vigor in the strokes reveals something about the energy level or passion or more fixed disposition of the artist at the time. Lack of confidence produces a more diffident line. Those who like expressive painting take pleasure in 'reading' these marks.

    But others find it an abuse and a distraction. For example, for Leonardo da Vinci "Every painter paints himself" had a negative connotation. As Zöllner points out, the notion of "automimesis" was understood by Leonardo as a major defect of contemporary painting for whom the Tuscan proverb meant some inevitable compulsion in the human character. I've added a link to the Zöllner article.

  3. And yes, the paradox you mention does tease us out of thought. The whole purpose of a self portrait is to make the self an object to one's self. But as Allan Watts used to ask, can the tongue taste itself? Which explains my interest in mirrors. They seem to do more than just present us with an image we have to own as 'me'. They are a historical and cultural force that has arguably helped seed and shape Western civilisation's notions of individuality, and from that, notions of human rights. And fuelled introspection, providing a ready seed-bed for the advent of Romanicism and to psychoanalysis. Perhaps. And all around the puzzle you pose - who or what do I really paint when I self-consciously paint an image in a glass.

  4. Thank you for your replies to my comment and for adding the link to the Zollner article, which sheds much light. You raise many interesting points (and i found myself curling and trying to taste my own tongue :P ) but some I hope I understand correctly... It seems to me you are speaking of automimesis as something along the lines of the means by which a work of art comes to be - "a process of painting" or that which governs the painter's use of tools. Is it the painter's state of being or what he is at a given moment in time; and what is betrayed by an expressive work of art? In betraying the self, it (self-expression or what Da Vinci struggles to avoid) betrays the artist too? I recall reading Derrida speaking of this kind of betrayal in connection to the troublesome matter of the subjectile that Artaud is faced with (in The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud, 1998, Mary Ann Caws, trans.) In your pursuit of the self-portrait or automimemsis, do you mean to say or do you intend to take on this unruly thing or this troublesome intrusion of the self as a valid process and so to negate its intrusive implications?

    Da Vinci's concern to avoid self-expression - "a common defect" - remains a nagging issue for me. Also the occurrence of types that Zollner refers to that seems to be an indication of Da Vinci's failure to avoid automimesis since it is assumed that the old man with the hooked nose is Da Vinci's self-portrait. For Da Vinci (and perhaps artists such as Artaud) the intrusion of the self (the image of self or willfulness perhaps) is a defect, a fault or impediment. What is it then that automimesis (the persistence of favoured types, aesthetic judgment, personal style or what Savanarola per Zollner refers to as "concetto") prevents, if (in truth) it does prevent something from being?

    I think Sylvia Platt's Mirror provides a clue: "In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman rises toward her day after day,..." Platt's "young girl" corresponds to Da Vinci's "boy with female features" and her old woman to his "old man with a hooked nose" and just as the old woman rises day after day to drown the girl, the old man with a hooked nose (which I venture to say can stand for the terrifying eagle form of Zeus) consumes or steals the boy (Ganymede). Is automimesis then (at the risk of oversimplifying) as a defect or impediment to artistic being something like an awareness of or preoccupation with Time and Time's toll on the image of self (and so "the theme of aging" you speak of in relation to markings or mark-making)?

  5. Thank you so much for the care you gave to a reply. As you see, it has set off a flurry of further thinking.

    Yes, just as you say, I'm curious about the artist's 'self-betrayal'. Except I don't quite see it in those terms, for betrayal carries a somewhat negative connotation. Rather, as an intrinsic and tacit ‘leakage’ of self that inevitably accompanies a hand-made image. I insert the caveat ‘hand-made’ because the trace of where the hand has been needs to evident. I’m speaking of some very basic human physical actions, a long way removed from conceptual art. This domain is more akin to non-verbal communication during vocal discourse. It’s a McLuhanesque thing where the medium becomes a substantial part of the message. It is a proto-language where the feelings of a viewer are engaged at a visceral level by a reading of the mechanical properties of marks, even before a reading of what the marks might signify, or cultural meanings that a society may attribute to them.

    Using a similar train of logic to Leonardo, but different language, I see the marks in painting, for example, as the product of a synergy between an artist’s physiology (e.g., limited by genetics and modified by life-style), skill-set (e.g., fruit of learning and experience), and affects (e.g., motivation, emotions, tone of interpersonal relations, feelings of empowerment or mastery, feelings of inferiority), cognitions (e.g., self-perceptions, memories, aesthetic judgements) - especially social cognitions including perceptions of his or her social location and cultural context (e.g., social class, ethnicity, gender, learnt social scripts, social attributions). Sorry about the length of that sentence. The interplay of these influences direct the media-handling characteristic of a given artist at a given time in his or her artistic career.

    In expressive painting, the physical proto-language referred to above is sought out as meaningful and celebrated as a human existential revelation. Not so by Leonardo, it seems, whose aspirations were apparently more Platonic. You ponder if Leonardo is correct, that the intrusion of self is a defect. I can’t help but feel the opposite. It seems modern times thirst for a deeper glimpse of Leonardo the man in his work. And so we make x-rays of his paintings and we computer-morph Leonardo into the Mona Lisa to fill the void in our imaginations. Because our gaze rolls off his Platonic surfaces as if they were Teflon. Instead, we turn to his energetic drawings in order to glimpse the man, and our hearts and imaginations leap as we observe lines that speak of one who seemed in love – with the whole of Creation. Meanwhile, we find Vincent’s paintings more immediate because we feel Vincent himself is somehow more accessible to us in them.

    Maybe I’m just being an anachronistic Don Quixote, tilting at the wreckage of the post-modern deconstructed ‘Artist’, or at the existential anomie concomitant with socio-biology and neuropsychology, or at the rage-filled Islamist assaults on Western individualism.
    But I still believe in the human hand and the human heart and a trace they once left on an cave wall.

  6. As to the issue of Time, my concern with aging is largely auto-biographical rather than academic. I have set myself the field of portraiture within which to explore expressive mark-making (it could perhaps more easily have been landscape), which in turn has directed me to self-portraiture (for the usual reasons about availability of models), which in turn has directed my gaze inwards. And has simultaneously presented me with a whole bag of paradoxes and puzzles, some of which you alluded to in your first comment. Self-portraiture invites stock-taking and introspection. And the overwhelming fact that strikes me at this stage in my life is the slow dissolution of my body, the failing powers of the mind and senses, and the finiteness of my existence. If growing up felt like an all too slow process of acquiring, aging feels like an all too rapid process of letting go. The artist in me wants to communicate about that, hopefully in some interesting way. Which all seems to me a ripe field to plough for one look at making expressive marks.

  7. "...an intrinsic and tacit ‘leakage’ of self" is a telling (a rather precise) way to put it - or so it seems to me - because it suggests that you don't intend at one level and intend at another, suggesting the extent to which a painter is always at odds with itself or the self per se.

    "...the trace of where the hand has been needs to (be) evident...." is precisely what is a stake perhaps. The painter striving for authenticity or to embrace being beyond mortal limits must deal with a/the need to be recognised, to be distinctive, to make a name for itself or to present itself as unique and original. Interesting you should bring up Van Gogh because he has been on my mind as I consider the matter of self-portraits. While Da Vinci struggles with or against this drive to be recognised, Van Gogh did/does not, perhaps (oh troublesome perhaps, perhaps). Recalling the NGV "fake Van Gogh" there can be no doubt that his work is distinctive; although in a way that is unaware of its distinctiveness so that it nevertheless achieves/conveys authenticity. It does represent a vanity or self-pride but a making use of what is readily available or within reach.

    When I consider Van Gogh's gaze in his self-portraits, I cannot regard him vain or proud. There is rather something like self-reproach (not self-loathing) or something like wanting to know - as though as he painted his image, he was asking: Why am I? The painter's blots, dashes, scrapings, scratchings, markings (vital aspects of your craft with which you are justifiably concerned), moreover, apparently amount to a self-destructive act, in the same way that writing is a destructive character's (Walter Benjamin) way of being.

  8. “ ... you don't intend at one level and intend at another, suggesting the extent to which a painter is always at odds ...”, so true. I this is the unresolvable dilemma that limits, if not even sabotages, the final level of success of my project. For I hope, over a period of three years, to make the tacit (unconscious) leakage of self in my mark-making , conscious. Through that journey as an artist, I hope to build a personal lexicon of marks for my art practice. I guess it is part of my journey from a naive to an adept painter.

    You quite rightly raise “the painter striving for authenticity” as issue. It lies at the heart of this mark-making quest. I want to make marks that are true, are honest, have integrity. I don’t want to just develop a bunch of slick brush strokes that enable to churn out mendacious and tired work.

    I think what you say about Vincent’s authenticity (I’ve stopped calling him van Gogh ever since I read in his letters that he hated the name and wished to repudiate it, and so very chose very deliberately to only sign himself as Vincent on his work) is true. He had achieved the goal I set myself (perhaps hopelessly) in developing a lexicon of marks, both in drawing and painting. His drawings are filled with his short-hand dots and dashes that reference texture and tone and grain in landscape and facescape (just coined that one, lol – think i’ll keep using it). But he is so focused on his subject that he puts aside the kind of self-consciousness that can make a work precious, filled with artifice, too rhetorical in its constant pointing to a narcissistic self. Even in his self-portraits, with their emotional intensity and confessional tone, he remains somehow an objective eye.

    Back to the paradox of the Self painting the Self, of the tongue trying to taste itself. Just what does a self-portrait really portray?

  9. All our talk of God and images from the Bible makes me return to the beginning or to the moment of asking to be let in :) Also, this comment seems to pick up the discussion of this thread.

    You said: "As to what God might see when he looks at us,..."

    Perhaps I was not sufficiently clear but I meant that the images (particularly No. 3 of your gorgoyle portraits) made me think not of what God sees but how God sees or has regard for the his Image (with concern, curiosity or amusement). The images/self-portraits you have posted (all energetic works) have not made me think of this. In these, your eyes are covered (made opaque) or they look indirectly. The mouths in many are open though - conveying anxiety or pain and because it conveys dramatic meaning it is performing.

    The distinction I make has me thinking that self-portraits or perhaps (more generally speaking)how an artistic being presents the self can take on at least two basic forms in terms of a disposition (i cannot say "a point of view") perhaps. On the one hand, a self-portrait can be one of the self performing or appearing as something or being meaningful in some way. On the other hand, a self-portrait can simply gaze into the unknown/the uncertain/the yet to be determined or to arrive (i.e. the other or the viewer). As such, it conveys a concrete sense of the artist's subjective gaze even if at the same time that self is also concretised as image. In this way, a self-portrait that looks (as No. 3 looks) - i.e. the subjective gaze it conveys - confounds subjective/objective.

    There is something about "the gaze" (the eyes that look into or greets the yet to arrive viewer of the work of art)... It has implications for any portrait - even one that is not of the artist. Consider the Mona Lisa (which makes us suppose Leonardo's subjective gaze) or even the photographs taken by Diane Arbus. The work of Arbus has been described as over contrived in the sense that she made her subjects look directly into the lens of the camera. It is as though she was looking for something - the gaze itself and the individual (whether odd or normal) served only as a frame for that gaze.

    I hope some ofthis can make sense to you. I am also just trying to unravel a tangle of thoughts here and venture to convey them only because i am confident that you will try to understand.

  10. yes, i have found this interesting comment here, and it will require a some thought ... will it turn into another whole post? ... tricky, because in matters of faith i don't wish to create issues for others (eg Caio professes Christian belief). Whilst in my image-making i am determined to be as free and direct as i please, in my words i feel a weight of responsibility and the need to sail a gentler, more judicious course ... maybe a blog may not even be the right place for such discussion ... or maybe a blog dedicated to that purpose ... anyway, give me a day or two ... cheers, h

  11. please do not feel obliged to accommodate or reply to anything i say. it's all rhetorical at the end of the day. Pulvis et Umbra is remarkable. Thank you for sharing it, Harry.

  12. Yes, Regina, i can see why your point is best tucked in with this initial consideration of self-portrait and just what it portrays. Self-portrait as performance. An interesting proposition. The self playing the self. But to whom? The stranger (image projection?) ? To ones with whom already acquainted in person (propaganda)? To the self (introspection)? How can the Self know itself? How many Selfs are there? Will the real self stand up. Psychology bypassed this problem of infinite regression of selves when it gave up on homunculus theories of personality – that there is a little man deep down inside who operates all the controls of one’s social and private behaviour, a ‘core self’ or knowing soul. Does the core self know itself? Who is the self that does the knowing of the core self? And so ad nauseum.

    What you say about ‘gaze’ is interesting. I’ve been told i have a thing about eyes. And so i have. They are a metaphor for understanding. I see. Insight. They are basic coinage of social exchange (Scandinavians particularly like eye contact whilst shaking hands and toasting each other). I expect that is because the eyes signal empathy. They signal deceit. They are the quickest route to self-disclosure. Hence one feels vulnerable in making or sustain eye contact. In the animal kingdom (and therefore also among us) they read as a threat signal or challenge. So in many cultures the unblinking stare is read either a provocation, or as sign of ill breeding ,or as a symptom of madness.

    But for artists who paint self-portraits, eyes looking out of the canvas are frequently simply the consequence of gazing into a mirror. For invariably as i look into a mirror to check on the lines of my features, sure enough there is this guy in there staring right back! (* he thinks back to the Sylvia Plath and Sartre quotes at the start of the blog*).

    But i still rather like the way i read your earlier post – “how God sees or has regard for the his image”. His image as depicted by us in religious art or his image he has of himself, God’s self-image? Or maybe they are the same thing if humans are his way making the universe conscious (Teilhard de Chardin’s noösphere) and therefore himself, self-conscious. Maybe we are a clue, if we are made in his image. For it would follow that if he created us in some way like him, then he is in some way like us. Fun ideas to play with. Though i have the real sense that as soon as anyone gets past two sentences on the topic no one on this planet knows what the hell they are talking about. And no amount of ritual regalia, pompous intonation, important titles, or thumbing through sacred texts will make it otherwise (ie, the caveat “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD”). But still, fun ideas to tease the imagination.

  13. Eyes/the gaze are a troublesome matter. Any kind of work or text will either be looking and judging or wanting to be looked at or judged or gradations between. I find that in me the two extremes are constantly butting heads and sometimes silence is the only or the best way to go. I often find that many things are better left unsaid and still I will speak... but then, if I must speak, I might as well sing. Speaking of which, your Pulvis et Umbra (the very moment I gazed upon it) made me sing a strange sort of song:

    Tearing the nothingness
    In two – two sides of pain –
    I can just make out a face
    From behind the rain:
    The length of a nose –
    Crimson lips carving out
    A space mid the water’s throes
    And eye – piercing doubt!

    The veil and torrent of rain!
    The reign of what I know not –
    Just rain – unlawful rain –
    Reign that is our lot!
    Dusky vale for Time’s bride!
    The rain hides your face
    And it hides and holds me
    As I fathom your gaze.

    Please don't ask me what it means because i'd really rather not know :)

  14. thanks so much for this most sensitive of responses. Your verse touches on the wound, but so gently. And as you say, "reign that is our lot", a wound all poor banished children of Eve carry.

    The work i'm currently on is far less veiled. No issue of water. Instead, an issue of blood. After that i will turn to more lyrical images and search for some positive emotions around aging. Thank you for looking so attentively, with such understanding.

  15. So very affecting Harry. There is something so very personal in your self portraiture. I feel I'm looking into the soul of the man. I feel privileged to do so.

  16. Thank you, Steppenwolf. I very much appreciate the sentiment. I try to paint whatever images it hurts to work on, or at least, that give me some chills. I hate the thought of just 'coloring in'. And life is getting too short for mere posing.

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