research point

Look at contemporary as well as historic artists who work on the face in different ways. Use the research to inspire your own experiments (Also: Look at Graham Little and Elizabeth Peyton)

Just listened to Maggie Hambling keeping the RA’s Tim Marlow well and truly on his toes in podcast Maggie Hambling in Conversation with Tim Marlow. Direct, honest and generous when she talks about her approach, I picked up on a couple of things she said specifically about portraits:

“Once the subject has chosen the artist then the subject must be in charge of everything the artist does. It’s dangerous if it’s the other way around. For example, if I were painting you (directed at Tim Marlow), I would have to empty myself for the truth of you to come through the floor of the studio and up through me and out onto the canvas. So you as the subjects were in charge of me”

She then quotes Brancusi: “It isn’t difficult to make a work of art, the difficulty lies in being in the right state to make it…being receptive to the subject”

In portraits that move me I can feel the artist getting inside the sitter, burrowing under the skin to find out who they really are, but I like the way Hambling describes this process so specifically. Alice Neel described a similar process, only she entered her sitter – only to feel emptied once her sitter had left.


Alzheimer’s Head 4, Lee Newman

Lee Newman works with ‘drypoint and roulette’ – a combination I’ve never heard of before but I find the results profoundly moving. This is from his series of portraits of Alzheimer sufferers. The marks appear as partly mechanical, partly by hand – giving a sense of control and loss of control. The figure is not quite in or out of the picture. There’s a feeling of slippage, of not quite being grounded.


Torso Masculino de Perfil, Antonio López Garcia (engraving)

This is obviously interesting – a portrait on its side. There are immediate connections to a morgue shelf, or perhaps an MRI scanner. The added lines are intriguing: scientific notches along the bottom, a scale, and then the freer lines that look like wire – perhaps torso with raised upper arm? Though it could also be read as a continuation of a funnel-like neck. It makes me think about what it is to be inside a body. The body is just our casing. We are something else that can be perhaps within and without of that casing? This feels like a photograph, a photograph that has been treated, or aged, overexposed perhaps.


Ginny Grayson

Reminds me a lot of Giacometti. There is a scratching away at the surface, a kind of burrowing down to find the essence, and as with Giacometti, the attention is on the centre of the face. Grayson does use softer techniques in some of her portraits – I would love to think she matches her mark-making to the mood of the sitter, because this sitter looks truly grumpy and those are irritable marks. I can’t find more information on this drawing, I would love to know exactly what medium she used.


Self Portrait, 1958, Frank Auerbach

Not sure how I feel about this. The harsh treatment of the media transfers directly on to the sitter. If it wasn’t a self-portrait I would consider the sitter broken, like the papers used to patch him together. As it’s a self-portrait it feels more as if this is the artist hiding behind his media, peering through, hiding.


Egon Schiele

I spend a great deal of time staring at Egon Schiele’s drawings, wondering just how he does it. There is such a scarcity of line and yet we know that this woman has wrapped herself up in a blanket, arms crossed and hands up on her shoulders. The head and the hair are quite unearthly and yet the whole just works. It was interesting copying one of his figures recently (in sketchbook). He seems to see in pure shapes.


Hartley and Ginny, 1970, Alice Neel

My head is somewhat full of Alice Neel right now, what with the retrospective of her work just down the road (still can’t believe my luck) in Arles. Like Egon Schiele, I find it hard to stop looking and wondering just how she pulls it off. Proportion is all over the place and though she can obviously draw ‘correctly’ she mostly chooses not to, or she mixes it up within one picture – perhaps a left hand anatomically perfect and the right hand added without a second thought.

I recently read Saied Dai explaining his approach to painting Sir Jonathan Miller and I wonder if Alice Neel worked in this way – using ‘distortions’ to capture the ‘unique persona’ (see extract below). Though at first glance both Hartley and Ginny seem to have been painted in the same way, with the same large green eyes and one-size-fits-all chin/mouth/philtrum (I had to look that up!) she has employed slight distortions that capture their personas. Ginny’s eyes stare straight ahead, with low dark brows. She focused on what’s happening, fully engaged. Hartley’s eyes are just slightly off to the side, his brows sit higher, indeed his eyes sit higher in his forehead. The effect is of someone relaxed, mind elsewhere perhaps. Maybe these aren’t distortions, maybe these are the tiny subtleties that capture the character.

45dd0a11821973da7e3399182386413eThis portrait of Sir Jonathan Miller is one of the very few that Dai actually referenced from photographs. Although he had observed Miller directly several times, often during lectures, Dai noticed that his brain exercised a remarkably kinetic effect on his face and body. As he spoke, Miller appeared to be in constant motion, and therefore not an ideal subject for any sort of static directly observed likeness. Instead, Dai employed subtle distortions of scale and physiognomy to capture an impression of Miller’s unique persona. “Real distortion actually becomes truth”, he explained. “That’s the paradox. When all the relationships are authentic, so too is the image. It’s essentially an architectural approach, and this is a visual idiom one can only achieve at some distance from your subject.” (, 2017)

NPG 6185; Harold Pinter by Justin Mortimer

Harold Pinter, 1992, Justin Mortimer

This is a very obvious portrait – Harold Pinter drowning in scripts – but I love its boldness. It really feels as if the tide is rising around him and yet we know he’ll be OK because of all that energetic red. Deep in thought, we can imagine that the red reflects the state of his mind – firing on all cylinders – creating. And yet when asked about sitting for the portrait – The Sitter’s Tale – he says “I just sat back and thought about life, death and everything; I was quite relaxed.” (MULLINS, 2017). The red was added afterwards by Mortimer and I find it interesting that the choice of red most probably changes how we read the portrait.


Portrait de Maria Picasso Lopez, 1923, Pablo Picasso

I came across this portrait in a quirky museum in Arles. It stood out like a jewel in a room with some sketches by Picasso that I want to say were pretty awful, but I’m not sure it’s acceptable to say such a thing. The lines are so deliberate and yet so delicate. The face is luminous, the expression wary. I can well believe that Picasso knows this face so well he can draw it from memory – it almost feels as if that is what he’s done here – the lines (especially nose through to mouth) look as if they have been done in one deft move.


Untitled, 2000, Graham Little


Craig, 1998, Elizabeth Peyton

I feel a bit ambivalent about these last two images. The course book asks us specifically to look at these two artists and these were my favourite images. Though I found their work very beautiful it feels close to fashion illustration. Elizabeth Peyton’s faces all get the same treatment of pointy chin, cheekbones and rosebud mouth. Of the two I prefer Graham Little’s images which feel like updated Romanticism. They are simply gorgeous to look at but they don’t leave me with any questions.

References: (2017). The Polymath (Portrait of Sir Jonathan Miller) – Messum’s | Fine Art Est.1963.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 May 2017].

MULLINS, I. (2017). The sitter’s tale: Harold Pinter. [online] The Independent. Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2017].

One thought on “research point

  1. Pingback: assignment four | zimbolina & the terrapin

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